Egypt's military rulers must protect protesters and uphold the right to peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said today ahead of planned nationwide protests marking the first anniversary of the uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
The Egyptian Interior Minister said in a press conference on Monday that there will be no security presence near Tahrir Square and other locations where demonstrations are planned to commemorate the '25 January Revolution' on Wednesday. Some media added that the security forces are prepared to use live ammunition on protesters if public institutions are attacked.
"Rather than abandoning the sites of planned demonstrations, the security forces must act responsibly by ensuring that everyone can safely exercise their right to peaceful expression and assembly," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.
"In a polarized environment where protesters have been portrayed by some state media and the authorities as trouble makers and as counter-protests are planned on the day, the position of the authorities risks amounting to a dereliction of their duty”.
The Interior Minister warned that individuals impersonating uniformed police officers and soldiers may attend protests with the intent of trying to provoke confrontations between protesters and security forces.
The Minister did not say what the authorities plan to do to protect the protesters or prevent any potential clashes.
"Warning that there is a risk to protesters from impostors disguised as members of the police and military and not taking action to address the threat is unacceptable. Such behaviour will not restore the faith of Egyptians in long discredited interior ministry and casts a shadow on the new police code of ethics," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui.
A year after it came to power the Egyptian authorities have still not made public the rules issued to the security forces on the use of force despite repeated requests from Amnesty International and other organizations
"Instead of ordering the security forces to stop using excessive force, it has praised their actions and continued to blame the protesters and “hidden elements” conspiring against Egypt’s stability," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui.
"As protesters will also be paying tribute to the people killed and injured in demonstrations in Egypt, the scenes of last year’s violence must not be repeated. Protesters must be allowed to exercise their right to protest peacefully, without fear of attack."
Since the “25 January Revolution”, security forces, including soldiers, military police and the Central Security Forces, have routinely been deployed to suppress demonstrations.
They have used tear gas, batons, rubber bullets and live ammunition, including shotgun shells, to forcibly disperse protesters, and on several occasions have driven armoured vehicles into packed crowds to scatter and injure them.
Today’s announcement that the 30 year old state of emergency will be lifted tomorrow is not likely to change the situation on the ground as emergency legislation will continue to apply in cases of “thuggery”, a vaguely defined offence routinely used to decry protesters.
Despite repeated pledges by the SCAF to protect protesters, at least 90 people have been killed and thousands more injured during protests where security forces have used excessive force.
In mid-December, the security forces’ heavy-handed attempt to clear out a sit-in next to the Ministerial Cabinet building left 17 dead – many from gunshots.
In November, the security forces used tear gas and fired shotgun pellets and live rounds during five days of clashes near the Interior Ministry building in Cairo after the army and the Central Security Forces dispersed protesters and families of the victims of the “25 January Revolution” from Tahrir Square. More than 50 people died and more than 3,000 were injured.
In October, the security forces attacked protesters demonstrating against religious discrimination around the Maspero state television building in Cairo. Twenty-eight people were killed – many crushed by armoured vehicles driven at high speeds into the crowds.
During the crackdowns on demonstrations women protesters have been singled out for abuse, and many have reported being molested and threatened with sexual assault while in detention.
Footage of women being brutally beaten and stripped by the security forces published on the internet after protests in December sparked international outrage and further protests by women’s groups in Egypt.
Last March, Amnesty International documented how a number of women protesters were subjected to forced “virginity tests” by army forces. In December, an administrative court in Cairo ruled that the practice was illegal and should be stopped immediately.
The violence has taken a heavy toll on the lives of ordinary Egyptians. They include people like Ahmed Harara, who lost sight in one eye due to an injury sustained in the uprising in January and the other eye in November after the security forces fired shotgun shells at a sit-in.
Investigations ordered by the military into the violence have effectively whitewashed over the security forces’ actions. Only three military officers have so far been charged with manslaughter and brought to justice in relation to the killing of 14 protesters in Maspero in October.