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Keeping count in a less than transparent Egypt

Al-Arabiya - February 10, 2014

by H.A. Hellyer

It used to be different. It used to be that when a single death took place, it would be “news.” During the 18 days of the Tahrir uprising in 2011, I remember how a prominent religious figure in Cairo declared, “If they (the government) lay a finger on a single hair of the protesters, I will resign.” He never did – but just the notion that someone might voluntarily resign their position in protest over a single casualty was significant. It’s not like that anymore. And what’s more – it may not be possible anymore.

Tomorrow will make it three years to the day that Hosni Mubarak was forced from power. Three years to the day that people thought that, finally, “accountability” would no longer be a slogan, but a reality. Three years later, there have been more than a dozen recorded incidents of killings of protesters by state forces, as noted by a plethora of human rights organizations. Three years later, there’s no justice for those who died – whether under Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi, Mursi, or now.

The Egyptian paradox

They’ve become, it seems, just numbers. In Tahrir Square a couple of weeks ago, on the anniversary of the uprising, unlike previous years, there was little remembrance of the martyrs who passed away. There is a standing monument in the square that was erected to apparently remember the martyrs – set up by the same state apparatus that has never brought to justice those responsible for the deaths. A police officer mounts the stage in the square – and is lauded from the crowd, although it is the police force that everyone knows was responsible for so much death.

Those that would have tried to remember them were not far away. But they were never allowed to reach the square – the police forcefully broke up their protest march at the Journalists’ Syndicate. Hence the paradox of the current Egyptian situation – those who ought to be investigated for the deaths of martyrs are lauded as heroes, while those who would remember them are not allowed to be heard. Indeed, many of them are being “investigated” themselves – whether in the courts or on television, where they are subtly being described as a treasonous “fifth column” for their dissent against the state. Like a scene out of some poorly written science fiction movie, they’re even described as linked to the Muslim Brotherhood – an organization they’ve opposed for pretty much the last two years, if not longer.

Vague numbers

Against the backdrop of that sort of strange reversal of accountability is the inability to even know what numbers we are talking about. We don’t have them, really. When it comes to death counts, for example, many are guessing. We know, for example, that the deaths in Rabaa (the pro-Mursi sit-in that was forcefully broken up by the police on August 14) must have numbered at least a thousand – because the interim prime minister, Beblawi, said so. But we don’t actually know what the numbers are beyond that. The Brotherhood, as is now their wont, over-estimate tremendously, with figures discussed of up to 5000 people. But for those that call for accountability, they’re left with few ways to verify any figures – because information just is not being transparently provided.

The numbers are not just difficult to capture when it comes to deaths – but when it comes to those arrested and imprisoned. No-one really knows how many are detained. When I enquired of one human rights activist, she confessed, “we just cannot confirm anything. All too often, we know of lawyers going to check on people they know are detained in a particular place – and they’re being turned away. How many cases are there going to be like that? We don’t know – and it does not seem like we’re going to know anytime soon. Now, we’re just worried the state itself is going to stop keeping records themselves.”
The past couple of weeks have seen a righteous indignation expressed, worldwide, about the lot of journalists who are being held in Egypt. One hopes they might be released sooner, rather than later – no journalist ought to be detained, ever, for work relating to his or her job. But, at least, we know some details about them – in particular the non-Egyptian journalists (the Egyptian journalists are, unfortunately, in danger of being overlooked in the midst of this campaign). What happens if getting details itself become part of the problem? What happens if access to that sort of information is simply not possible anymore?

Who will be targeted?

It’s a concern I’ve heard expressed from more than one in the Egyptian civil rights community. These forces of civil society are struggling, persistently, to push for transparency over accusations of human rights violations. The problem is, they exist in a situation where on the one hand, the Brotherhood describes them as the “long arms of Western injustice,” and as dangerous mavericks in the midst of a “war on terror” on the other. A few weeks ago, the police stormed the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights. Increasingly, the concern I hear from civil rights activists is this – are we going to be targeted? Are we going to have work under further restrictions? What sort of precautions do we need to take?

Under Mubarak, they knew where the red lines were – and they took precautions accordingly. Under Tantawi and Mursi, the red lines were different – but they also knew where they were, and civil rights organizations took precautions accordingly. Now? And if they are not able to do their tasks effectively, is it only they who will suffer? Or will it be all Egyptians, as even more of a haze disguises the actual facts behind the numbers? And increasingly – even the numbers themselves become hazy.

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