Egypt: Protests dwindle in crackdown; government refuses to give death toll, arrests

Khalil Hamra/AP - Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi protest Friday in Cairo.

No one will say how many have died. No one will reveal how many are in prison. There is no agreement even on how many demonstrators turned out Friday for the latest protest against last month’s coup, in an atmosphere fraught with competing figures and misinformation.

A crackdown by Egypt’s new military-backed government has decapitated the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist organization that ran this country for just over a year. As the police state is resurrected, authorities are walling off information on the number of deaths and detentions, and seeking to minimize what remains of the group’s support.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11:  A press officer walks into the 'Elvis at the O2, The Exhibition of His Life' on December 11, 2014 in London, England. The exhibition is the largest ever retrospective ever to take place in Europe, and features over 300 artefacts from the Presley family's Graceland Archives. The show runs at the O2 Arena from 12 December to 31 August, 2015.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

(Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Day in photos

Elvis exhibit, Toys for Tots, Californians prepare for storm, Elvis exhibit, Hong Kong protest site cleared and more.

More world coverage

Deadly clashes, then calm in Israel, Lebanon

Deadly clashes, then calm in Israel, Lebanon

A day after lethal clashes — the fiercest in years — no gunfire was exchanged between the countries.

China builds Great Firewall higher

China builds Great Firewall higher

Gmail has been blocked, Microsoft Outlook hacked and VPN services attacked, as Chinese firms flourish.

Clashes stoke fears of war in Israel, Lebanon

Clashes stoke fears of war in Israel, Lebanon

Residents worry their countries are on the brink of war after Israeli troops and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia traded a deadly barrage across the volatile border.

On Friday, thousands took to the streets across the nation in thinning marches in support of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi. Egypt’s Ministry of Health reported that six people were killed and more than a dozen injured when clashes erupted between protesters and civilian opponents in some areas, and marchers and police in others. Security forces fired tear gas and sporadic gunfire at protesters in central Cairo.

But, in a sign of how state and private media have played down any support for Morsi, Egyptian television networks mostly broadcast scenes of empty streets and quiet squares. The Muslim Brotherhood said one demonstrator was killed by police.

After weeks of protests against the coup, the government launched a full-fledged crackdown on Aug. 14, starting with raids on two pro-Morsi sit-ins that left hundreds of civilians dead. Security officials have arrested Muslim Brotherhood members every day since then, including the group’s most prominent official still free — Mohamed Beltagy — on Thursday. But the state has released only partial figures of arrests.

Egypt’s Ministry of Health stopped publishing a total casualty count from the crackdown on Aug. 17 “because of the huge number of deaths,” according to one ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. At that point, more than 900 people had been killed in four days, according to the official tally.

Varying accounts

When Egyptians are arrested, they typically face a hearing before a prosecutor within 48 hours to learn whether they will be detained pending possible trial, said Diana Eltahawy, an Egypt researcher for the human rights group Amnesty International. Normally lawyers are allowed access to prosecutors’ offices.

But since the coup, the hearings for alleged Morsi supporters “are taking place inside the places of detention — police stations and prisons,” as well as in riot police camps, Eltahawy said — and the numbers simply aren’t getting out.

Eltahawy said the number of detained has probably surpassed 1,000.

Another activist, Ahmed Mehrif, who directs a Switzerland-based Arab rights group, put the number closer to 2,000. And a Western diplomat, who spoke on the usual condition of anonymity, said it could range from 3,000 to 8,000, most of them “rank and file” members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Morsi supporters unaffiliated with the Islamist group.

In cities and towns across Egypt, police have burst into private homes in a dramatic effort to lock up Brotherhood officials. The scenes are reminiscent of the reign of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when the Muslim Brotherhood was a banned opposition group. But the current crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is even harsher than in that era.

Rights activists and lawyers say the detainees are also picked up at protest marches, or grabbed by vigilantes operating in neighborhood “popular committees” that hand them to security forces.

One plainclothes police officer explained this week: “If we see someone suspicious, we look at their paperwork.” He spoke as he patted down a pedestrian in downtown Cairo, before rifling through the man’s wallet. If the “paperwork is normal,” the people are allowed to continue on their way, he said. If not, they’re taken into custody.

“We make a judgment based on how he looks,” the officer said of the men he stops.

Gen. Hani Abdel Latif, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said this week that his forces had arrested 213 Brotherhood leaders since Aug. 14. That total did not include lower-ranking members. The government has also, in recent days, brought charges against some of Egypt’s most prominent liberal activists for speaking out against police brutality and military rule.

‘A failure of a government’

Egypt’s cabinet is now the only body authorized to issue comprehensive death and injury tolls, health officials said. But it has yet to do so. Cabinet spokespeople did not respond to multiple queries for updated figures.

At the Ministry of Health, an adviser to the minister grew agitated this week when pressed for the number of people killed since security forces raided the pro-Morsi protest camps.

“I do not have any numbers at all,” said Mohamed Fathallah, after also saying that he had provided the cabinet with the latest figures Saturday. “Stop pushing,” he said.

In another corner of the ministry, an official quietly voiced his opposition to the government’s behavior. “You won’t find any cooperation at the Health Ministry,” he mumbled, after struggling to dig up numbers. “A failure of a government.”

London-based Amnesty International published a tally last week based on morgue reports that put the death toll since Aug. 14 at nearly 1,100 nationwide. The Brotherhood had said more than 2,000 people were killed on Aug. 14 alone.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the deposed president tend to inflate numbers quite a lot,” Eltahawy said. And on the government side, “there is clearly a desire, especially since the dispersal of the protests, to show that the casualty toll was not that high,” she added. “So in terms of getting accurate information, it is extremely difficult.”

But the state is more forthcoming about certain figures. In his darkened office at Egypt’s Interior Ministry this week, Abdel Latif, the spokesman, sat before a stack of papers that contained up-to-the-minute data on police casualties in clashes or revenge attacks.

“Since August 14, there have been 106 martyrs and 915 injured,” he said, before breaking the numbers down by “officers,” “conscripts” and “recruits.”

Local media reported that a police officer and a civilian were shot dead early Friday in an attack on a Cairo police position — the second in three days.

On walls and street signs across Cairo’s Nasr City district, former home to one of the sit-ins, signs of the anti-coup fervor have been swiftly and methodically covered up. Swatches of red and beige paint cover the phrases “Morsi is my president” and “Down with military rule.”

Pockets of hundreds of protesters moved through Cairo on Friday, chanting “Revolution, revolution” and holding the four-
fingered symbol of their former sit-in outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. The pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance has claimed in recent days that “tens of millions” of protesters have turned out across the nation, but there has been no evidence of such numbers.

Friday’s crowds were small by the standards of this nation’s recent protests, and Egyptian security forces had locked down the squares, thoroughfares and even mosques associated with earlier unrest.

Howard Schneider contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying