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Egypt Tense as Antiwar Protests Expand to Include Government

Times Staff Writer

Summer Sayed says she has never attended a demonstration or belonged to a political party. The 18-year-old college sophomore loves the Beatles, writes part time for a weekly magazine and occasionally makes some extra cash by translating for foreign journalists in Egypt.

So she was naturally frightened when she was summoned to the State Security Intelligence Headquarters in Giza and accused of subversive activity. Her apparent offense: helping a Finnish reporter interview three college students about their feelings on the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

“It seems to me you are a troublemaker,” an officer said before releasing Sayed, she recalled. “You sold your country.”

Sayed is one of hundreds of Egyptian citizens who have been stopped, detained, questioned and in some cases beaten by state security agents since the Iraq war began, according to human rights groups. The crackdown followed the largest spontaneous demonstrations Egypt has seen in two decades, when tens of thousands of protesters clashed with riot police in the streets two weeks ago.

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The state has managed to avoid a repeat. But with U.S.-led troops near Baghdad, smaller-scale demonstrations continue on a regular basis, and the mood in Egypt remains tense.

The Egyptian government says claims of torture are unproved. Officials say that the number of arrests has been overstated, but they have not provided specifics.

Although the crackdown seems to be aimed at a movement that has become as much about criticizing the Egyptian government as about the U.S. attack on Iraq, analysts and human rights activists here say the state’s response may help accelerate democratic change in this tightly controlled state.

Many Egyptians are so angry with the U.S. and, more important, so disillusioned with their own government that people who never openly criticized President Hosni Mubarak or joined a protest are doing so.

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Slogans chanted at the recent demonstrations included:

* “Raise the walls of your prisons, Mubarak. Tomorrow the revolution will tear them down.”

* “We want a new government. We are sick of our living.”

It is too early to tell how events will unfold, whether the state will continue to crack down and the people to acquiesce, as they have traditionally done. But there is a change in the public attitude, a shift the authorities have noticed. In response, the government is taking several seemingly contradictory steps.

It has, for example, joined with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, a nonviolent Islamic movement, to stage peaceful demonstrations to help relieve some of the public anger. And the ruling party’s policy committee has begun talking about ways to improve the nation’s human rights record, in part by abolishing the State Security Court. Although the proposals have been dismissed by human rights activists as half measures, the fact that they are being discussed signals a recognition of the public mood.

At the same time, security forces have been mobilized. Police are out in force and troop carriers are positioned all over the capital. Plainclothes officers are busy watching, following and questioning.

“We know this dynamic is starting,” said Essam Montasser, a professor of economics and a political observer who does not think the attack on Iraq is justified despite the potentially positive effect on social reform in Egypt. “Even if it is having a negative effect in the beginning, we say imbalance moves things.... So what you call a problem now could be a catalyst for change and something positive to come.”

Montasser and other analysts said they believe Arab states will be unable to contain their citizens with iron-fisted tactics and that pressure will force reforms, however modest. Though no one predicts Egypt will develop a Western-style democracy any time soon, there is a growing hope that the events battering the region will loosen the one-man, one-party monopoly on power and force a more evenhanded application of the law.

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The pressure is building because of young men such as Kamel, a high school student who said he recently found himself shoved into the back of a police wagon with 40 others. Kamel did not want his family name used for fear of retaliation.

“They are picking up people without any reason,” the 17-year-old said. “Drug dealers go around and don’t get arrested. Those who mind their own business get picked up.”

Kamel is the kind of young person Egyptian authorities never had to worry about. He lives in one of Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods and works nights to pay for private school. Kamel says he supports peace between Egypt and Israel, a position that places him well outside the mainstream of his nation.

But he says his view of his own government began to harden the day he was beaten by men in uniform. Kamel said he was standing near his workplace two weeks ago when a huge demonstration developed. The crowd was chanting slogans in support of Iraq and the Palestinians -- and against the Egyptian government. He was swept up in the action and joined in. The next day as he was stepping out of the subway on his way to work, he was grabbed.

“I was asking, ‘Why are you dragging me?’ ” Kamel said. “So they hit me. They kept kicking me and then hitting me with sticks.”

He was taken to a police station in Gamaliya. He said he sat in a hallway for six or seven hours and was not allowed to go to the bathroom. Just before he was released, he said, an officer yelled at him: “You son of a prostitute.”

Now when he thinks about his government, those words ring in his head.

“Even when we walk beside the walls, still trouble comes to us,” he said, using an Arabic expression to explain his feelings of vulnerability.

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Manal Khalid, 31, is ready to keep up the fight. She holds up a picture taken of her in court almost two weeks ago. It shows her locked in a holding pen. Her right eye is black and her face is round and swollen.

“She received some of the worst torture,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “I verified her story.”

On March 20, during the first of two days of demonstrations that gripped the capital, Khalid was encouraging people to join in, even stopping minibuses to recruit the passengers. The next day, she was headed toward Tahrir Square, the main crossroads of this sprawling metropolis of some 17 million, and the site of what would become a massive, unruly demonstration.

Khalid said that as she approached the square, 15 security men grabbed her. An officer yanked her hair, dragged her to a car and then pounded her in the face and chest with his fists. She said two other police officers held her arms.

“He said to me, ‘You think you are some kind of leader,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘Now I am going to show you what sort of government of clowns you denounced.’ ”

For the next several days, she was shuttled around, held in lockups, until she and a group of other activists were taken to a police station in Al Khalifa, she said. There, she said, she was beaten. Ten days later she was released.

“My crime,” she said, “is loving Egypt.”

She has filed complaints with the government, and her case has been championed by Human Rights Watch and other groups. She plans to demonstrate today in Tahrir Square.

Jumala Bishara, 27, is a Palestinian American who grew up in Brooklyn. She is studying for a graduate degree at American University in Cairo.

On March 20, she helped organize a campus demonstration that spilled out the front gates, joining up with the larger protests in Tahrir Square. A few days later, Bishara was summoned to the State Security Intelligence Headquarters, where she said she was questioned by a colonel. “He said what happened at [the University] should never be repeated,” she recalled.

“I think they feel threatened,” she said of the government. “There is the potential for a real movement. People feel they have to demonstrate against this war, but also against the regime that got us into this position.”


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