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Egypt: Draconian law sparks protests

A law that gives police wide-ranging powers is challenged after the death of Khaled Said.

Egypt protests, Egypt civil unrest, Khaled Said
An Egyptian woman shouts during a demonstration against the death of Khaled Said in Alexandria on Friday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The photographs have spread online and in the press: a before-and-after montage showing a handsome young man smiling in a gray hoodie on one side and a battered and bloodied corpse on the other. His eyes are rolled back in his head, mouth agape and his lower lip ripped half off his face.

His name was Khaled Said, age 28. His murder on June 6 — allegedly at the hands of undercover police — is causing a political uproar that has brought thousands into the streets here in recent weeks to demand justice for the man now known as “the emergency law martyr.”

His death is Egypt’s latest — and largest — rallying cry for critics of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s feared security services and the state of emergency that has granted both near limitless power since 1981.

Mubarak had promised to repeal the law in 2005, but nevertheless it remains on the books. On June 1, parliament extended the law for two more years, but government officials promised to limit its use to cases of suspected terrorism and drug trafficking.

Large protests, everything from raucous rallies to silent vigils, have consumed Alexandria for the last two weeks. The largest came Friday when an estimated 2,000 people rallied after noon prayer at a mosque near Khaled’s home. That evening, hundreds more gathered on the city’s beachfront — dressed in black and clutching Qurans and Bibles as they faced the sea — to hold a silent, hour-long vigil for victims of torture and police brutality.

Both demonstrations drew the kind of crowd that is rarely seen at anti-government protests in Egypt. Made-up young women waved the black flags of an opposition group called the April 6 Youth Movement. The elderly chanted in the shade of nearby trees. Families dressed their young children in their best outfits to defy lines of black-clad riot police. At the sunset vigil, several protesters had tears in their eyes.

Former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s most prominent opposition figure and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, appeared at both rallies. They were his first anti-government demonstrations since returning to Egypt in February after retiring from his position as head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Association. He was a sedate presence, neither giving a speech nor participating in chants of “Down with Hosni Mubarak!”

But protesters did not seem to mind. When he emerged from the mosque after prayers, the crowd erupted in cheers.

ElBaradei said he felt compelled to join the demonstration because police brutality “is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue.”

“This is part of the reform process. We need a system of transparency and accountability,” he said at Friday’s sunset vigil, standing in a black blazer on the Alexandria seafront.

“The Egyptian people are sick and tired of these practices and heinous crimes, rich and poor, old and young,” he added. “If the regime does not get the message then there is a problem with the regime. The writing is on the wall.”