Egypt Widens Crackdown and Meaning of ‘Islamist’

Cairo - Having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian authorities have begun cracking down on other dissenters, sometimes labeling even liberal activists or labor organizers as dangerous Islamists.

Ten days ago, the police arrested two left-leaning Canadians — one of them a filmmaker specializing in highly un-Islamic movies about sexual politics — and implausibly announced that they were members of the Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group backing the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. In Suez this month, police and military forces breaking up a steelworkers strike charged that its organizers were part of a Brotherhood plot to destabilize Egypt.

On Saturday, the chief prosecutor ordered an investigation into charges of spying against two prominent activists associated with the progressive April 6 group.

When a journalist with a state newspaper spoke publicly about watching a colleague’s wrongful killing by a soldier, prosecutors appeared to fabricate a crime to punish the journalist. And the police arrested five employees of the religious Web site Islam Today for the crime of describing the military takeover as a coup, security officials said.

Police abuses and politicized prosecutions are hardly new in Egypt, and they did not stop under Mr. Morsi. But since the military takeover last month, some rights activists say, the authorities are acting with a sense of impunity exceeding even the period before the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak.

The government installed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has renewed the Mubarak-era state of emergency removing all rights to due process or protections against police abuse. And police officials have pronounced themselves “vindicated.” They say the new government’s claim that it is battling Islamist violence corroborates what they have been saying all along: that it was Islamists, not the police, who killed protesters before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.

“What is different is that the police feel for the first time in two and a half years, for the first time since January 2011, that they have the upper hand, and they do not need to fear public accountability or questioning,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

In the more than seven weeks since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, security forces have carried out at least three mass shootings at pro-Morsi street protests, killed more than a thousand Morsi supporters and arrested at least as many, actions Ms. Morayef characterized as “massive police abuse on an unprecedented scale.” But even beyond the Islamists, she said, “anyone who questions the police right now is a traitor, and that is a protection that they did not have even in 2010,” when public criticism was tolerated and at least a few complaints were investigated.

Prosecutors had already begun investigating Mohamed ElBaradei, the liberal former United Nations diplomat, for “betraying the public trust.”

President Obama has said the new government is on a “dangerous path” marked by “arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters” and “violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.”

Warning that “our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” the president canceled a planned joint military exercise. He pledged a review of the $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt, and the State Department took steps to hold back some of the roughly $200 million in nonmilitary aid. But mindful of Egypt’s importance in the region, he stopped short of declaring the takeover an illegal “coup” or cutting off the aid, instead urging an early return to democracy.

Officials of the new government insist they are committed to establishing the rule of law, as soon as they overcome what they describe as the mortal threat to Egypt of violence by the Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters of Mr. Morsi.

The police appear to be rounding up Brotherhood members on the basis of their affiliation, without other publicly known evidence of crimes. Mr. Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. But government spokesmen insist that every individual, including Mr. Morsi, will be tried by a court and released if acquitted.

“It is up to the courts,” Nabil Fahmy, the interim foreign minister, said in a recent interview. All will be handled “in accordance with the rule of law,” he said.

But some of the recent charges, like those against the two Canadians, strain credibility. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian physician with Palestinian roots and a history as a liberal and pro-Palestinian activist, was in Egypt on his way to the Gaza Strip to provide training to Palestinian doctors. John Greyson, a liberal Toronto filmmaker whose work often focuses on cosmopolitan sexual themes, was with him, documenting the trip for a possible movie. A lawyer for the two said they were stopped at a checkpoint near a street battle, trying to walk back to their hotel after the 7 p.m. curfew.

“They were just in the wrong place at very much the wrong time,” the lawyer, Khaled El-Shalakany, said Saturday.

The exact circumstances of their arrest were unclear. In a public statement, Egyptian prosecutors accused them of “participating with members of the Muslim Brotherhood” in an armed assault on a police station and “taking part in bloody crimes of violence.” Prosecutors told reporters at the time that the police had detained 240 Brotherhood “members,” including two Canadians. (Mr. Shalakany said they remained in jail as “overwhelmed” prosecutors tried to deal with a backlog of hundreds of arrests in the crackdown.)

At the Suez steel plant, workers started a sit-in several weeks ago over compensation, health care and the firing of about a dozen employees. On Aug. 12, state news media reported that the Egyptian military had tried to force an end to the strike, arresting two of its leaders. “They picked the ones with beards!” a bystander shouts in a video of the arrests.

An army statement at the time used unmistakable coded language to blame the Islamists, charging that “infiltrating elements” who were “exploiters of religion” were trying to poison the workers’ meetings “in the name of religion.”

A state-run newspaper quoted the interim labor minister, Kamal Abu Eita, saying that security forces had found Brotherhood members from another factory involved in the strike. A privately owned newspaper supporting the military takeover, Youm El Saba, quoted Mr. Eita blaming the Brotherhood for inciting strikes in several cities.

Among some supporters of the new government, “Islamist” has become a popular indictment. After Mr. Obama criticized Egypt’s crackdown on the Islamists, Tahani el-Gebali, a former judge close to the military, publicly accused him of having ties to the Brotherhood, claiming his Kenyan half brother directed investments for the group.

The activists with the April 6 group being investigated for spying, Asmaa Mahfouz and Esraa Abdel Fattah, were associated with the group when it was working in opposition to Mr. Mubarak. State news media reports on Saturday indicated the charges were a revival of old allegations that the group had worked on behalf of Western powers to stir unrest in Egypt. The notion was first floated by Mubarak intelligence agencies and the generals who succeeded him, no evidence has emerged to support the claims, and the group has denied the charges.

The journalist who spoke out about his colleague’s killing had been driving with the colleague, Tamer Abdel Raouf, the head of the local office of the official newspaper, Al Ahram, in the delta province of Beheira. When their car was at a checkpoint, soldiers enforcing the 7 p.m. curfew shot and killed Mr. Abdel Raouf.

The authorities have granted journalists a curfew exemption, and Mr. Abdel Raouf was driving a car bearing an official press badge from a meeting with the governor. A military spokesman offered no apology, only condolences, and warned others not to try to speed through checkpoints.

The next day, the journalist who had been in the passenger seat, Hamed al-Barbari, began giving television interviews contradicting the spokesman. Rather than speeding, Mr. Barbari said, his colleague was shot in the head while slowly turning his car in response to a soldier’s instructions. “A foolish act” by one soldier, said Mr. Barbari, who was injured when the car crashed.

About two hours after he spoke, a prosecutor arrested Mr. Barbari in the hospital and placed him in custody for four days, for allegedly possessing an illegal shotgun in the car at the time of the episode.

Prosecutors set a court date to begin investigating a citizen complaint against Mr. ElBaradei after he quit as vice president to protest the police violence against the Islamists. (A conviction could carry only a fine, and he had already left the country.)

Last week, a prosecutor even opened an investigation into some of the young organizers behind the protests calling for the military to remove Mr. Morsi. The prosecutor was weighing a complaint of “disturbing the public order” because they criticized the release from prison of Mr. Mubarak.

Such a case would be an attack on the new government’s first supporters. Prosecutors have not yet begun a full investigation of the complaint and could still set it aside.

“It is ridiculous,” said Mai Wahba, a leader of the group.