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Can an Army Famous for Abuse Really Install Democracy?

by Shashank Bengali

CAIRO — Before dawn on Feb. 4, Ramy Salah, a 33-year-old writer and poet, was stopped by a civilian patrol, one of many that sprang up during the popular revolt in this capital. He had anti-government pamphlets in his bag, and the patrol turned him over to the Egyptian army, beginning what he says was a 48-hour saga of detention and torture.

An unidentified Egyptian army spokesman speaks on state television in this still image taken from video February 10, 2011. Military police officers beat him with fists and batons until his nose bled, Salah said. The next day, he said, he was tied to a wall, whipped with a belt buckle, stripped naked and shocked so badly with an electroshock device that a week later his left arm remained numb.

Salah's story is part of what human rights groups describe as a pattern of prisoner abuse by the U.S.-backed Egyptian military, which has taken control of the country after President Hosni Mubarak resigned Friday.

The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces pledged Friday to ensure free elections and constitutional reforms, not to punish demonstrators and to defend "the legitimate demands of the people" who took to the streets for 18 days to force Mubarak from power.

Behind the scenes, however, soldiers and military police are said to be carrying out the same kinds of arbitrary arrests and torture of which Egyptian police have long been accused. Prisoners and human rights groups say that the army — deployed on Egyptian streets for the first time in 25 years after police vanished following clashes with protesters Jan. 28 — is continuing a tradition of government-sanctioned violence that was one of the key sparks of the uprising.

Human Rights Watch has accused the army of a campaign of intimidation against protesters and their supporters, saying that soldiers and military police had arbitrarily detained at least 119 people since Jan. 28 and tortured at least five of them.

"These arrests and reports of abuse in detention are exactly the types of practices that sparked the demonstrations in the first place," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

In an interview this week, Salah scoffed at the notion that the army — a conscript force that's long been viewed as the bulwark of Egyptian nationalism — was a more neutral force than the hated police or other arms of the Mubarak regime were.

"When the armed forces first came out onto streets I cheered for them," said Salah, who asked to be identified by his middle name in order to shield him from reprisals. "Now I think that I'm the one who's going to leave and the regime is never going to leave.

"All the government institutions are glued to each other. They are one gang."

U.S. officials have praised the army, which receives $1.3 billion in American aid every year, for maintaining order after the police melted away and refusing to use force against protesters.

"I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode. And they have acted with great restraint," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week. "And frankly, they have done everything that we have indicated we would hope that they would do. So I would say that they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy and what we're seeing in Egypt."

However, the picture on the streets, where protesters often are seen fraternizing and snapping pictures with soldiers, is far different from the stories prisoners tell.

Salah said that soldiers cursed at him, refused to return his ID papers or cell phone upon his release and accused him of being an agent of Iran and a foreign spy, a charge that then-Vice President Omar Suleiman also has leveled repeatedly at a pro-democracy movement that experts have described as extraordinarily diverse.

Salah said he was held at a military police post adjacent to Abdeen Palace, an official presidential residence in downtown Cairo. The morning after his arrest, military police officers bound his wrists to a metal staircase, he said. After beating him with a belt buckle, he said, they took off his clothes and applied electric shocks to his head, neck, back and genitals.

"They put my clothes back on. But I couldn't stop shivering," he recalled.

Oddly, he said, the military police didn't interrogate him or level any serious charges. After the last round of beatings, he said, he was taken to another room, where he saw a group of detained activists talking with soldiers "like normal people." At that point a ranking officer ordered soldiers to stop beating him, and he was released several hours later.

A Western diplomat in Cairo said of the soldiers' behavior toward protesters: "You see them being extremely careful, extremely respectful, which is not to say that some elements of the military and police have not perhaps been engaged in business-as-usual activities." The diplomat, who wasn't authorized to be quoted in news reports, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

Salah's account mirrored that of another former prisoner, Maysara Omar, 28, whom pro-Mubarak gangs captured Feb. 4 in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests in Cairo, and handed over to soldiers. After being blindfolded and beaten for several hours, Omar said, he was put into an ambulance, which he thought would spirit him to safety.

Instead, two soldiers inside the ambulance continued to strike him as they rode to the Egyptian Museum, on the north end of Tahrir Square. In the museum compound, Omar said, military police formed a semicircle around him and beat him methodically. They avoided striking his face, where bruises would show, but they pummeled him across his body with their hands, sticks and the butts of their guns.

Interrogators peppered him with questions: Whom do you work for? Why are you in Tahrir? Which foreign groups are you affiliated with?

"The soldiers told me that we are vandals with foreign agendas who are destroying the country," said Omar, a soft-spoken, dreadlocked 28-year-old who works in child development. "They had this hate for people like me. They seem to have done this before."

Omar said his experience made him worried about the role the military would play in the post-Mubarak transition.

"With all these abuses, this is exactly the same as what was happening before," he said. "They say things in the morning and then at night people are tortured. They dominate the process of rule. So we don't want any military intervention in public life."

Dan Williams, a Human Rights Watch researcher who was arrested last week during a military raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a group that's provided legal aid and other support to protesters, said an army officer accused him of being an Israeli spy. During his night in detention, the screams and howls he heard coming from the military jail suggested that the army wasn't the neutral force the Obama administration has portrayed it to be.

"If you've been in Egypt over the years, you've seen (the police) deal in much worse ways with much smaller demonstrations than this," Williams said. "That said, it's not just that the army is in charge of the street in a kind of ad hoc way. They're in charge of Egypt now."

Special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this report.

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