Ten days ago, the police arrested two left-leaning Canadians — one of them a filmmaker specializing in highly un-Islamic sexual themes — and implausibly announced that they were members of the Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group backing former President Mohammed Morsi.
In Suez this month, police and military forces breaking up a steelworkers strike charged that its organizers were part of a Brotherhood plot to destabilize Egypt.
On Saturday, the chief prosecutor ordered an investigation into charges of spying against two prominent activists associated with the progressive April 6 group.
When a journalist with a state newspaper spoke publicly about watching a colleague’s wrongful killing by a soldier, prosecutors appeared to fabricate a crime to punish the journalist. And the police arrested five employees of the religious website Islam Today for the crime of describing the military takeover as a “coup,” security officials said.
Last week, a prosecutor even opened an investigation into some of the young organizers behind the protests calling for the military to remove Morsi. The prosecutor was weighing a complaint of “disturbing the public order” because they criticized former President Hosni Mubarak’s release from prison.
Police abuses and politicized prosecutions are hardly new in Egypt, and they did not stop under Morsi. But since the military takeover last month, some rights activists say, the authorities are acting with a sense of impunity exceeding even the period before the 2011 revolt against Mubarak.
The government installed by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has renewed the Mubarak-era state of emergency removing all rights to due process or protections against police abuse. And police officials have pronounced themselves “vindicated,” claiming that the current talk of a battle against Islamist violence corroborates the police claim that it was Islamists, not the police, who killed protesters before Mubarak’s ouster.
“What is different is that the police feel for the first time in 2½ years, for the first time since January 2011, that they have the upper hand, and they do not need to fear public accountability or questioning,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
In the more than seven weeks since Morsi’s ouster, security forces have carried out at least three mass shootings at pro-Morsi street protests, killed more than a thousand Morsi supporters, and arrested at least as many, actions Morayef characterized as “massive police abuse on an unprecedented scale.”
But even beyond the Islamists, she said, “anyone who questions the police right now is a traitor, and that is a protection that they did not have even in 2010,” when public criticism was tolerated and at least a few complaints were investigated.
Even Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN diplomat and former vice president in the military-backed interim government, is facing charges of betraying the public trust.
President Obama has said the new government is on a “dangerous path” marked by “arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters,” and “violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.”
Warning that “our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” the president canceled a planned joint military exercise. He pledged a review of the $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt, and the state department took steps to hold back some of the roughly $200 million in nonmilitary aid. But mindful of Egypt’s importance in the region, Obama stopped short of declaring the takeover an illegal “coup” or cutting off the aid, instead urging an early return to democracy.
Officials of the new government insist they are committed to establishing the rule of law, as soon as they overcome what they describe as the overwhelming mortal threat of violence by the Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters of Morsi.
The police appear to be rounding up Brotherhood members on the basis of their affiliation, without other publicly known evidence of crimes. But government spokesmen insist that every individual, including Morsi, will be tried by a court and released if acquitted.
Nabil Fahmy, the interim foreign minister, said said all will be handled “in accordance with the rule of law.”
But some of the recent charges, like those against Canadian physician Tarek Loubani and Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, strain credibility. Loubani was on his way to Gaza to provide training to Palestinian doctors. Greyson was documenting the trip for a possible film.
A lawyer for the two said they were stopped at a checkpoint near a street battle while walking to their hotel.