By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s North Africa Researcher
Arriving in Cairo a few days before the constitutional referendum held on Saturday 15 December, I couldn’t remember a more bitterly divided and polarized Egypt.
During my last visit to the country as part of an Amnesty International delegation to document human rights violations committed during the 18 days of the “25 January Revolution”, there was a palpable sense of unity among protesters despite the suffering and violence.
Egyptians from all walks of life – women and men, Christians and Muslims, young and old, liberal and Islamist, affluent and poor – stood together against the government and its tactics to crush the uprising. They put aside their political, religious and ideological differences to fight for a common cause, and they were successful.
Today, these differences have pitted regular Egyptians against each other and led to bloody clashes in the streets which left at least 12 people dead in the last few weeks. Protesters – who just months ago stood side by side to confront the security forces and the army – found each other on opposite sides of violent clashes.
Against this backdrop of violence and division, millions of Egyptians in 10 governorates took to the polls on Saturday to cast their votes in the first phase of the highly controversial referendum on the country’s new Constitution.
Fears that recent unrest will spill over and disrupt the voting luckily failed to materialize, although some incidents of violence and other irregularities were reported. Throughout the day, Amnesty International delegates visited about a dozen polling stations in Cairo and Gharbiya governorates – where boredom and (mostly) cordial chatting characterized the proceedings.
On Saturday, Amnesty International delegates also visited the family of 24 year-old Khaled Taha Abdel Min’im Abou Ziyad, who was fatally injured in the 5- 6 December clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled travelled to the capital with other supporters of the President from his small village of Miniyat al-Bandara in Gharbiya governorate. His relatives told Amnesty International that he went to defend the President’s legitimacy and the proposed Constitution. He never returned, receiving a gunshot wound to the neck at around 2am on 6 December. He died five days later.
On 12 December, we were sitting with the brother of freelance journalist al-Husseiny Abu Daif, when he received an urgent call and rushed out. Later that day,the journalist passed away. He had been shot in the head just after 2am on 6 December in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace, where he was documenting the violence from amongst the President’s opponents. According to his friend Mahmoud Abdel Qader, who was standing by his side, al-Husseiny Abu Daif was showing him his footage when he was shot.
Tragically, while the factions share similar grief over the loss of loved-ones, there is essentially no meaningful dialogue between them. Each side lays blame and accuses the other of inciting the unrest.
The one thing they seem to agree on is the failure of the security forces to prevent the violence and protect the protesters. It is indeed shocking that security forces stood by, not only when protesters clashed, but also when President Morsi’s supporters detained and beat dozens of people by the Presidential Palace.
This failure on the part of law enforcement officials only seems to deepen the distrust of victims and relatives of those who died or were killed in protests since the “25 January Revolution”.
The night before the referendum took place, Amnesty International delegates went to the working class neighbourhood of Imbaba to meet a number of relatives whose loved-ones were killed during the “25 January Revolution”.
Sayed Ibrahim Abdel Latif, whose son Mohamed, aged 23, was shot dead in protests on 29 January 2011, recounted his relentless struggle for justice, and the pain of seeing those accused of killing his son not only walk free but also be promoted within the ranks of the Ministry of Interior.
While he is determined to escalate his fight for accountability, other victims’ relatives at the meeting expressed their frustrations with the failure of the courts to bring those responsible to justice. They threatened to take the law into their own hands to exact revenge, since they have been unable to obtain justice. They placed little faith in the proposed Constitution and referendum to address their concerns.
This absolute loss of confidence in the judiciary to provide redress to victims was echoed by 16 year-old Mahmoud Mohamed al-Sayid, a member of the 6 April movement and an avid participant in most opposition protests for the past 20 months. We got to his home in the working-class neighbourhood of Dar al-Salam, an informal settlement housing about a million Egyptians, after taking a long ride in a tok-tok, a motored tricycle.
Navigating the dirty, narrow unpaved roads, we were reminded why demands for social justice continue to resonate so strongly during opposition protests in Egypt.
Mahmoud was recovering from multiple gunshot wounds sustained in protests on 20 November 2012, the day his friend Jikka was shot dead during protests on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Ironically, these marked the first anniversary of protests in the same street in 2011, which left 51 people dead. No member of the Egyptian security forces was punished for this tragic loss of life.
When I asked him if he lodged a complaint with the prosecution, Mahmoud shrugged his shoulders, dismissing the judiciary as unable and unwilling to provide justice. He couldn’t wait to recover from his injuries take to the streets once more. Despite her obvious worry about her son’s health and unfinished homework, Mahmoud’s mother Sabrine was visibly proud of his determination to fight for a better Egypt. She wondered: “After this circus of acquittals [of officials accused of killing and injuring protesters], who will guarantee their rights? Who will build a better Egypt?”
In the fog of confusion and division over the country’s political future, the urgency of reforming state institutions – especially the judiciary and the security forces – and rebuilding public trust in their impartiality and independence becomes even more evident.
In the absence of accountability for the seemingly endless cycle of human rights abuses committed during and since the 18 days that brought down Mubarak, similar abuses only risk being repeated and entrenched.
Without accountable security forces and an independent judiciary, divisions among different political factions also risk being played out again in violent street clashes, rather than in the courts or at the ballot box.