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Has Egypt brought back Mubarak's police state?

With the declaration of a state of emergency, mass arrests, and detentions of journalists, many Egyptians say the country is rapidly returning to its pre-revolutionary state.

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Egyptian police soldiers stand outside of their vehicle, in, Cairo, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. Egypt on Tuesday announced the arrest of the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, dealing a serious blow to the Islamist group at a time when it is struggling to keep up its street protests against the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in the face of a harsh crackdown by authorities.

Amr Nabil/AP

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The news yesterday that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could be released from jail soon is, to some Egyptians, a symbol of the extent to which Egypt has abandoned the revolutionary change they dreamed of when they revolted in January 2011. 

Signs abound of a return to the police state that existed under Mr. Mubarak: the government's declaration of emergency law, mass arrests of Islamists, detentions of journalists, raids on television stations, and talk of disbanding the Muslim Brotherhood - all defended by the government as part of a “war on terrorism.”

One of the sparks of the uprising against Mubarak was the death in 2010 of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man who was beaten to death by police. The incident shined a spotlight on one of Egyptians' greatest grievances and a key force behind the protests: the torture and abuse police dealt out for decades.

Now, some applaud as television stations show blindfolded prisoners arrested at police or military checkpoints. In a speech aired on television Sunday, Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who ousted former President Mohamed Morsi last month, said the police and the military are the “guardians of the will of the people.”

That phrase – that the once-hated police could be touted, to applause, as the guardians of the people's will – made Khalil Al Anani laugh. 

“It was not like this even under Mubarak,” says Dr. Anani, a scholar at Durham University in the UK. “The security state is coming back forcibly and aggressively. No one would have thought about this after the 25 January revolution. It is very gloomy picture now in Egypt. The 25th of January revolution is almost dying.”

Many pro-democracy activists have been warning that Egypt was veering off the revolutionary path since the beginning of the post-Mubarak transition. But in this recent series of events, they see an especially dramatic slide backward.

Government and military leaders, meanwhile, say they are fighting a war against terrorism, and are simply taking the necessary steps to bring criminals to justice and protect Egypt. “Forces of extremism intend to cripple our journey toward pure bright future, aiming and willing to bring to the whole state into total failure," said presidential adviser Mostafa Higazy in a press conference Saturday. “This war will end. And we will end up triumphant, not only by security measures but also by the rule of law and in the perimeters of human rights, which we are adamant to maintain."

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Repeating the past

Mubarak's release from prison became a possibility Monday when a court dropped a corruption charge against him. The former president was convicted last year of allowing the killing of protesters during the uprising, and sentenced to life in prison.

That conviction was overturned in January, with a retrial underway. His current detention is based on a charge of accepting illegal gifts during his presidency. Mubarak has already repaid an amount supposedly equivalent to those gifts, and his lawyer told Reuters that he could be released “by the end of the week.” He has already spent the maximum amount of time in jail allowed under the law for someone not yet convicted.

But there has been no official confirmation that Mubarak will be released, and many legal analysts are doubtful he will be let go soon.

Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities said they arrested Mohamed Badie, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, this morning, and released photo and video of him in detention. The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, said he was arrested in an apartment near the Rabaa el Adawiya mosque, the focal point of the six-week Brotherhood-led protests against Morsi's ouster by the military on July 3, following mass protests against his rule. Other Brotherhood leaders are arrested or in hiding, and hundreds of people, including Brotherhood members, have been detained.

At least 35 of those prisoners died in police custody Sunday, and the Brotherhood challenged the Ministry of Interior's changing account of how the deaths occurred. Officials variously said the prisoners were killed during an attempted prison break, or that they had kidnapped a police officer and were killed as police attempted to free him.

The Brotherhood said they were killed when police fired tear gas into a locked police van, and also fired at them through the windows.

From bad to worse

The arrests of Islamists came on the heels of security forces' bloody crackdown on two protest camps full of Morsi supporters Aug. 14. In a statement yesterday, Human Rights Watch called the police operation “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”

According to the rights organization, at least 377 people died during the dispersal of just the larger camp surrounding Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque. Roughly 1,000 people have died since last week, as protesters clashed with police and other civilians. Attacks on police stations and churches have also occurred across the country.

Karim Ennarah, a researcher on policing and criminal justice at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, points out that police brutality and excessive use of force continued after Mubarak's ouster, including under the first military government and under Morsi, though he notes the levels have increased “massively” in the past week. 

But while police often responded with lethal violence to challenges in recent years, “the ability to control the political space is what they lost” after the 2011 uprising. “And given the current context, which is becoming more of a civil conflict … I am concerned about the return of the police state in the sense of their ability to control and close down political space,” he says. “There is a threat of the police, because of the context of civil conflict, 'terrorism,' of police being able or trying to return to the complete control of political space.”

The mass arrests, happening on a far greater scale than occurred over the past several years, are a symptom of that, he says.

One of the most worrying signs is the apparent public support for the crackdown. Television stations and newspapers repeat the government rhetoric of a “war on terrorism” and support arrests and police use of violence, and Egyptians are following suit. In the wake of deadly fighting between pro-Morsi protesters and pro-military civilians as well as police last Friday, citizen security forces sprang up in neighborhoods. Armed with clubs and sometimes knives and guns, they stopped cars and passersby at checkpoints, much as they did during the January 2011 protests.

At one such checkpoint in the Dokki neighborhood of Cairo on Friday, men from the neighborhood stopped a bearded man, bundled him into a van, and drove away with him.

“Police seem to be comfortable in that there's a certain level of support for the state,” says Mr. Ennarah. “The context and the discourse of countering terrorism is a very difficult environment in which you can challenge this level of brutality by police. So as long as this discourse continues, as long as civilian on civilian violence continues ... I don't know where this is going to go, but it's looking bleaker and bleaker.”

Silencing the press

As authorities rounded up Islamists, they also cracked down on journalists. Several journalists have been detained for short periods and released, while at least five journalists have been arrested and are still detained, according to Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some have not yet been given access to a lawyer or their families. Authorities raided the Al Jazeera Arabic office in Cairo and are currently reviewing the channel's legal status, accusing it of “threatening stability and national security.”

The detentions, says Mr. Sherif, are “definitely a tactic of silencing and censoring the press. Because for every journalist who's detained, there is of course more risk for others to do their jobs without fear. The detentions are happening on a wider scale than we've seen before and are accompanied by a campaign of threats by the government.”

Government officials have complained about coverage of Egypt, accusing foreign media of being sympathetic to the Islamists.

"Egypt is feeling severe bitterness toward some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood and ignores shedding light on violent and terror acts that are perpetrated by this group," said a statement by the State Information Service Saturday.

Rhetoric by government officials and on private television channels targeting foreign media has led to an increase in attacks by civilian vigilantes on journalists, in a situation similar to what transpired during the protests against Mubarak. On Aug. 17, when security forces had a mosque full of Morsi supporters under siege, there were at least a dozen such attacks on journalists, some of whom had their equipment stolen or were beaten, says Mansour. 

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