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Egypt Tense as Antiwar Protests Expand to Include Government

April 04, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Summer Sayed says she has never attended a demonstration or belonged to a political party. The 18-year-old college sophomore loves the Beatles, writes part time for a weekly magazine and occasionally makes some extra cash by translating for foreign journalists in Egypt.

So she was naturally frightened when she was summoned to the State Security Intelligence Headquarters in Giza and accused of subversive activity. Her apparent offense: helping a Finnish reporter interview three college students about their feelings on the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

"It seems to me you are a troublemaker," an officer said before releasing Sayed, she recalled. "You sold your country."

Sayed is one of hundreds of Egyptian citizens who have been stopped, detained, questioned and in some cases beaten by state security agents since the Iraq war began, according to human rights groups. The crackdown followed the largest spontaneous demonstrations Egypt has seen in two decades, when tens of thousands of protesters clashed with riot police in the streets two weeks ago.

The state has managed to avoid a repeat. But with U.S.-led troops near Baghdad, smaller-scale demonstrations continue on a regular basis, and the mood in Egypt remains tense.

The Egyptian government says claims of torture are unproved. Officials say that the number of arrests has been overstated, but they have not provided specifics.

Although the crackdown seems to be aimed at a movement that has become as much about criticizing the Egyptian government as about the U.S. attack on Iraq, analysts and human rights activists here say the state's response may help accelerate democratic change in this tightly controlled state.

Many Egyptians are so angry with the U.S. and, more important, so disillusioned with their own government that people who never openly criticized President Hosni Mubarak or joined a protest are doing so.

Slogans chanted at the recent demonstrations included:

* "Raise the walls of your prisons, Mubarak. Tomorrow the revolution will tear them down."

* "We want a new government. We are sick of our living."

It is too early to tell how events will unfold, whether the state will continue to crack down and the people to acquiesce, as they have traditionally done. But there is a change in the public attitude, a shift the authorities have noticed. In response, the government is taking several seemingly contradictory steps.

It has, for example, joined with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, a nonviolent Islamic movement, to stage peaceful demonstrations to help relieve some of the public anger. And the ruling party's policy committee has begun talking about ways to improve the nation's human rights record, in part by abolishing the State Security Court. Although the proposals have been dismissed by human rights activists as half measures, the fact that they are being discussed signals a recognition of the public mood.

At the same time, security forces have been mobilized. Police are out in force and troop carriers are positioned all over the capital. Plainclothes officers are busy watching, following and questioning.

"We know this dynamic is starting," said Essam Montasser, a professor of economics and a political observer who does not think the attack on Iraq is justified despite the potentially positive effect on social reform in Egypt. "Even if it is having a negative effect in the beginning, we say imbalance moves things.... So what you call a problem now could be a catalyst for change and something positive to come."

Montasser and other analysts said they believe Arab states will be unable to contain their citizens with iron-fisted tactics and that pressure will force reforms, however modest. Though no one predicts Egypt will develop a Western-style democracy any time soon, there is a growing hope that the events battering the region will loosen the one-man, one-party monopoly on power and force a more evenhanded application of the law.

The pressure is building because of young men such as Kamel, a high school student who said he recently found himself shoved into the back of a police wagon with 40 others. Kamel did not want his family name used for fear of retaliation.

"They are picking up people without any reason," the 17-year-old said. "Drug dealers go around and don't get arrested. Those who mind their own business get picked up."

Kamel is the kind of young person Egyptian authorities never had to worry about. He lives in one of Cairo's poorer neighborhoods and works nights to pay for private school. Kamel says he supports peace between Egypt and Israel, a position that places him well outside the mainstream of his nation.

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