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Military misconduct

February 10, 2011

Human rights activists accuse the Egyptian army of detaining and torturing pro-democracy demonstrators and others even though the military has up to now largely been seen as a neutral player in the turmoil.

Egyptian soldiers
Some fear soldiers are now being asked to intimidate pro-democracy protestersImage: dapd

Human rights campaigners in Egypt accuse the country's army of being involved in the detention of hundreds, perhaps thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and of torturing some of those in its custody.

The information of the detentions is largely circumstantial, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human rights and civil liberties group founded in 2002.

Hossam Bahgat, the organization's executive director, told Deutsche Welle that his group had heard many eyewitness accounts from people who had been in short-term detention and saw many other political activists, journalists and human rights campaigners who were being held and sometimes tortured.

tanks on street
The army has at times blocked pro and anti-Mubarak demonstrators from clashingImage: dapd

Britain's The Guardian newspaper reported that it had spoken to detainees who say they suffered beatings and other abuse at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organized campaign of intimidation.

"This is a new development and a major deterioration in the human rights situation in Egypt in general," Bahgat said. "It's a slippery slope, getting the army in the business of detaining and torturing people."

He said he received a tip yesterday from a family held on a military base. When the family's lawyer went there to speak with them, he found about 300 people had been detained on the base.

"That's why we think the number of those detained is even larger than we even now know," he said. "While the army has been keeping a public posture of friendliness, the reports we're getting now suggest very serious violations where the army is implicated."

Army's traditional role

Egypt's powerful army has been portrayed in the media in a largely positive light during the ongoing unrest in the country. As protesters have filled the streets over the past weeks demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down, the army has held back, sometimes even serving as a shield between pro-democracy demonstrators and Mubarak supporters.

Images of anti-Mubarak protesters climbing up on army tanks with the approval of soldiers and even embracing them gave the firm impression that, if the military wasn't exactly on the protesters' side, it was at least not actively opposed to their cause.

And many observers have noted that the military will have a decisive role in determining how the current stand-off between the protest movement and the Hosni Mubarak government plays out, not to mention its role in any possible post-Mubarak government.

Mubarak and top officials
The army intimidation could be the result of a regime under increasing pressureImage: dapd

The military is generally well respected in Egypt. It is a conscript army, so its members are drawn from the populace - perhaps even from the same ranks as those who are protesting.

"The military has represented itself and have been seen there at the service of the people," Maha Azzam, a Middle East analyst at the London-based Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle.

"But the reality is that the regime also is from the military. So the situation is becoming more ambivalent," she said.

"There will be an increasing demand from people over time that the army make its position clear."

Young vs. old

That might be difficult for the army to do. According to Azzam and other observers, it appears a generational fault line might have developed within the armed forces.

In general, the higher echelons of the military have been very loyal to the regime. According to Azzam, there has been talk that regime-critical elements of the military have already been weeded out.

The fact that higher-ranking members are often bestowed with privileges and perks from the government, such as cheap land or permission to own factories and run businesses, has created a strong bond - based on financial interest on the one side and security on the other - between the ruling party and the military.

In a recent article in the New York Times, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller described an Egyptian military which is cozy with Mubarak at the top levels, while younger, mid-level officers tend to be contemptuous of their superiors and have sympathy with the protesters.

"It's not a monolith," Bumiller said on US public radio, adding that the situation is worrying, since the army, "which hinges the stability of the county," is divided.

little boy on army tank
The army has at times appeared firmly on the side of the demonstratorsImage: AP

'Journey of fear'

Human Rights Watch says it has documented 119 arrests of civilians by the military but it also agrees that there are likely many more. Dan Williams, a senior researcher at HRW, wrote about the 36 hours he spent in captivity at the hands of the military.

Last week, he along with 27 Egyptian human rights activists, three foreign journalists and another human rights researcher were caught up in a military raid of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a human rights group in Cairo.

He described the experience as a "journey of fear, confusion and brutality" that raised serious questions about where the army stood.

"But in this and other cases … the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been 'outsourced' to other agencies or thugs," he wrote in online news source The Daily Beast.

Whatever side the army is on right now, if Mubarak does step down, the new leader - interim or otherwise - will need the military's support to move forward with a transition.

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn