CAIRO — Amina Hussein wakes every morning just before sunrise to stock her small cart of vegetables and make her way to the upper middle-class neighborhood of Garden City to peddle her produce.
It’s a meager living, she says, made even more difficult by the bribes she’s found herself paying to local security officials this month.
“It’s a return of what we had under Mubarak,” said the 54-year-old mother of five. “We have to pay bribes so we can sell on this corner or that one. We even have to pay bribes so that we don’t have to pay bigger bribes.”
Across Egypt, human rights groups and NGOs have documented a return of corruption and police brutality. It’s indicative of a bigger problem, said Egyptian pro-democracy activists, of the country’s rapid return to the Mubarak-era policies of a police state. And while many Egyptians supported the return of brutal tactics when they were only used against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, the arrest of prominent pro-democracy activists and bloggers this week has led many to wonder where the police powers will stop.
“In the beginning it was just members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were being arrested so nobody cared, or worse – they cared but did nothing to stop it,” said Ahmed Mansour, a 31-year-old Egyptian activist who said he began organizing protests again this week. “I was maybe guilty of that too in the beginning, but a friend pointed out that they probably weren’t going to stop at the Brotherhood.”
A recent Gallup poll found that eighty percent of Egyptians saw their country as worse off than it was before the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Half believed their country would be even worse off in five years’ time.
“What’s going on now is worse than Mubarak’s times,” Ahmed Helmi, a human rights lawyer, told McClatchy newspapers last month. “There were raids during Mubarak’s times, but never like this. The state security is back, with all its power. The arrests are very random. They want to put their hands on certain people and then tailor charges for them.”
Human rights groups said that more than 3,000 people have been arrested since the military deposed Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party from power on July 3, but Helmi said many arrests go undocumented, and the number could be as high as 10,000.
Earlier this week, Egypt passed a law banning unapproved gatherings of over 10 people — effectively banning the sorts of mass protests that became symbolic of the new, revolutionary Egypt. Hundreds of Egyptian activists took to the streets to protest the protest law, and dozens were arrested.
As the Egyptian activists sat in a downtown Cairo police station awaiting questioning for taking part in the pro-democracy protests, 21 Egyptian women, seven of whom are under the age of 19, were being sentenced to 11 years in prison for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the Egyptian activists who has been arrested, Alaa Abd El Fattah is a key political organizer and blogger whose arrests in 2011 and early 2013 spurred massive online movements calling for his release. Egyptian activists couldn’t help noting that they were forced to bring back the old “Free Alaa” campaigns, and as blogger Amro Ali tweeted, he has become “a political weathervane for state & society. His arrests have correlated with heightened regime insecurity.”
Mansour, the 31-year-old activist, condemned the arrests of activists and the Muslim Brotherhood women. “This is why we started the revolution and now we are back to the beginning,” he said.
Mansour was a regular at the protests that swept Cairo in January 2011, spurred by the slogan “We are all Khaled Said.” Said was a businessman whose brutal death at the hands of police officers in Alexandria became the revolutionaries’ greatest rallying points that year.
“We fought against police brutality and the state apparatus. We fought for free press and democracy and now we have found ourselves with none of the things we fought for,” said Mai Ismael, a student journalist who said she’s now considering switching to another field of study after seeing the crackdown on the Egyptian press in recent months.
Egyptian journalist Aslem Fathy said that just saying the wrong thing to an Egyptian security officer was enough to get a journalist arrested these days.
A reporter for the MBC channel in upper Egypt, Fathy described how he was arrested and brutally beaten by police earlier this month after mentioning his job. Fathy had just dropped off his mother at a doctor’s office in a village in upper Egypt, when he saw that police had surrounded the building and were preventing people from entering the area.
“I went to a police officer and he told me that part of the building had collapsed and no one could enter,” said Fathy.
He said he tried telling the officer that his mother was in the building and then he added that as a reporter he had the right to cover what was happening and ask questions.
“The officer started shouting at me, pushing me with both of his hands,” said Fathy. “He went crazy and started beating me and others around him started beating me too.”
Fathy said he was kept at a police station for two days – tortured the entire time. A video has surfaced showing Fathy being humiliated by police.
“I kept screaming and asking them for mercy,” said Fathy. The police, he said, were infuriated by the rights he believed he had as a journalist.
When he was eventually released, police accused him of assaulting an officer in uniform and the local hospital refused to give him an official report documenting his physical injuries.
Kareem Ennareh, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said that what happened to Fathy has become increasingly common.
“We are hearing more and more stories of this type of brutality and arrest of citizens in recent months, said Ennareh. “The key word here, that seems to make the police crazy, is when someone says in front of them that they want rights. They don’t want to hear this.”