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EGYPT: Anger Grows Over Slow Pace of Justice

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Jul 4 2011 (IPS) - The violence that engulfed downtown Cairo last week and left over 1,000 civilians injured took everyone by surprise, but was not unexpected. It had been brewing for nearly five months.

On Wednesday morning, Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square appeared much as it did during the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. Tear gas lingered in the air, hastily erected metal barricades blocked access roads, and the streets were littered with chunks of pavement, broken glass and spent tear gas canisters.

“It was January 25 all over again,” said one man nursing a bandaged arm, referring to the historic day that Egypt’s uprising began. “Mubarak is gone, but nothing has changed. The police are still using the same brutal tactics.”

The clashes began during a memorial service for people killed during the revolution after a group of the victims’ families arrived to complain that they were not invited to the ceremony. A scuffle broke out when the group tried to force its way into the theatre where the service was being held.

Eyewitnesses say police beat and arrested the families who had been barred from joining the service. One video taken near the theatre and quickly posted on YouTube allegedly shows an unarmed relative of a revolution martyr being tackled to the ground, beaten and tasered by a group of police and plainclothes officers.

“When I saw that video it made my blood boil,” says student Randa Hashem.

As word spread that police had used excessive force on the “families of the martyrs of the revolution,” protests erupted on the other side of the Nile near the interior ministry and Tahrir Square. Social media sites buzzed with activists’ calls to join the protests, and when truckloads of overzealous riot police arrived the situation quickly spiralled out of control.

Over 1,000 protesters and 40 security personnel were injured in overnight clashes by a barrage of tear gas, rocks, Molotov cocktails, and rubber bullets.

Egyptian authorities blamed thugs hired by remnants of the old regime for inciting the turmoil, possibly as payback for a recent court decision to dissolve local councils. Activists who earned their stripes during Egypt’s revolution say the only thugs they saw were those working with the police.

“Do I look like a thug?” asks Mohamed Habib, a bespectacled actuary who was in a downtown café when the fighting broke out. “This was people venting because the new regime is the same as the old regime.”

Many Egyptians are frustrated by the slow pace of reform since the military removed Mubarak in February. They are particularly angered by the perceived laxity in prosecuting former regime officials who orchestrated attacks on protesters during Egypt’s uprising that left at least 846 dead and 6,400 injured.

Only one police officer accused of killing protesters has been sentenced. He was tried in absentia and is still at large.

Families whose loved ones were killed in the revolution have complained of unacceptable delays in the trial of former interior minister Habib El-Adly and his aides, who allegedly ordered security forces, thugs and snipers to use deadly force. On Jun. 26, a Cairo court adjourned the high-profile trial for the third time, prompting the angry families to toss stones at a truck they suspected was carrying El-Adly away from the courthouse.

Meanwhile, Mubarak has yet to see a courtroom. The 83-year-old former dictator – accused of embezzlement, abuse of power, and ordering the killing of protesters – remains in a military hospital in the Red Sea Resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh. Many Egyptians suspect he is faking or exaggerating various health conditions to avoid trial.

“Mubarak’s first court appearance isn’t scheduled until August,” says Habib. “Why is it taking so long?”

The glacial pace of trials involving senior officials from the former regime contrasts with the hasty trials of citizens arrested since the start of the uprising.

Egyptian military courts have handed down sentences to thousands of civilians since February, say rights lawyers. Most court sessions last just five minutes and lack the elements of a fair trial. Sentences are severe and cannot be appealed.

“It is inexplicable that civilians, including protesters arrested during peaceful demonstrations, are being tried in unfair military courts, while those responsible for murdering over 800 protesters will stand before civil courts,” says Adel Ramadan, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

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