Hundreds of activists opposed to the war in Iraq, including leaders of Egypt's opposition political parties, have been jailed, and several have been tortured by electric shock, according to a report issued today by Human Rights Watch.
The report, which declares that "fundamental freedoms in Egypt are now under serious threat," follows an outpouring of demonstrators in front of the U.S. Embassy and in downtown Cairo last week during the first days of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
During the protests, police beat demonstrators with batons and sticks and fired water cannons at the crowd. As the protests ended, students, journalists and four opposition members of parliament -- Mohammed Farid Hassanein, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Azim al-Maghrabi and Haidar Baghdadi -- were beaten by police, according to the report by the New York-based organization. Sabahi remains hospitalized.
On Saturday, Marwa Farouq, Shaymaa Samir and Nourhan Thabet -- three female students who have been prominent antiwar activists -- were arrested while attempting to enter Cairo University to attend a demonstration. Thabet, who is pregnant, was reportedly beaten, bound and blindfolded. Her whereabouts are unknown and there are fears that she has no access to medical care, the report said.
Human rights activists say that democratic reforms are sorely needed in Egypt, where a one-party system rules and protests require a permit. The Egyptian government has allowed protests against the war in Iraq, but has also sought to manage the outrage to avert the possibility that popular sentiment would turn against the government itself, political analysts said.
"The crackdown many feared has come," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
"What started two months ago with isolated detentions of demonstrators and activists has now become a sweeping repression of dissent," he added.
Witnesses named in the report described severe police beatings of demonstrators as well as others who went to the activists' aid, both before and after they were taken into custody.
Nabil Osman, spokesman for Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, said the report overstated the number of arrests and the amount of violence that occurred. The protests at times became violent, with demonstrators throwing rocks and shoes at police and burning a fire truck. Police were trying to maintain order, Osman said.
"Once demonstrations go astray or violent, security forces, like anywhere else in the world, intervene to maintain public order and safeguard public properties," he said. The claims of torture "remain claims until they are verified," he added.
But Egyptian human rights activists said the report highlighted what they described as an ongoing squelching of freedoms in Egypt.
On Feb. 18, the government activated its frequently used emergency law, which expands police powers and permits military trials of civilians.
"If the U.S. thought this war was going to bring a wave of democracy to the Middle East, it hasn't yet," said Hafez Abou Seda, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Mohamed Zarae, 22, a law student at Cairo University and a member of an opposition political party, said plainclothes police grabbed him by his belt and dragged him into a police truck after he protested on Saturday. He said he was held in a jail cell and questioned for hours.
"I was protesting against Iraq and the emergency law and all forms of suppression," Zarae said. "It's just humiliating that this has to happen to us."