CAIRO, Egypt—Despite a widely publicized campaign to loosen the grip of authoritarian rule, Egypt's vast and secretive security forces appear to have stepped up retaliation against political activists who challenge the status quo.
President Hosni Mubarak's government, one of America's closest allies in the Arab world and the recipient of some $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, earned praise last fall for holding the country's first contested presidential elections. But political activists say reports of police attacks continue to pour in from a wide variety of groups, including opposition political figures, Islamist organizers, journalists and voters.
The complaints raise questions about the likelihood of success for the Bush administration's high-profile campaign to promote democracy, civil liberties and human rights in the Arab world. Egypt, long a center of Arab and Sunni Muslim thought, is the most populous Arab nation and enjoys an image as a tourist-friendly, benign regime with a flourishing opposition press and frequent anti-government demonstrations.
But Egyptian activists say that the more they try to take advantage of cracks in Mubarak's 24-year grip on the nation, the more the security force beats them back.
Many of the abuse allegations are directed at Central Security, a SWAT-like commando force that originally was trained to take down terrorists and bust major drug traffickers. As the Egyptian government began to allow opposition groups greater freedom, Central Security's portfolio grew to include crowd control at demonstrations.
Egyptian officials say the security forces are still learning how to respond to large public demonstrations and other anti-government activism that was unheard-of until recent months. But political activists think the abuse is intended to prevent real democratic reform.
American officials, who've cited Egypt's multi-candidate elections as a milestone in the U.S. effort to push democracy in the Middle East, have shown concern recently over the pace of reform. This month, the United States delayed trade talks with Egypt to express dismay over election violence and a prison sentence handed to an opposition politician, according to officials.
In some of the most publicized cases of the past year, female activists and journalists accused the security forces of ripping off their clothes, molesting them and threatening rape.
But the allegations aren't limited to activists. Others who've complained of excessive force at the hands of Egypt's security forces include soccer spectators beaten for unruly behavior at matches, criminal suspects under interrogation and families who said they were beaten back when they tried to reach loved ones trapped in a fire at a Cairo theater.
Political activists and human rights groups note that the government has taken no disciplinary action in the bloodiest of the past year's incidents: the raid of a Sudanese refugee camp Dec. 30 that left at least 27 people dead and dozens more injured.
The Cairo security chief whose men are accused in several of the violent incidents was promoted this month to be governor of an important southern province. The interior minister, who oversees the notoriously heavy-handed police commandos, remains in office.
"The message is: What happened to the Sudanese could happen to you," said George Ishaq, the leader of Kifaya, an umbrella group for the Egyptian opposition.
The Interior Ministry declined to make officials available for interviews about police brutality, though it has issued statements previously saying assault complaints are exaggerated.
At least one Central Security agent was willing to acknowledge that he sees his role as standing against the forces of opposition in an unauthorized interview that he consented to only on the condition that his name not be used.
Speaking on a recent chilly night as he began his midnight watch over a square in which there've been violent demonstrations, he complained that the discussion of police abuse obscures the successful operations that keep Egypt out of the hands of extremists.
"The opposition has to say these things about us because Central Security is the last line that stands against them," he said. "I refuse to let them do what they want to do. They want to riot and burn cars and loot shops? The Islamists want to bring extremists to power? This gives a bad impression of Egypt to the outside world. I don't say everything we do is right, but we try to do more right than wrong."
An Egyptian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, conceded that the Sudanese raid was a "blunder." The other allegations, he said, were just the growing pains of a government that's still in the process of becoming more democratic.
"I have seen a tremendous development in the professionalism of the forces," the official said. "We have moved from a system where no demonstrations were allowed to a system where the opposition can go to the most important square in Cairo."
Human right advocates question the government's sincerity.
"These incidents have shown the very ugly face of the impatience and incapability of tolerance by the government against people seeking real reform," said Fadi al Qadi, the regional advocate for the international group Human Rights Watch. "This regime's problem is that they have, historically and recently, failed to hold people accountable for abuses. There is a culture of impunity."
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has received complaints of abuse against protesters, complaints that seemed to swell after each of Egypt's democratic milestones of the past year, which included a constitutional referendum last May and the multi-candidate presidential vote in September.
In late November, the three-round parliamentary elections began. There were few reports of police violence before the first round, when Mubarak's party was confident. But that changed after the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist group whose members were allowed to run as independents, made a surprisingly strong showing.
Fighting broke out among supporters of opposing candidates during the second round, with security forces arresting more than 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters. At least one demonstrator died in the clashes.
One of those arrested was Sameh el Barqi, a 32-year-old father of two and a Muslim Brotherhood activist. After the second round of voting, he said, security forces arrived at his home in Cairo and beat his doorman when he refused to let them enter. In front of his terrified family, el Barqi was arrested and taken away in a police van. He said he spent the next eight days sharing a cramped cell with about 40 other detainees. He left the cell, he said, only for interrogation sessions.
"They beat me on the head and in the face," el Barqi said. "They stripped me and beat me with the belt I was wearing. When they briefly let me sit down, an officer kneeled on my shoulders and beat me with his shoes. He threatened to rape me with a stick."
During the last round, swarms of Central Security forces were dispatched to polling places, ostensibly to protect voters. But witnesses said they blocked polling entrances, forcing some voters to sneak in by climbing ladders to upper-floor windows.
Witnesses also reported that police targeted voters with rubber bullets and tear gas. Journalists who were trying to photograph or film the events were roughed up and had their cameras confiscated, according to news reports.
By the end of the voting, at least a dozen people had died and many more were wounded. Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers won 88 seats.
El Barqi said he was certain that the abuse was intended to discourage Muslim Brotherhood supporters. "Proof of that is that they weren't making random arrests until the last round, when the Muslim Brotherhood was winning," he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood immediately promised to use its newfound power to raise the issue of police brutality.
"The problem is not that the security forces are out of control; they only follow orders from the state," said Mohamed Habib, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. "It's the state that wants to show it's still strong and intimidating and holding the reins. Any political movement that gains momentum, that thinks it can change anything, is crushed."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Warren P. Strobel in Washington and special correspondent Miret Naggar in Cairo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hosni Mubarak
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