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The Mideast

Egyptian rights debate reflects blurred lines, post-coup confusion over who's the good guy

A brutal crackdown on Islamists after a military coup that ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president is posing a dilemma for the country's intellectual elite, which championed greater freedoms during a popular revolt two years ago but now seems largely acquiescent in the wave of arrests and raids targeting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reason: a widespread bitterness over Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi's year in power, further stoked now by a media campaign depicting the clampdown as a fight against terrorism.

The human rights community itself has been split after security forces raided pro-Morsi sit-in camps in Cairo, with many supporting the action despite brutal tactics and the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

Groups criticizing what they call the excessive use of violence against the Brotherhood face smear campaigns in the media and are accused of jeopardizing state security, often by the same pro-democracy activists who acknowledged that Islamists must be included in the political system after the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The dilemma is part of a broader debate about Egypt's stuttering march toward democracy after the popularly supported coup, which redefined alliances forged during the revolution and its aftermath and left many in the international community feeling conflicted about whom to support. Concern about the July 3 toppling of Morsi, his largely incommunicado detention since, and mass arrests of Brotherhood members has threatened U.S.-Egyptian ties, with the Obama administration considering the suspension of millions of dollars in military and economic assistance to Egypt's new rulers.

Rights advocates warn the fears of violence and general weariness after more than two years of turmoil and economic woes could pave the way for the restoration of a Mubarak-style police state. Already, the military-backed interim administration has reinstated a state of emergency law that grants authorities sweeping powers to make arrests and silence critics — along with a curfew in much of the country.

But the majority of Egyptians — including activists who led the protests in 2011, then against the post-Mubarak military rulers in 2012 and finally against Morsi this summer — are giving the army and its chosen government significant leeway, seeing them as the lesser of two evils.

"I'm still against a military regime, but we need the power of the army to save us from the Muslim Brotherhood," said Mohamed Abla, an award-winning artist whose fourth-floor downtown studio in Cairo served as a rest stop for protesters occupying nearby Tahrir Square in 2011. "It's political."

Abla, 60, dismisses complaints that Islamists' rights are being violated, saying he didn't initially oppose the pro-Morsi sit-ins but supported the military crackdown after hearing reports the camps were being armed.

"It is an exceptional time. We really are facing terrorists," he said in his studio, sitting under a painting of a patchwork Cairo high-rise meant to depict the crumbling state of the country under Mubarak. "I hope they don't stop asking for human rights, but they have to be realistic ... The country is facing a big danger."

Sympathy is low for the Islamists among many who accuse them of trying to monopolize power under Morsi. While in office, Morsi pushed police to crack down on protesters, praising security forces after they killed dozens.

But the anti-Islamist fervor has been fanned hotter by a stream of newspaper headlines and TV talk shows that warn of a terrorist threat, pointing to a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and a post-coup wave of attacks on government buildings and churches by Morsi supporters.

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper warned this week that foreign funds are flowing to international organizations to promote "external agendas." Private citizens also have filed legal suits against activists, accusing them of serving foreign agendas or espionage.

And at least 40 local and international journalists have been detained by Egyptian security forces since Morsi's ouster, generally on accusations linked to articles seen as sympathetic to the Islamists or critical of the military-backed administration, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Prominent Egyptian-American human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 75, likens it to the "fear of Islam and the Islamists" in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

"That kind of mass hostility is very much alive at present in Egypt," he said.

Rights advocates were suppressed under Mubarak's nearly three decades in power, and they emerged as heroes after the 18-day uprising that forced him out of power.

But the honeymoon period was short-lived as the military rulers who then took the helm began a campaign against foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, prompting several to shutter operations as staffers were charged with crimes.

One of the defendants, Nancy Okail, Freedom House's Egypt director, said Egyptians have been forced to choose between "the authoritarianism of the military or religious authoritarianism."

"All the people who would refuse both would fall in the middle and would be attacked," she said in a telephone interview from Washington, where she now works. "It's the everlasting battle between your freedom and your security."

Hafez Abu Saeda, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights who was detained four times during Mubarak's rule, said he was torn about using force to clear the post-coup protest camps of Morsi supporters, until he came to believe the sites were housing weapons and being used to torture kidnapped security forces.

"It is not clear that this was excessive force," he said of the crackdown that cleared the sites on Aug. 14 and left more than 600 people dead.

Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch pointed out that her group and others spent a year criticizing Morsi's government for abuses, and she acknowledged the Islamist camps were disruptive and provided forums for abuse and hate speech against Christians as well as the military.

"But that doesn't justify the killing hundreds of people," she said. "It is a challenge from a human rights perspective because the detainees have rights, residents have rights, you don't have unlimited right to stage a major sit-in and block off streets long term and so it wasn't an easy issue."

Anger over international expressions of concern about rights violations contributed to rising anti-American sentiment in Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally. President Barack Obama said American assistance could not remain unchanged "when civilians are being killed in the streets" — though he has not yet decided how much of the $1.5 billion in aid, most to Egypt's military, might be suspended.

While Egyptian authorities have depicted the crackdown as a "fight against terror," the detentions of labor lawyer Haitham Mohammadain and journalist Ahmed Abu-Draa this month raised alarm it could be expanded to silence other critics.

Abla, who now sits on a committee drafting a constitution to replace the Islamist-backed charter rushed through under Morsi, said he's not worried because the people are poised to take power back.

"We want to get our revolution back from the Muslim Brothers, from the fanatics and also from the army," he said. "Now we have experience in making revolutions, and we can do another."