Egyptian Protests Day 3: Next Steps

January 27, 2011

Amid the third day of protests in Egypt, casualties and detentions are increasing: Today the brunt seems to be in the Suez region where Twitter reports indicate live ammo is being used by security forces.

Detentions over the three days now top over 1,000, according to Egyptian activists groups.  The arrested and injured include reporters both for Egyptian and Western media.

The Mubarak regime is still talking as strongly as it did three days ago, but among the activists in the Egyptian street there is one key consensus: The fear is gone.

There have been large demonstrations in Egypt before.  This was not the Muslim Brothers, despite the government’s efforts to strike fear in the West by blaming the protests on them.  This was not labor, nor the lawyers guild nor college students, though all have been active.

This was a protest that crossed class, ideology and religion, and that is what scares the government, so long used to successfully playing divide and conquer among the opposition groups. “The psychological barrier of fear has been broken,”  Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center told the Washington Post, a comment repeated by several others. “Eighty million Egyptians saw [Tuesday’s protests]. They saw that it’s okay to come out and that there is safety in numbers.”

For human rights activists, there are immediate and long-term issues to address.  The first is to renew Amnesty’s call Tuesday for the government to stop the crackdown on protesters and to end reckless responses by police and security officials.

The second is to get immediate attention to the thousands detained in Egyptian prisons.  The period immediately following arrest is frequently a period when prisoners are at greatest risk for abuse and torture in Egypt.  The government must either release the detained or present recognizably criminal charges and grant them unfettered access to legal assistance, family members and if necessary medical treatment.

Long-term there are many changes Amnesty has long demanded in Egypt, including the end of unfair trials, administrative detention and torture.  But all these abuses start with the State of Emergency law, which has been in place for more than 30 years.  It has to end now.

And here in the United States there is work to do.  State Department officials have scrambled in the past day to make stronger statements urging restraint by the Egyptian government.  To Egyptian activists these are too little, too late.  Many bloggers and twitters feeds are noting the tear gas canisters being used against protesters are being made in the United States.

The US government’s approach to Egyptian opposition groups for years has been clumsy and poorly thought out, angering many Egyptians who should be allies.  Regardless of the result of the protests, the US government can’t go back to the status quo.

Follow updates from Egypt through the Twitter hashtag #Jan25.