Rights debate reflects blurred lines in Egypt

By Kim Gamel

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 file photo, Egyptian security forces carry the lifeless body of Giza Police Gen. Nabil Farrag, center, who was killed after unidentified militants opened fire on security forces deployed early morning to the town of Kerdasa to drive off suspected Islamists taking control of the town near Giza Pyramids, Egypt.

Ahmed Abdel Fattah, El Shorouk Newspaper, Associated Press

CAIRO — A brutal crackdown on Islamists after a military coup that ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president is posing a dilemma for the country's intellectual elite, which championed greater freedoms during a popular revolt two years ago but now seems largely acquiescent in the wave of arrests and raids targeting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reason: a widespread bitterness over Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi's year in power, further stoked now by a media campaign depicting the clampdown as a fight against terrorism.

The human rights community itself has been split after security forces raided pro-Morsi sit-in camps in Cairo, with many supporting the action despite brutal tactics and the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

Groups criticizing what they call the excessive use of violence against the Brotherhood face smear campaigns in the media and are accused of jeopardizing state security, often by the same pro-democracy activists who acknowledged that Islamists must be included in the political system after the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The dilemma is part of a broader debate about Egypt's stuttering march toward democracy after the popularly supported coup, which redefined alliances forged during the revolution and its aftermath and left many in the international community feeling conflicted about whom to support. Concern about the July 3 toppling of Morsi, his largely incommunicado detention since, and mass arrests of Brotherhood members has threatened U.S.-Egyptian ties, with the Obama administration considering the suspension of millions of dollars in military and economic assistance to Egypt's new rulers.

Rights advocates warn the fears of violence and general weariness after more than two years of turmoil and economic woes could pave the way for the restoration of a Mubarak-style police state. Already, the military-backed interim administration has reinstated a state of emergency law that grants authorities sweeping powers to make arrests and silence critics — along with a curfew in much of the country.

But the majority of Egyptians — including activists who led the protests in 2011, then against the post-Mubarak military rulers in 2012 and finally against Morsi this summer — are giving the army and its chosen government significant leeway, seeing them as the lesser of two evils.

"I'm still against a military regime, but we need the power of the army to save us from the Muslim Brotherhood," said Mohamed Abla, an award-winning artist whose fourth-floor downtown studio in Cairo served as a rest stop for protesters occupying nearby Tahrir Square in 2011. "It's political."

Abla, 60, dismisses complaints that Islamists' rights are being violated, saying he didn't initially oppose the pro-Morsi sit-ins but supported the military crackdown after hearing reports the camps were being armed.

"It is an exceptional time. We really are facing terrorists," he said in his studio, sitting under a painting of a patchwork Cairo high-rise meant to depict the crumbling state of the country under Mubarak. "I hope they don't stop asking for human rights, but they have to be realistic ... The country is facing a big danger."

Sympathy is low for the Islamists among many who accuse them of trying to monopolize power under Morsi. While in office, Morsi pushed police to crack down on protesters, praising security forces after they killed dozens.

But the anti-Islamist fervor has been fanned hotter by a stream of newspaper headlines and TV talk shows that warn of a terrorist threat, pointing to a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and a post-coup wave of attacks on government buildings and churches by Morsi supporters.

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper warned this week that foreign funds are flowing to international organizations to promote "external agendas." Private citizens also have filed legal suits against activists, accusing them of serving foreign agendas or espionage.

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