Rory McCarthy, The Guardian
A year ago the Egyptian authorities were talking about political reform, promising to hold fair elections and open up one of the Arab world's more authoritarian regimes. But those days are long gone. Now the government has launched a crackdown against its critics, arresting pro-democracy activists and bringing legal cases against a group of outspoken senior judges.
Yesterday, in the latest clash, police arrested 11 people at a demonstration near a south Cairo court. Three were later released, but the others, who include reform activists and the popular Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, were still being held. Around 48 people remain in custody after arrests in the past two weeks.
Several witnesses said protesters yesterday were beaten by riot police. Demonstrators were there to attend a court case brought against other activists in recent days. In a statement, a group of Egyptian human rights organisations condemned the arrests. "There is an urgent need for serious and hard work, not only to release the detained pro-democracy activists in Egypt but also to hold the perpetrators accountable for these savage practices," it said.
Many of those detained are from Kefaya (Enough), a growing pro-democracy movement that has been organising street protests in recent years.
In the past, Egyptian police have arrested demonstrators and then released them after a few hours. The regime appears to be imposing a new, tougher policy of policing.
The latest crisis began during parliamentary elections in November last year. Usually Egypt's judges are called on to take part in the elections by supervising at the polling stations to prevent fraud. This time a group of several reformist judges, who have lobbied hard for a more independent judiciary and complained about routine state-sponsored vote-rigging in the past, were barred from election monitoring.
The ruling National Democratic Party dominated the election (although the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamic party, took a fifth of the seats even though hundreds of its supporters were rounded up and jailed) and evidence emerged of vote-rigging, frauds involving voter lists and coercion at the polling stations. Several of the senior reformist judges complained in public about the widespread irregularities.
There were already other serious doubts about the regime's reform commitments. Ayman Nour, who challenged President Hosni Mubarak in the first contested presidential election in September last year, was sentenced to five years' hard labour in December on questionable fraud charges.
Then this February, seven of the reformist judges were told they were under investigation and four were accused of "defaming the state". Two of the most outspoken judges have since been called before a disciplinary hearing and may lose their jobs.
Human rights groups are dismayed. "The government is punishing judges just for doing their job," Joe Stork, from Human Rights Watch, said last month. "It should be investigating the widespread evidence of voter intimidation, not shooting the messengers who reported the fraud."
There have been street protests and arrests in Cairo many times before, but such a public confrontation with the judges is unusual and may escalate in the months to come. Several more demonstrations are planned in the city for the weeks ahead.
Hisham al-Bastawisi, one of the two judges now facing a disciplinary hearing, is a deputy head of the Court of Cassation, the highest criminal court in Egypt. "Everybody realises what is happening," he said in an interview with the Guardian before the latest arrests. "It is a political action taken against us because we demanded reform. They are pushing us and we are pushing them. In the future we will have our reform, but we will have to pay a price."