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Behind the Egyptian Junta’s Iron Curtain

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After a recent CODEPINK delegation to Egypt ended up in deportations and assault, we have become acutely aware of some of the horrors Egyptians are facing in the aftermath of the July 3 coup that toppled Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Over 2,500 civilians have been killed in protests and clashes. Over 16,000 are in prison for their political beliefs and allegations of torture are widespread. Millions of people who voted for Morsi in elections that foreign monitors declared free and fair are now living in terror, as are secular opponents of the military regime, and the level of violence is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history. With former Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi set to become the next president in sham elections scheduled for May 26-27, the Egyptian military is trampling on the last vestiges of the grassroots uprising that won the hearts of the world community during the Arab Spring.

The most publicized case is the trial of the three Al Jazeera journalists and their co-defendants, charged with falsifying news and working with the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 10, there was a ludicrous update in the trial, when the prosecution came to court presenting a video that was supposed to be the basis of their case but consisted of family photos, trotting horses, and Somali refugees in Kenya. The judge dismissed the “evidence” but not the charges.

The high-profile case is just a taste of wide-ranging assault on free expression. The government has closed down numerous TV and print media affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt the third deadliest countries for journalists in 2013, just behind Syria and Iraq.

An incident that shows how the judicial branch is now working hand-in-glove with the military is the horrific March 24 sentencing of 529 Morsi supporters to death in one mass trial. The entire group was charged with killing one police officer. The trial consisted of two sessions, each one lasting less than one hour. Secretary of State Kerry said that the sentence “defies logic” and Amnesty International called the ruling “grotesque.”

And if you think that a US passport entitles a prisoner to due process, look at the tragic case of 26-year-old Ohio State University graduate Mohamed Soltan. Soltan served as a citizen journalist, assisting English-speaking media in their coverage of the anti-coup sit-in at Rabaa Square that was violently raided by police and resulted in the death of over 1,000 people. In jail for over 7 months, Soltan has been on a hunger strike since January 26 and is now so weak he can’t walk. His situation in prison has been horrifying. When he was arrested, he had a wound from being shot that had not yet healed. Prison officials refused to treat him, so a fellow prisoner who was a doctor performed surgery with pliers on a dirty prison floor, with no anesthesia. His trial has been postponed several times, and there is no update on when it might actually take place. (Activists in the US are mobilizing on his behalf.)

Female activists also face dehumanizing experiences. In February, four women who were arrested for taking part in anti-military protests say they were subjected to virginity tests while in custody–a practice that coup leader Abdel al-Sisi has supported. In addition to the horror of virginity tests, Amnesty International has also reported that women in prison in Egypt face harsh conditions, including being forced to sleep on the floor and not being allowed to use the bathroom for 10 hours from 10pm to 8am every day. Egyptian Women Against the Coup and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights has reported beatings and sexual harassment of female prisoners.

The internal crackdown may be getting worse, not better. New counter-terrorism legislation set to be approved by Egypt’s president would give the government increased powers to muzzle freedom of expression and imprison opponents. Two new draft laws violate the right to free expression, including penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment for verbally insulting a public employee or member of the security forces. They broaden the existing definition of terrorism to include actions aimed at damaging national unity, natural resources, monuments, communication systems, the national economy, or hindering the work of judicial bodies and diplomatic missions in Egypt. “The problem with these vaguely worded ‘terrorist offenses’ is that they potentially allow the authorities to bring a terrorism case against virtually any peaceful activist,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.

The draft legislation also widens the scope for use of the death penalty to include “managing or administering a terrorist group.” The Muslim Brotherhood was labelled a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities in December (though no factual evidence was provided that it is engaged in terrorist attacks).

The US government refuses to call Morsi’s overthrow a coup, and has continued to give Egypt $250 million in economic support, as well as funds for narcotics controls, law enforcement and military training. But the bulk of the foreign military funding of $1.3 billion has been suspended.

On March 12, Secretary of State Kerry indicated that he wanted to resume the aid and would decide “in the days ahead.” Egypt has long been one of the top recipients of US aid because of its peace treaty with Israel, its control over the Suez Canal and the close ties between the US and Egyptian militaries. To renew the funding, Kerry must certify that Egypt is meeting its commitment to a democratic transition and taking steps to govern democratically. The constitutional referendum was held January 14-15, but opponents were arrested for campaigning for a “no” vote. The May presidential election, taking place under such repressive conditions with the main opposition group banned, will certainly not be free and fair. The same can be said for the parliamentary elections that are expected to occur before the end of July.

“The question is no longer whether Egypt is on the road to democratic transition, but how much of its brute repression the US will paper over,” said Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson. “An accurate appraisal of Egypt’s record since the military-backed overthrow of President Morsi would conclude that, far from developing basic freedoms, the Egyptian authorities are doing the opposite.”

The Obama Administration should insist that political dissidents be released, laws restricting public assembly be lifted, the Muslim Brotherhood be declassified as a terrorist organization and allowed to participate in all aspects of public life, and criminal investigations be launched into the unlawful use of lethal force and abuse of detainees by security officials. Only when the Egyptian junta lifts its iron curtain should the US consider resuming military aid.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of www.codepink.org and www.globalexchange.org, and author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

Kate Chandley is an International Affairs and Political Science student at Northeastern University and intern at www.codepink.org.

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