That nothing had changed about Egyptian authorities’ attitude towards political protest was clear from the very start of 2009, and was experienced first-hand by demonstrators and journalists attacked and arrested during protests against the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Demonstrations and activists
While very few, tightly-controlled protests were allowed, spontaneous displays of mass anger after Friday prayers in early January were quickly “contained by hundreds of policemen and state security investigations officers – at times even before mosque-goers had time to put their shoes on.
In contrast, a spontaneous protest in November by young men who converged on the Algerian Embassy in Cairo in protest at alleged attacks on Egyptian football fans in Khartoum saw hundreds of protestors assemble, virtually unimpeded by the police.
Sensitivity about criticism of Egypt’s foreign policy on Gaza combined with ramped-up security surrounding its border with the Strip was thought to explain a series of arrests targeting Gaza activists.
In February, German-Egyptian university student and filmmaker Philip Rizk was kidnapped by state security investigations officers and held in incommunicado detention for four days following a Cairo march against the war. During his detention, Rizk says he was questioned about the time he had spent in Palestine.
State Security officers also kidnapped blogger Diaa Gad from in front of his house in Tanta on the same day Rizk was detained. Gad, a blogger and Gaza activist, was held for 49 days and released without charge. Another activist, Mohamed Adel, who was kidnapped from a café in downtown Cairo in November, was released without charge in March.
Two foreigners based in Cairo who both took part in February’s Gaza march, one American and the other a Swedish journalist, were stopped and deported from Egypt on separate occasions. Palestinian Laila El-Hadad was detained at the Cairo Airport with her two young children for nearly 48 hours while en route to Gaza, before being returned to the US.
On the Gaza border itself, Magdy Hussein, leader of the defunct Islamic Labor Party, was sentenced to two years imprisonment while two other activists, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Abdel Aal, were handed down one year sentences each by a military court in February after being found guilty of illegally crossing into Gaza via the Egyptian border.
The spate of detentions and summary deportations of journalists and activists in 2009, wasn’t limited to those involved in anti-war demonstrations.
Egyptian blogger and frequent traveler Wael Abbas is now routinely stopped at the Cairo International Airport without reason.
Abdel Latif Said, a Quranist who was on his way to see the Egyptian national football team play in Sudan in November, was arrested at the airport and detained for a week by state security investigations – the second time Said has been prevented from traveling in one year.
A Palestinian-Norwegian peace campaigner from the UK and her two sons who were in Egypt during Ramadan were prevented from leaving the country for almost a week. No reason was given for the ban.
Students and university professors have long alleged that interior ministry bodies based on university campuses arbitrarily interfere in academic affairs. The June ruling by Cairo’s State Council that their presence is illegal was therefore welcomed as one of 2009’s few positive developments.
Anti-torture activists celebrated in November the conviction of a police colonel accused of brutally assaulting a man with a mental disability, Ragai Sultan.
While the five-year sentence handed down to colonel Akram Suleiman is a rare example of a police officer being held to account for torture, a United Nations report on Egypt in October noted that no state security investigations officer has ever been prosecuted for the crime despite frequent allegations of torture by individuals held in state security facilities.
In addition, the one-year prison sentence given in April to a police officer accused of causing the death of a pregnant woman during a raid on her home reignited allegations of a culture of impunity surrounding the Egyptian police.
The possibility that two policemen who were jailed for torturing a man in their custody might be reinstated was widely condemned by rights groups in April.
Islam Nabih and Reda Fathi, who served three years for the unlawful detention, torture and rape of Emad El-Kabir, were released in March of this year. Media reports suggested that they might return to duty in Assiut.