Dobson is guest-blogging for The Post this week from Cairo.
On Tuesday evening, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a meeting at the Four Seasons hotel, overlooking the Nile, with nearly 20 Egyptian activists and representatives of leading local non-governmental organizations. Such round-table discussions are intended for America’s top diplomat to take the pulse of the country’s civil society and exchange views; she doesn’t expect to hear reports that were not included in her brief. However, that is what apparently happened on Tuesday night. Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, appears to have been the first person to inform Clinton that citizens had been tortured by military police at the Egyptian Museum on March 9.
When Bahgat told Clinton that the museum had become “the new torture camp,” Clinton replied, “What! The Egyptian museum?” Other activists in attendance quickly confirmed what he said. Clinton appeared to be genuinely surprised. She was scheduled to meet with members of the Supreme Military Council the next day, and promised to take up these disturbing reports of abuse and torture with the generals.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that accounts of torture in the Egyptian museum had already been reported by Human Rights Watch, as well as the first direct account from a torture victim on this blog. Hopefully, Clinton asked for an even fuller explanation of events on the ground here in Egypt before she met with the generals yesterday. Because, if she did, she undoubtedly learned that the military’s recent abuses extend beyond the walls of the Egyptian museum.
Respected human rights organizations here claim that hundreds of people are being tried before military tribunals almost every day. These organizations say demonstrators, activists and even simple bystanders are being swept up in a broad campaign of military arrests. People caught in this indiscriminate military dragnet are taken to the military prosecution’s office, then to a military court, sentenced and moved to a jail cell. It can take no more than 5 hours for a person to receive a sentence of more than 5 years. These defendants have no legal representation. They have no access to case files. There is no examination of the evidence. The military’s desire to appear to be providing law and order has trumped any concern for how that law and order is administered.
To be sure, the Egyptian army is loved by its people. For decades, the military was the only institution that seemed to function effectively. If bridges or roads needed to be built, it was the military that stepped in to get the job done. If there were food shortages, the military’s bakeries made bread for the people. Where government bureaucracy was corrupt, ineffectual and inept, the military was reliable and swift.
But the Egyptian military is not a monolith, and the military police have a notorious reputation for brutal and abusive tactics. One person recently told Bahgat, “All my brothers work in the military and they have always said, ‘If you are lost in the mountain and you stumble upon the military police, they will torture you.’ That’s what they do.”
Activists say that part of the problem in combatting these recent abuses is how little is known about the Egyptian military. If the Interior Ministry of the old regime seemed like a black box, the Egyptian military is even more opaque. “In the old system, with all its violence and horrors, we knew how it functioned. We could save people if we knew at the right time,” says Gasser Abdel Razek, a well-known human rights activist. “Now lawyers cannot even approach the military prosecution office. People are sentenced at 10 p.m. in a military trial without a lawyer to 5 years in prison. It is worse than our worst nightmare during Mubarak.”
Since the revolution, the one thing that is clear is that the military responds only to pressure. When faced with overwhelming demands, they have consistently tried to accommodate those demands. But it is hard for the people to make demands and to apply pressure when they are intentionally kept in the dark. Conversations with local journalists and activists suggest that the Egyptian media are being discouraged from reporting on the military’s abuses in the museum and elsewhere. Egyptian journalists are reporting and filing those stories, but they have been spiked by editors who argue that now is not the time to publish anything that could tarnish the military or jeopardize stability.
The fear for human rights activists is that a culture of impunity could once again take hold. Egypt traveled down this slippery slope with its former Interior Ministry decades ago, and now is the moment when Egypt has the opportunity to avoid repeating the same mistake. But it will require awareness and pressure on the men in uniform who are now running this country. For this reason, we better hope that Clinton had a more complete briefing before she sat down with the generals on Wednesday morning.