Egypt and the Volcano

April 19, 2010

Last week, as a volcano erupted in Iceland, there was a disruption of another kind in Egypt.  Non-violent political opposition groups throughout the country took to the streets to demand political reform and were met with violent repression by police and security officials.

The story is not new.  For three decades, the Mubarak government has used State of Emergency powers to muzzle the vibrant civil society in Egypt.  In the name of stability, and more recently the war on terror, the government has succeeded in using harassment, detention and arrests as a way of silencing opponents.

But Egyptian civil society is too strong for the government to entirely succeed.  The pattern is periods of quiet marked by surprisingly strong moments of public demonstration – frequently just before elections – met by official violence.

You see these peaks of opposition activity that get crushed, and then it flares up and gets crushed again, but the flares get a little higher each time and Mubarak gets a little older and more ill, and in my worst fears Egypt will be like that volcano in Iceland. One day we’ll find all that talk about Mubarak providing stability has only masked how the failure to provide human rights and political reform leads to a greater disruption that has ramifications throughout the region.

Amnesty International has watched the events closely.  On April 6, more than 90 people were detained in Cairo for taking part in demonstrations calling for political reform. Many others were beaten by security forces. A week later, police violently repressed another anti-government demonstration in Cairo on Tuesday, beating and injuring demonstrators with batons and detaining and abusing at least one.

Then today comes news that takes the concerns to an even higher level. Egyptian MP and member of the ruling party Hassan Nash’at el-Qassas is reported to have urged the police to shoot protesters that have been calling for political reform over the last several weeks.

“I don’t know why the Interior Ministry is so lenient with those who break the law,” he is reported to have said in a parliamentary meeting, referring to protesters. “…Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them; they deserve it.”

The comment is irresponsible at any time, but under the current conditions of heightened official repression, the fear is it will give carte blanche to security forces that already act under a wide degree of impunity.

Change will come to Egypt.  It’s in the country’s interest that it comes through the efforts of the brave people willing to stand up for political reform and human rights.  If it doesn’t, well, we have the example of the volcano.

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