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Sharif Kouddous & Lina Attalah on Egypt’s Media, Sectarianism & State Violence from Mubarak to Morsi

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New revelations have emerged in Egypt that members of the army participated in the forced disappearance, torture and killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Despite the allegations, President Mohamed Morsi has declined to prosecute any officers since he assumed power from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after his election in June. The disclosures come amidst growing sectarian violence in Egypt between Muslims and Coptic Christians. We discuss the latest with Democracy Now! correspondent and Nation Institute fellow Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Lina Attalah, chief editor of Egypt Independent, a Cairo-based English-language newspaper and website. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 25, 2013Sharif Abdel Kouddous: On Egyptian Revolution’s 2nd Anniversary, Protesters’ Demands Mostly the Same
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Egypt, where there are new revelations that members of the army participated in the forced disappearance, torture and killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The details are included in a report submitted to President Mohamed Morsi by his own hand-picked committee. The report is not yet public, but The Guardian obtained a copy of a chapter that examines the crimes against civilians, beginning with the army’s first deployment to the streets. More than a thousand people went missing during the 18 days of the revolution. Many later turned up in Egypt’s morgues, either shot or bearing signs of torture. Despite the allegations, President Morsi has declined to prosecute any officers since he assumed power from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after his election in June. But the leaked chapter recommends that he investigate the highest ranks of the military to determine who was responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Mubarak and his former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, are set to return to court Saturday to face charges that they were responsible for killing protesters during the uprising.

For more, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, fellow at the Nation Institute. He’s usually based in Cairo but happily joins us here in our New York studio, along with Lina Attalah, chief editor of Egypt Independent, a Cairo-based English-language newspaper and website.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sharif, talk about this explosive new report.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s an interesting report. The most explosive part of it is that it was conducted by a fact-finding commission that was handpicked by the president himself. Many local Egyptian human rights groups have long documented abuses by the army. These abuses were also broadcast internationally when we had things like forced so-called virginity tests on March 9th; protesters arrested in Tahrir; perhaps one of the bloodiest incidents in the past two years, the killing of 27 people, mostly Coptic Christian demonstrators, in downtown Cairo on October 9th; and, of course, the putting of 12,000 civilians on military trial, more than Mubarak’s three decades in power. So, military abuses have been long known in Egypt. What is significant is that this is a commission handpicked by Morsi, and it puts pressure on the government to put the army officers on trial.

However, the Constitution that we have in Egypt, that was drafted by a body dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies and passed in a controversial referendum, ensures that the military can only be tried in a military tribunal. Only army members—army members can only be put on trial by military tribunal, which, you know, finding justice in that system will be very, very difficult.

And also, this comes in the wake of another leak of the same report last month to the Associated Press that found that police in Egypt killed nearly all of the 900 protesters that were killed in the 18-day uprising. Again, this is not news to Egyptians, who saw with their eyes police killing people. But this is evidence that—and puts pressure on the government and the prosecutor general to hold those accountable who committed these crimes and to stop this lack of justice and continuation of impunity in Egypt for these crimes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what does the Constitution say about the police, as distinct from the military? Are they also—are they also subject to civilian courts or military courts?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: They’re—civilian courts. And over the past two years, hundreds of police officers have been acquitted by this court system that has completely failed to hold anybody accountable. So, you know, the Constitution gave the military everything it wanted and more. And one of those was that its members would only be tried in a military tribunal.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the leaked report, investigators found members of the armed forces detained a number of civilians at a checkpoint outside Cairo who have not been seen again. It said, quote, “The committee found that a number of citizens died during their detention by the armed forces and that they were buried in indigent graves, as they were considered unidentified.” The report added authorities did not investigate, despite evidence of injuries and severe torture. Lina Attalah, can you talk more about that?

LINA ATTALAH: Like Sharif said, we are not surprised by these results, although these results, with the level of detail they offer, they present important corroborative evidence that implicate the army in the killing of protesters during the revolution. And this changes the dominant narrative that basically the army has protected the revolution and if it wasn’t for the army intervention it would have been a bloodbath back on 28 January, 2011. So this is very important at a time when the political situation in Egypt is very unstable, and there is a lot of talk about the potential return of the army in order to solve the current political stalemate. If anything, it reminds people that the military rule is as problematic as the current Islamist regime, and it also brings to all our attention the very critical issue of impunity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lina, when you talk about the continuing unstable situation, I’d like to ask you about this whole issue of sectarian violence, of the increasing violence between Coptic Christians and Muslims, and how that is affecting the general democracy movement in Egypt.

LINA ATTALAH: So, we have seen in the last few days another wave of violence against Christians in a small village outside of Cairo. And we’ve seen also that in the aftermath of this violence, during the funeral, the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, which is an important symbol of Christian faith, has also been attacked during the funeral, which is—which is a grave violation. If anything, it tells us that the current regime, like the previous one, acts with a lot of carelessness and nonchalance towards the question of sectarianism that is extremely prevalent in Cairo, in Egypt, and that is both representative of a societal problem but also further fueled by the state not acting responsibly in bringing those responsible to justice.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And also, just to add to that, sectarianism is a problem, a longstanding problem, in Egypt that’s regularly been swept under the carpet by regimes, successive regimes, saying this is—these are isolated incidents by outside forces seeking to destabilize the country, and not acknowledging this problem. And with the current regime, you know, there’s been members of the Muslim Brotherhood that have taken to the airwaves and used sectarian language that helps create this environment where this kind of violence can happen. Mohamed el-Beltagy, who is a leading Brotherhood member, who was seen for years as a reformist member of the group, in November, when there were clashes—or, sorry, in December, when there were clashes at the presidential palace, said that, you know, over 60 percent of the people protesting the president were Christian. The online—Ikhwanweb, which is the online site for the Muslim Brotherhood, has regularly accused Christians of trying to sabotage elections and things of this nature. So, it’s this kind of language that has helped to foment this violence, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the Egyptian President Morsi withdrew complaints against several journalists who were under investigation for allegedly insulting him and the Muslim faith. But the popular television satirist, the comedian Bassem Youssef, is among those still facing charges. This is a clip of Youssef speaking last month on his weekly show.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: [translated] What do have planned for us, Mr. President? And I’d also like to ask him on the renaissance program. I do not have any personal vendettas against anyone; on the contrary, it would be an honor for me to host any of those I criticize. It would be a success for myself and also a success for freedom of thought and expression, as it would send a message to the people that they, the Muslim Brotherhood, are in power, they accept criticism. And once they leave the show, I still criticize them. This happens all over the world, so why can’t it be for us?

AMY GOODMAN: That was the popular Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef. The U.S. says the charges come as Egypt has failed to investigate cases of extreme police brutality against protesters while continuing its crackdown on freedom of expression. We’re going to turn right now to Jon Stewart, yes, comedian Jon Stewart here in the United States, who was defending Bassem Youssef earlier this month on The Daily Show. This is Jon Stewart addressing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

JON STEWART: Come on! Charging Bassem Youssef with insulting Egypt and Islam? I know Bassem. Bassem is my friend, my brother. There are two things he loves in this world with all his heart: Egypt and Islam—and his family. Three things. There’s three—and what is that flat bread with the cheese? It’s tart. It’s like a white—it’s not baba ganoush. It’s like—there’s four things that he loves. My point is, Bassem Youssef loves Egypt so much, he chooses to live there, even though some crazy guy is threatening to arrest him. Oh, right. But by the way, without Bassem and all those journalists and bloggers and brave protesters who took to Tahrir Square to voice dissent, you, President Morsi, would not be in a position to repress them. For someone who spent time in jail yourself—for someone—for someone who spent time in jail yourself, under Mubarak, you seem awfully eager to send other people there for the same non-crimes. And just like you, they will only emerge from prison stronger and more determined. So, all sending comedians and bloggers to prison accomplishes is lowering the quality of prison yard athletics.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jon Stewart talking about Bassem Youssef. The significance of Youssef?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, he’s got one of the most popular programs in Egypt and uses satire, much like Jon Stewart does on The Daily Show, to lampoon and to make fun of the current regime, mostly, the Islamist president. And this is something very hard to retaliate against—humor. It’s a weapon that’s been used by many people in Egypt to challenge the regime. And we saw, you know, these charges of insulting the president and—that have been used against many journalists and activists, as well, to clamp down on dissent. Bassem Youssef is someone who’s known around the world—Jon Stewart knows him—and he’s someone probably who will not be jailed because of his high profile. But there’s many activists in Egypt who are facing serious jail time. One of them is Hassan Mustafa, an activist in Alexandria who received a two-year jail sentence for allegedly slapping a prosecutor. And many eyewitnesses around them deny those charges, as does he. And, of course, many, many people arrested, killed during demonstrations, who don’t get this kind of—this coverage. So, you know, this is—again, Stewart put it very well, saying that these are the people—many of them elected Morsi against his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, who represented the military establishment and a return to the former regime, and now he’s cracking down on them. So…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Lina, you also edit a newspaper and an online news site. What is life like in Egypt today for the press compared to under Mubarak? And what are the challenges that you’re facing right now in being able to get accurate news and information out to the people?

LINA ATTALAH: Well, while of course currently we’re enjoying a dynamic political scene that is making us write and report about Egypt in many more creative ways than before, one of the problems, besides of course the political and legislative limitations that are cast upon the media landscape in Egypt, there are also a lot of economic—economic challenges that also, in a way, mask a deeper political problem. So, a lot of the media in Egypt, if not controlled by the state, are controlled by business conglomerates who do not have real business development models for our newspapers and our television channels, and they highly depend on the subsidization of these businessmen. So the moment a businessman loses interest in a particular medium, no matter how successful this medium has become, what happens is that it faces the threat of closure, which is actually the story of Egypt Independent, for which I’m working and which we are working hard on trying to save, because we think we present a very important narrative both in Egypt and outside of Egypt about the situation that cannot otherwise be provided by only international journalists, for example.

AMY GOODMAN: How can you save it?

LINA ATTALAH: We are basically trying to develop an alternative business model, which basically entices a lot of our readers to contribute to the survival of the paper through a subscription drive. And this is also to open up a culture whereby readers should share the ownership of their media and not just leave them to the subsidization and the control of the businessmen. And in a way, of course, Democracy Now! is an inspiration for us.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is it for you as a woman? How is it for you to report in Egypt? And the climate for women overall?

LINA ATTALAH: It has been, of course, challenging, as much as it has been for men, particularly covering clashes, covering incidents of violence, where, you know, there is much chaos and there is not much security in there. So we basically, all of us, endanger ourselves for the sake of getting the story out. There are, of course, some additional threats for women with regards to mounting reports about sexual violence, particularly around Tahrir Square. But we also should remember that the question of sexual violence has been there for a longer time and should be addressed both politically and socially. But in general, I would say it has been as challenging as it has been for men to cover the Egypt story with honesty.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sharif, we just have about a minute, but I wanted to ask you about the impact of outside forces on the Egyptian economy. There was a recent controversy over an IMF loan, and then Qatar and Libya have suddenly come in to offer aid to Egypt. What’s the impact of these outside players on Egypt’s situation?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. Egypt’s economic crisis centers largely around foreign currency reserves, of which we’ve lost about 20 billion in trying to support the pound. And this is a real crisis. And so, Qatar has stepped in with $5 billion and just a couple of days ago agreed to inject an additional $3 billion into the economy. Libya, a country which went through a civil war, is giving Egypt $2 billion. Saudi Arabia has given one billion. Turkey has given two billion. Without these—this kind of—these cash injections, Egypt would have gone under. And so, we’re still under the—going for these negotiations for a $4.8 billion IMF loan, which would entail a government reform package that would include austerity measures, subsidy cuts, tax hikes, which continue many of the same neoliberal economic policies that stirred up this revolt in the first place.

And let me just add quickly, on Egypt Independent, the importance of an outlet like this is that local Egyptian journalists, who have the knowledge of their country, can tell their story to the world through outlets like Egypt Independent, instead of being fixers for Western journalists and having that narrative translated through someone else. So, this is the importance of an outlet like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, and Lina Attalah, chief editor of the Egypt Independent . In fact, we’re going to have a conversation Friday night at New York University Cantor Film Center at 6:00. I’ll be moderating. Check out our website at democracynow.org. And Democracy Now! has a job opening for an annual giving manager.

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