The Egyptian authorities must uphold the right to peaceful assembly and protect protesters and bystanders from violence, Amnesty International said today ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations this weekend.
Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi are expected to take to the streets en masse in cities across Egypt to mark his first year in office on 30 June, with his supporters holding counter-rallies.
"Given the appalling track record in policing demonstrations, it is absolutely imperative that the Egyptian authorities issue very clear instructions to security forces to uphold protesters’ right to freedom of assembly and refrain from unnecessary or excessive force," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.
“They should make clear that anyone responsible for arbitrary and abusive force will be brought to justice.”
President Morsi in a speech to the nation on Wednesday called for the respect of non-violence during protests, while mandating his Ministry of Interior to create a special unit to combat “thuggery”, a vaguely worded “offence” previously used against protesters.
Since President Morsi was elected, about 80 people have been killed during protests and other political violence, mainly as a result of the use of unnecessary and excessive force by security forces.
The authorities have vowed to protect “citizens” and “property” ahead of this weekend's expected demonstrations. Armed forces have been deployed in cities across Egypt, with the Minister of Defence saying the army would "intervene" if the situation deteriorates.
Officials at the Ministry of Interior also warned that a “shoot to kill” policy would be employed to foil attempted prison breakouts during the protests.
“Granting a licence to kill to security forces that have time and time again demonstrated their brutality and acted above the law sends out a clear and dangerous message that they can continue to use lethal force with impunity,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Amid increasing social and political polarization in Egypt, supporters of the president have repeatedly made inflammatory remarks in the run-up to the protests including at an event attended by the president, from which he has failed to disassociate himself.
"We are concerned that the government's silence about inflammatory discourse will be interpreted by the president’s supporters as a blank cheque to attack opposition protesters. This is particularly troubling given the systemic failure of the army and security forces to protect protesters," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
On 26 June, the Public Prosecutor issued a statement confirming citizens’ right to apprehend individuals committing acts of violence or “thuggery” and hand them over to officials.
“Granting ordinary individuals powers to apprehend others in this highly polarized climate with tensions boiling might be a recipe for disaster” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
In December 2012, the president’s supporters apprehended, beat, interrogated and detained dozens of individuals they accused of violence before handing them over the Public Prosecution.
“It is time for President Morsi to live up to his countless promises to be a ‘President to all Egyptians’," added Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. "It is the duty of the Egyptian President and government to prevent incitement to violence and to protect all protesters, regardless of their views and political affiliation.”
1. Polarized society
The planned protests are taking place against a backdrop of increasing social and political polarization in Egypt.
In recent weeks, mounting tensions between supporters and opponents of the president have led to sporadic, violent clashes across Egypt, in which scores of people on both sides have been injured, and at least five supporters of the president have reportedly been killed. Their killings must be impartially and independently investigated, with a view of bringing those responsible to justice in proceedings meeting international standards of fair trial.
During the build-up to the 30 June protests, the Tamarud (“Rebellion”) campaign has announced that it has collected 15 million signatures of Egyptian citizens stating they withdraw their confidence in the president and calling for early elections.
It has called for mass peaceful protests on 30 June, a call reiterated by most opposition parties and movements.
A counter-campaign Tagarud (“impartiality”) has also announced the collection of millions of signatures in support of the president. The president’s supporters dismissed the Tamarud campaign as undemocratic, illegitimate and seeking to achieve its aims through violent means.
Such claims have been repeated countless times by the members of the ruling party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as well as the affiliated Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement and their supporters, despite the main opposition parties and movements explicitly calling for peaceful demonstrations.
A number of religious political forces, including the Salafi Front and the al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, have announced the formation of vigilante groups to protect property and arrest “thugs” and hand them over to the authorities.
2. History of violence
Since the start of the “25 January Revolution” Egyptian security forces, including members of the police, the Central Security Forces (Egypt’s riot police) and military police, have used unnecessary and excessive force against protesters.
They have used tear gas, batons, rubber bullets and live ammunition, including shotgun pellets, to forcibly disperse protesters, and on several occasions have driven armoured vehicles into packed crowds resulting in numerous deaths and injuries.
Mass protests in November-December 2012 were beset by violence between supporters and opponents of President Morsi. They culminated in clashes around the Presidential Palace in Cairo in which the security forces’ failed to stop or defuse the violence.
Security forces in Egypt have violated international human rights law and standards by repeatedly using intentional lethal force when it was not strictly necessary to protect life, leading to heavy casualties among protesters, bystanders and prisoners.
3. No accountability
Despite repeated requests by Amnesty International among others, the Egyptian authorities are yet to make public the internal rules issued to the security forces on the use of force, or details of their chain of command.
Calls to overhaul the security apparatus to remove those reasonably suspected of committing human rights violations and prevent further abuse have also gone unheeded.
Instead the Shura Council, the Upper House of Parliament, is seeking to adopt repressive legislation that would allow for the dispersal of peaceful protests with the use of water cannon, tear gas and batons.