The helplessness of the unknown

Anti-government protests continue in Egypt © Gigi Ibrahim

By the Amnesty International Team in Cairo

We were interviewing a father who lost his 16 year old son in the recent unrest when news of the arrest of our colleagues reached us.

They were visiting a national human rights organization, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), when their offices were raided by the military police. The HMLC and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, based in the same building, have been leading efforts to provide legal and medical help to protesters camped out in Central Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the last 10 days.

It is hard to describe the feeling of utter helplessness of being so geographically close but not knowing where they are or who is holding them. All we could do was make frantic phone calls, including to human rights defenders in Egypt also trying to locate their friends and colleagues.

From their side, colleagues at the International Secretariat and Amnesty International sections throughout the world are doing their utmost to secure the release of our two colleagues and the other human rights activists arrested at the same time, ending their families’ torment and anxiety.

We could already feel this morning arriving back to Cairo from Mahalla, an industrial city in the Nile Delta, that tensions were rising. When we reached Imbaba, a working class neighbourhood in Giza, we were first met by a climate of distrust. Who are these strangers to the area looking for information about the unrest? Are they pro-Mubarak? Are they pro-opposition? Are they journalists? What are they planning to do with this information?

After we explained as best as we could and showed our identification, the tension dissipated somehow and people started sharing their stories. Stories of suffering even from before the unrest started – mostly around the abuse by local police and officials, of corruption, and of difficult living conditions. Understandably, the family was shaken by the loss of their son, a high school student, killed instantly on Saturday night by an unknown assailant in a drive-by shooting down the road from the family home. They told us that even though nothing will bring back their son, they are determined to keep up their fight for truth and justice until they get answers and a proper remedy. Despite their own pain, they emphasized that their son is one victim; and that at least 6 others from Imbaba were shot dead during the unrest. They said that they will turn for help to national lawyers to help them raise an official complaint with the judiciary, once it is functional again.

Lawyers at the HMLC are among those in Egypt who have worked tirelessly for years to defend the rights of victims of human rights violations. They have been supporting detainees held without charge or trial under the emergency law – in place since Mubarak came to power some 30 years ago – as well as union activists, workers and others, detained for expressing their views and demanding their rights. Some HMLC staff have already been targeted for their human rights work. Today’s arrests confirmed that despite promises of reform by President Hosni Mubarak, old habits never die.

Being here for the past few days, we witnessed the different methods used by the authorities to quell the anti-government protests: promises of change, violence, intimidation, and the dissemination of fear and a sense of insecurity.  The authorities also mounted an intense media war, involving the mobilization of state resources to spread an ultra-nationalist discourse, describing opposition to Mubarak as treason to the nation, the crackdown on independent voices including foreign journalists and the severing of access to information.

In anticipation of the protests planned for tomorrow – dubbed the “ Friday of Departure [ of Mubarak]” – the crackdown on those seen as organizing, supporting, reporting on and of course participating in protests has intensified. Eyewitnesses told us that at about 5pm today, snipers located on top of the Ramsis Hilton Hotel were shooting at protesters in Tahrir square; and that at least two have died on the spot. Despite this and the confrontations with pro-Mubarak protesters a day earlier leaving several dead and hundreds wounded, protesters seem undeterred. At about 6:45 pm, we heard slogans “ Depart!”, “ Depart!”, “ Depart!” echoing through Central Cairo in reference to President Hosni Mubarak.

It is hard to predict what tomorrow will bring. As Egypt holds its breath, we can only hope for the safety of our colleagues, those held in connection with the protests, and those spending the night in Tahrir Square in defiance of the curfew and clear security risks.

Posted in Censorship and Free Speech, Egypt, Human Rights Defenders and Activists, International Organizations | 10 Comments

  1. Jivana says:

    I feel great compassion for the losses that are taking place and yet there are always losses in times such as these. There are no words but awe in such situations. I wish for the best for the people -and that’s all I feel I can say. My thoughts are with you.

  2. Àngels says:

    I hope they will safe soon be released!!

  3. aDelphinium says:

    I pray for the safe return of your colleagues and thank you for the work you do.

  4. Mandy Mack says:

    A really powerful article. I am in awe of the courage of Egyptian protesters, and I am so glad that AI is there with their voice of authority to report and protect. With the hope that your colleagues will be found safe and well … thank you AI.

  5. Mixie1897 says:

    Shocking brazen attack on the people who could actually help Gov’ts situation, human rights & journalists. Thoughts and prayers with your Amnesty colleagues and Journalists. If there was any doubt before, Intrn’l Community must pushfor change in the Gov’t and democracy for the people.

  6. Orwel12011 says:

    These outrageous, brutal attacks on the Egyptian people, peaceful protesters, foreign and Egyptian journalists by the Egyptian government’s secret police and security services is a significant human rights violation. If the regime of Mubarak remains in power President Obama and Congress must withdraw financial and military assistance and the U.N. must enact sanctions.

  7. kweya says:

    dear friend or administrator i’m african boy but in africa many president want to be a king in their office because they are miind only to them family , the region, their village, and thief the lot of money to prepare more thing about thir clan system. but we have a right to tell them no with a right a pacific reclamation of democratie.i’m a member who have more to learn about politic system of africa includ my country. only them system clan have right to work in office, learn ,and have course to a big university of world .even if u have must intelligent, you can’t go there. i tell we true . since 30 september i have visa to go learn in ukraine at kiev. i don’t have any person in my country to give my transport tiket, and school money only 4000 euro to go there learn in national aviation university. please amnesty give we trong and opportunity to go learn , and teache more to we are friends. to refuse any didator for dirigeant of any country in africa. the pacific revolt is good like egypt help any person there.

  8. kweya says:

    please don’t leave we friend in egypt , because hosni must kill them please do all to take remove them there ,please listeern me and help me to join university before the 17 february 2011. to become a member of world decision and give my point of view to any decision about aviation and we solide organisation. please don’t leave any person to egypt call the human right to condition this please. i send to webmaster my passport with visa. go and look there please.

  9. Boarder says:

    Just read the press release about Bush + Switzerland. OK AI, let’s do this with Habib al Adli and other creatures from the Egyptian Intelligence and SSI. Let’s make the case adn publicize the $#@% out of it. Now is the time. Calling for an “indpendent impartial investigation” in Egypt under the current situation is…forgive me…kind of a useless formality. Come out strong against the Egyptian SSI and Intelligence, and sooner rather than later.

  10. Mario Lovely says:

    Did you regulate the tea party movement to Washington-, I don’t think so.swtor Power Leveling

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