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A Revolution Derailed
Egypt Reels from Unprecedented Crackdown on Dissent

In some ways, the authorities’ crackdown on dissent in Egypt is worse now than it ever was under Hosni Mubarak. “We try to be everywhere all of the time: courts, police stations, hospitals, prisons, morgues,” a defense lawyer named Mahmoud Belal recently told a reporter from the Washington Post. “But there was never this kind of momentum under Mubarak. They are just putting people in jail—and it’s happening all at once.”

The widespread crackdown has led to overcrowded prisons and accusations of abuse by prison guards against detainees. Many people are imprisoned without charge. A government decree allows the public prosecutor to detain prisoners without charge indefinitely. Even Mubarak capped that at a comparatively benevolent two years. When the authorities do charge prisoners with a crime or bring them in front of a judge, they often do so sloppily, en masse. Inside Egypt’s notorious prisons, detainees are beaten and abused sexually and mentally. According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, 21,317 people were arrested between the coup last summer and the end of 2013.

Detainees are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, democracy activists, simple protestors, photographers, journalists, and assorted others. The army doesn’t seem to care. Voice dissent or show disagreement with the way Field Marshal Sisi is conducting the country’s affairs, and it’s off to jail with you, pal. Said Belal, it used to be that defense attorneys and activists could “go through the procedures and get people released.” But now “sometimes we can’t even find them, or don’t know they have been detained.”

Peter Hessler recently described the surreality of the trials of the Muslim Brotherhood’s imprisoned leaders in an eye-opening article for the New Yorker. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President in Egypt’s history, Mohamed Beltagy, the former head of the Brotherhood’s political party, and several of their associates are being tried for various crimes in an improvised courtroom at the Cairo Police Academy, which lurks far from the city center on the edge of the desert. The prisoners are enclosed behind layers of metal bars, screens, and soundproof glass. The judge controls a switch that activates a microphone inside the cage so he can hear the prisoners or shut them up as he pleases.

During one recent appearance, Beltagy furiously shouted inaudibly into the microphone until the judge switched it on. “We want to talk!” he shouted. “We are being deprived here! This is political revenge!” He and the judge went back and forth. “I don’t want to talk politics,” said the judge. “This isn’t politics!” The judge switched off the mic and Beltagy’s further comments were unheard by anyone except his fellow prisoners. The judge “made a gesture like a man brushing away a fly,” Hessler writes. The audience laughed. Some Egyptian journalists cheered, “Death penalty! Death penalty!”

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  • Thirdsyphon

    The soundproof glass is a nice touch. It makes even the barbaric courtrooms of Russia, where defendants are held in iron circus cages, seem enlightened and fair.

    A further irony is that the “public” seems free to chime in at any point, but not the defendants themselves.

    • Pete

      Well, it is an Arab country.

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