Egypt's Myth of Stability: Gross Abuses Don't Deliver Security

Anti-government protesters at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, January 25, 2011. Thousands of Egyptians demanded an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in unprecedented protests inspired by the revolt that brought down Tunisia’s president. Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters

Five years ago, human rights defender Ahmed Abdullah was among thousands of Egyptians who took to the streets for 18 days of mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, eventually forcing then-President Hosni Mubarak to step down and the security forces to retreat.

Today, Ahmed is on the run. He dodged arrest by the thinnest of margins on January 9, after plainclothes police in Cairo raided his regular coffee shop. The NGO which he chairs, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, had recently exposed a surge in enforced disappearances, which has seen hundreds vanish at the hands of state security forces over the last year alone.

He is not the only one whose activism has put him at risk. In recent weeks, security forces have been rounding up activists linked to protests and journalists critical of the government's record.

Five years since the uprising that ousted Mubarak, Egypt is once more a police state. The country's ubiquitous state security body, the National Security Agency, is firmly in charge.

Egypt's human rights defenders say they have their backs to the wall, with rights groups stripped of their funding and many of their staff banned from traveling and under criminal investigation.

The secret police are everywhere. They're listening to your calls. They're monitoring what you post on social media. They're prowling the streets.

Seeing "terrorism" everywhere, but unable to catch it, they have cast a net so wide as to encompass all of Egypt. This botched "counter-terror" campaign has seen peaceful dissenters locked up while armed groups slip through the net.

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested in the crackdown—nearly 12,000 of them last year, according to one Interior Ministry official.

Prisons, police stations and other detention facilities are full to breaking point. Prisoners and detainees are packed into overcrowded cells and forced to sleep on cold concrete floors, without adequate food, medicine or clothing.

Injustice is writ large. Last December, a court had to adjourn a high-profile trial because the hundreds of defendants, who include the prominent photojournalist "Shawkan", couldn't fit in the courtroom.

The criminal justice system has spiraled out of control. One 20-year-old man, Mahmoud Hussein, has languished behind bars for nearly two years, without charge or trial, simply for wearing a T-shirt that said "a nation without torture" and a scarf that said "25 January Revolution."

Reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees are widespread, with state security forces accused of doling out savage beatings and electric shocks, and placing detainees in stress positions—as well as, in several instances, subjecting them to sexual violence.

While the security forces have been snatching people from the streets, their offices and their homes, Egypt's government has been busy stealing away human rights in the name of combating "terrorism" and protecting "national security."

Today, the U.S. and EU states are once more looking to Egypt's security forces as a guarantor of stability in a region turned upside down by conflict. They are seen as a bulwark against the chaos of Libya and Syria, and the threat of the armed group known as Islamic State (ISIS).

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken of a "common fight against violent extremism and terrorists." The U.K. has called Egypt "a key strategic partner" in combating "extremism and violence" in the region.

But security forces that are unable or unwilling to distinguish between peaceful dissent and groups intent on deadly violence are surely part of the problem.

Egypt's intelligence services have filled its jails to bursting with peaceful protesters, politicians and opposition activists, increasingly joined by human rights defenders and journalists.

Armed groups, meanwhile, have repeatedly demonstrated that they can escape the dragnet. They have killed hundreds of members of the security forces since 2011, and they have also targeted judicial officials, ordinary Egyptians and foreign nationals.

Both the security forces and the army have squandered opportunities to bring suspected members of armed groups to justice, and have instead hauled suspects before military courts in grossly unfair trials; in one instance putting them to death for attacks committed while they were already detained.

The world would do well not to listen to the Egyptian government's siren promises of stability and security. A security apparatus that uses torture, excessive force, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance to crush all forms of dissent should not be considered "a key strategic partner."

Instead of a short-sighted approach of proposing new arms sales and stepping up security assistance, states looking for a regional ally in confronting "violent extremism and terrorism" should press for real reform of the security apparatus and judiciary.

Nicholas Piachaud is Egypt Researcher at Amnesty International.