Egypt and its generals: between denial and repression

By Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International

Last March, following a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a group of 18 women protesters were detained by the Egyptian army. Seventeen of them were held for four days, repeatedly beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches and at least seven were forced to submit to “virginity checks”. They were told that “those not found to be virgins” would be charged with prostitution. Before they were released, the women were brought before a military court and received one-year suspended sentences for variety of confected charges. Only one of the women ultimately felt strong enough to endure the risks of coming forward to fight what had happened. Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old marketing manager from Sohag, Upper Egypt, filed two complaints in Egyptian courts: one demanding an end to the “tests” on Egyptian women; the other for what she had to personally endure. Months later, she is still waiting for justice and change. She is not alone. One year after the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ended three decades of crushing repression, people across Egypt are also waiting for justice and change. The success of the 25 January movement that ended the Mubarak regime offered promises that have yet to be kept. And instead of a new, freer and more equal Egypt, many are trapped between the old and new, living under military rule and facing an uncertain future. Mubarak’s iron fist was rapidly replaced by an equally formidable military junta known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been in control of government functions for the past year. In June, three months after the incident involving the 18 women, I met with SCAF’s Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Head of the Military Intelligence Department, to discuss a range of human rights abuses in Egypt documented by Amnesty International, including the army’s forced “virginity tests”. Maj. Gen. al-Sisi explained that they had been carried out on female detainees to “protect the army against possible allegations of rape”. He said the “tests” would not be carried out again. Those were just some of the assurances the General gave that day. During the course of the meeting, he also stressed the importance of ensuring social justice for all Egyptians. He agreed that there was a need to change the culture of the security forces. And he said that violence would not be used against protesters, and that detainees would be properly treated. Since then, government forces under SCAF control have been at the heart of a growing list of allegations of violence and abuse. In October security forces broke up a demonstration, mostly of Copts, with extreme force, leading to 28 deaths. Many had been shot with live ammunition or run over by soldiers driving armoured vehicles at speed. In November, riot police dispersed a peaceful sit-in at Tahrir Square by people injured during the 25 January protests who were demanding a transfer to civilian rule and reparations, sparking several days of violence that resulted in at least 50 dead and hundreds injured. In December, soldiers dispersing another peaceful sit-in using excessive force that resulted in the deaths of 17 people, were filmed beating, kicking and dragging women protesters on the ground by their hair. And most recently, despite Ministry of the Interior denials, riot police used bird shot and other live ammunition to crush protests in the wake of the Port Said football tragedy, killing at least 15. One year after Mubarak’s resignation, life has changed little for ordinary Egyptians, particularly women. And it remains to be seen whether the newly-elected Parliament will have the courage to challenge the generals and the abysmal status quo. Despite promising to end the state of emergency, the SCAF has retained the oppressive Emergency Law for vaguely defined crimes of “thuggery”, which has replaced “terrorism” as the new justification for holding people without charge or trial. Freedom of expression, association and assembly were promised, but the harsh reality is that criticism of the new authorities is not tolerated. Activists are being targeted, NGOs are being harassed and peaceful demonstrations are being forcefully dispersed. And thousands of people have been tried before military courts, where some have received the death penalty. In late-December, after months of delays, an Egyptian administrative court finally ruled “virginity tests” to be illegal and ordered an end to the practice. And the doctor accused of being responsible for performing them is now facing trial, although charges against him have been reduced. But one year after Mubarak’s fall, Samira Ibrahim, like millions of Egyptians, is still waiting to see justice and change. Her case has already been postponed at least six times. Last week, incredibly, lawyers for the military again tried to suggest that the “tests” on the women protesters never took place. Samira continues to receive threats, including from security officers. But like millions of Egyptians, she says she will continue to fight, no matter how long it takes. “If I drop the charges,” she says defiantly, “what happened to me could happen to any girl in Egypt.”