Mon February 7, 2011
Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt

Many Egyptian Protesters Say They Fear Retaliation

The popular uprising in Egypt found its online voice on a Facebook page that protested the alleged torture and murder of a 20-something professional, at the hands of the security services, in June this year.

The protesters in Cairo and elsewhere say the world has largely turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Mubarak regime over the years.

The fear of many in Egypt is that despite the uprising, nothing has really changed. Many say the government has orchestrated attacks on human-rights groups and protest leaders over the past few weeks.

Facebook Impact

Tariq al-Alfi stands in Tahrir Square with a sign that reads, "Facebook: The Egyptian Social Network."

He's a 28-years-old entrepreneur and one of the founders of a Facebook page that started this popular uprising.

"We needed change, we needed a new leader, we needed to have more freedom more rights, so it all started from us," says al-Alfi. "It happened six months ago, a young guy from the middle class called Khaled Said was killed by the police. We all started fighting the corruption [by] making social networks."

If this movement has a unifying figure, it is Khaled Said. Last summer, he uploaded pictures to the Internet that purportedly showed two policemen sharing the spoils of a drug bust. Shortly thereafter, he was dragged out of a cafe in Alexandria by police. Hours later, he turned up dead.

The government at the time said he had died from a drug overdose. But, again, the Internet played a key role in telling what activists say was the real story: Images of his beaten body went viral, sparking a social media campaign.

Reem Saad, director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo, says the movement started as a protest against police brutality and torture.

"The movement that started after the murder of Khaled Said was primarily a youth movement, or at least it was led by the youth and it started with the Facebook groups," Saad says. "[These are] very new ways of resistances that are totally unconventional and the authorities didn't know how to deal with it."

They don't seem to know how to deal with it now either.

Over the weekend, the government promised to address people's concerns after a meeting with some pro-democracy forces.

But at the same time, arrests were being carried out — among the most recent two reporters from Al-Jazeera. A Google executive, who is the suspected founder of the Khaled Said web page, was also nabbed by the authorities.

Square For Refuge

The square has become a refuge for people who have suffered at the hands of the security services.

Ahmed Douma, 21, has been arrested 25 times over the years, the latest time occurring last week.

He says his jailers broke his legs with heavy wood and metal bars, then let him go with no medical care. He says he was also subjected to electric shocks and left without food, for days at a time.

Douma says he's afraid if he leaves the square they will imprison him again.

Unless Mubarak and his regime go, he says, once the focus of the world has shifted elsewhere there will be a quieter, but no less lethal, crackdown on the people in Tahrir.

Mubarak came to power following the assassination of President Anwat Sadat by Islamist extremists. Emergency laws introduced then have never been lifted, and protesters and human-rights groups say these have allowed police abuses to go unchecked.

"Well, right now there are no guarantees in place that all of these, of intelligence agencies and police agencies, will be reined in," says Peter Boukhart of Human Rights Watch. "Right now they rule the street and they can act as they wish. We have to remember these protests are very much about ending this state of repression."

'Revolving Door'

Abdul Rahman al-Sharkawy's father, Mohammed, has been held for 15 years without charges. Human-rights groups call his detention arbitrary.

"I have a medical report that says he has slipped disk in his spinal cord; that is because of the torturing," Sharkawy says.

Egyptian courts have issued numerous release orders for Mohammed — a dual Pakistani and Egyptian national — but he is still being held under what is known here as the "revolving door" policy. The Interior Ministry ignores the courts, moving him from prison to prison until a new administrative detention order is issued under the auspices of the emergency laws.

His son, Abdul Rahman, has also spent time in an Egyptian prison and says he was tortured.

"That's the main reason behind these protests; people are being pushed, pushed, pushed until they just exploded," says Rahman.

Abdul Rahman lives in a dilapidated building near the square. He can hear the chants of the demonstrators but he is still too afraid to go and join them. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.