Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of ousted President Mohamed… (Khalil Hamra/AP )
No one will say how many have died. No one will reveal how many are in prison. There is no agreement even on how many demonstrators turned out Friday for the latest protest against last month’s coup, in an atmosphere fraught with competing figures and misinformation.
A crackdown by Egypt’s new military-backed government has decapitated the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist organization that ran this country for just over a year. As the police state is resurrected, authorities are walling off information on the number of deaths and detentions, and seeking to minimize what remains of the group’s support.
On Friday, thousands took to the streets across the nation in thinning marches in support of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi. Egypt’s Ministry of Health reported that six people were killed and more than a dozen injured when clashes erupted between protesters and civilian opponents in some areas, and marchers and police in others. Security forces fired tear gas and sporadic gunfire at protesters in central Cairo.
But, in a sign of how state and private media have played down any support for Morsi, Egyptian television networks mostly broadcast scenes of empty streets and quiet squares. The Muslim Brotherhood said one demonstrator was killed by police.
After weeks of protests against the coup, the government launched a full-fledged crackdown on Aug. 14, starting with raids on two pro-Morsi sit-ins that left hundreds of civilians dead. Security officials have arrested Muslim Brotherhood members every day since then, including the group’s most prominent official still free — Mohamed Beltagy — on Thursday. But the state has released only partial figures of arrests.
Egypt’s Ministry of Health stopped publishing a total casualty count from the crackdown on Aug. 17 “because of the huge number of deaths,” according to one ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. At that point, more than 900 people had been killed in four days, according to the official tally.
When Egyptians are arrested, they typically face a hearing before a prosecutor within 48 hours to learn whether they will be detained pending possible trial, said Diana Eltahawy, an Egypt researcher for the human rights group Amnesty International. Normally lawyers are allowed access to prosecutors’ offices.
But since the coup, the hearings for alleged Morsi supporters “are taking place inside the places of detention — police stations and prisons,” as well as in riot police camps, Eltahawy said — and the numbers simply aren’t getting out.
Eltahawy said the number of detained has probably surpassed 1,000.
Another activist, Ahmed Mehrif, who directs a Switzerland-based Arab rights group, put the number closer to 2,000. And a Western diplomat, who spoke on the usual condition of anonymity, said it could range from 3,000 to 8,000, most of them “rank and file” members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Morsi supporters unaffiliated with the Islamist group.
In cities and towns across Egypt, police have burst into private homes in a dramatic effort to lock up Brotherhood officials. The scenes are reminiscent of the reign of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when the Muslim Brotherhood was a banned opposition group. But the current crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is even harsher than in that era.
Rights activists and lawyers say the detainees are also picked up at protest marches, or grabbed by vigilantes operating in neighborhood “popular committees” that hand them to security forces.
One plainclothes police officer explained this week: “If we see someone suspicious, we look at their paperwork.” He spoke as he patted down a pedestrian in downtown Cairo, before rifling through the man’s wallet. If the “paperwork is normal,” the people are allowed to continue on their way, he said. If not, they’re taken into custody.
“We make a judgment based on how he looks,” the officer said of the men he stops.
Gen. Hani Abdel Latif, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said this week that his forces had arrested 213 Brotherhood leaders since Aug. 14. That total did not include lower-ranking members. The government has also, in recent days, brought charges against some of Egypt’s most prominent liberal activists for speaking out against police brutality and military rule.
‘A failure of a government’
Egypt’s cabinet is now the only body authorized to issue comprehensive death and injury tolls, health officials said. But it has yet to do so. Cabinet spokespeople did not respond to multiple queries for updated figures.
At the Ministry of Health, an adviser to the minister grew agitated this week when pressed for the number of people killed since security forces raided the pro-Morsi protest camps.