EVEN as Egypt passes new antiterrorist legislation giving authorities broader power to detain, arrest, interrogate, and try suspects, a human rights organization this week accused the government of torturing and illegally detaining political prisoners.
The US-based human rights group Middle East Watch, in a 200-page report, accused the government of systematic torture, particularly of Islamic extremists, to collect information. It said the staff of Egypt's General Directorate for State Security Investigation are trained in torture techniques, and directed and supervised in these actions by senior personnel.
Middle East Watch used scores of victims' testimony and forensic information to support its findings.
The organization asked the United States and the European Community to suspend aid to Egypt until torture stops. In response the US State Department said: "We are engaged in a continuing dialogue with the government of Egypt concerning allegations of human rights abuses. [They] have told us that they are sensitive to the allegations and will investigate the charges." Egypt is the second largest receiver of US aid, after Israel. It gets $2.1 billion of military and economic assistance annually.
Following the release of the Middle East Watch report, a senior Egyptian official said that while torture may occur, guilty parties are always punished.
The allegations of torture arise in the aftermath of heated debate over new legislation designed to stop terrorism. Although Egypt has been under emergency law since 1981, officials claim the new antiterrorist amendments, which broaden police powers and increase penalties, are needed to further protect society. "If I prevent [terrorist] crimes or punish them, I am protecting the freedom which all people need to live in stability and peace," said Kamal al-Shazly, the parliamentary leader of Egypt's ruling
National Democratic Party.
Critics claimed, however, that the legislation further threatens the public's human rights. "It doesn't present any new warning to terrorists. It mainly attacks peaceful political groups. Under [these new amendments] their activities, such as strikes, demonstrations and the distribution of leaflets, could be treated as terrorist events, subject to the same judicial procedures," said Bahey al-Din Hassan, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Despite the government's wider use of force to fight Islamic radicals, there is agreement among political analysts, sociologists, and human rights activists that Muslim militancy is growing in Egypt.
Force will not curb the extremist threat, but may increase it, according to Western and Egyptian observers of Egypt's radical Islamic movement.
"Torture never really solves any problem to do with violence. Violence has sociopolitical roots. These have to be addressed," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at American University in Cairo. Frequently radical groups recruit young people who want to avenge harm inflicted on them after being detained, he adds.
Instead of harsher action, the government should address the country's social and political problems, the main reason for the growing extremist trend, analysts said. Egypt's poor and lower-middle class citizens are suffering from a free-market economic reform program and democratic freedoms are still limited. An increase in religious programming in the state-run media has also boosted the extremist movement.
The government is not in imminent danger of instability. But Western and Egyptian political analysts foresee a gradual movement toward a more Islamic state. More government money is devoted to religious activities. There are plans to increase religious programming, and President Hosni Mubarak's speeches on religious holidays are getting longer. With the recent introduction of separate men's and women's buses, the country is also seeing a greater segregation of the sexes.