CAIRO – Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi captured, detained and beat dozens of his political foes last week, holding them for hours with their hands bound on the pavement outside the presidential palace while pressuring them to confess that they had accepted money to use violence in protests against him.
“It was torment for us,” said Yehia Negm, 42, a former diplomat with a badly bruised face and rope marks on his wrists. He said he was among about 50, including four minors, who were detained on the pavement overnight. In front of cameras, “they accused me of being a traitor, or conspiring against the country, of being paid to carry weapons and set fires.”
The abuses have become clear through video footage and victim testimonies that are inflicting a blow to the credibility of Morsi and his Islamist allies as they push forward to this weekend’s referendum on an Islamist-backed draft constitution.
It is impossible to know how much Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, knew about the Islamists’ vigilante justice. But human-rights advocates say the detentions raised troubling questions about statements made by Morsi during his nationally televised address on Thursday.
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In it, Morsi appears to have cited confessions obtained by his Islamist supporters, the advocates said, when he promised that confessions under interrogation would show that protesters outside his palace had taken money to commit violence and acknowledged ties to his political opposition.
Officials of the Muslim Brotherhood said the group opposed such vigilante justice and did not organize the detentions. And in at least one case a victim said a senior figure of the group rescued her from captivity. But the officials also acknowledged that some of their senior leadership was on the scene at the time. They said some members took part in the detentions, along with more hard-line Islamists.
Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official, defended the group’s decision to call on its members and other Islamist supporters of the president to defend the palace from a potential attack by the protesters because, he said, Morsi could not rely on the police force left over from Mubarak’s government.
“We have made it our job,” el-Haddad said, contending that by keeping the protesters from trying to storm the palace walls, the Brotherhood and Morsi supporters had prevented a bloodier conflict with the armed presidential guard. “We will protect the sovereignty of the state at any cost.”
Both sides of the battle that night were violent, and the use of force by the Brotherhood’s foes appears to have been deadlier, though that is hard to corroborate given the confusion at the time.
But some contend that the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, provoked the violence by summoning supporters and other Islamists to defend the palace from a planned protest.
A few captives were women. Ola Shahba, a well-known activist with a socialist party, was captured by a group of the president’s supporters when she tried to retreat from a collapsing battle line. Her captors began beating her, she said. Then they removed her hood and helmet and realized she was a woman, and she was groped as well.
“I didn’t imagine I could be harassed by a group affiliated with political Islam,” she said in an interview with talk-show host Yousry Fouda, one eye black and blue and her neck ringed with bruises. “What embassy do you meet in and receive money from?” her attackers demanded to know, she said.
She was held in an empty police booth by a group of Brotherhood members and more hard-line Islamists, she said, and Ahmed Sobei, a more senior Brotherhood official, tried to get them to release her, both said.
“At that point we couldn’t get people out,” Sobei said in an interview. “They were a mix, from here and there. If they were just Muslim Brotherhood, we would have gotten her out since the first moment. I would have been able to get her out right away.
“Did they beat people up? Yes, they did, but there were thugs there as well,” he said. “Thugs infiltrated both sides. It was impossible to tell who’s on which side.”
Ramy Sabry, a friend captured with Shahba, said he was held in a gatehouse by the presidential palace with a crowd that grew to nearly 50, according to an interview with Human Rights Watch for a report in progress.
“There were several members of the Brotherhood” among his captors, he said. “I knew they were Brotherhood because I heard them saying that they had spoken to Brotherhood leaders on the phone.”