"Some 300 people were arrested in the Alexandria alone, along with an unspecified number in other governorates. The Egyptian security authorities arrested these people and took them to secret detention facilities, in complete seclusion from the outside world," read a joint press statement issued yesterday by the Geneva-based Alkarama Foundation and the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
"In addition, many students at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Engineering and the Wireless Communications Institute were arrested," the press release added.
Both groups condemned the arbitrary arrests and other rights violations committed by Egyptian security forces following the bombings at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria earlier this month. The two organisations called on the public prosecutor to investigate all alleged abuses, apprehend those responsible, and refer the cases to a speedy trial.
The bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year's Day was the worst act of sectarian violence in Egypt in a decade. It triggered days of protest and riots by Christians blaming the government for encouraging discrimination and not doing enough to protect them.
In response, the Egyptian authorities fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators and stepped up security around many churches, with explosives experts on hand. Armoured vehicles have also been stationed in key areas. Police in Cairo, Alexandria and other places have been checking the identities of all those entering churches.
On Coptic Christmas Eve, 7 January, one device containing nails and fireworks was found on a church staircase in the southern city of Minya but it had no detonator.
Extra security procedures didn’t prevent another religion-based shooting last week, when a policeman shot six copts in a train in Upper Egypt. One of those shot died immediately and five were severely injured. Although the government claimed it was not a sectarian incident, eyewitnesses assure it was, and the public at large found it hard to believe that the man shot six copts by coincidence.
Adel Labib, Alexandria's governor, announced last week that CCTV would be put in every church, mosque, port and key street in Alexandria, a statement that triggered a varied reaction. In his column in Al-Masry Al-Youm, writer Galal Amer commented: "You want terrorists to laugh at us; you are spending millions of Egyptian pounds on cameras, while you give people the right to cover their faces," said Amer in a reference to the niqab, which some women wear to cover their whole face and body completely.
Others also fear that the government is squandering money on another failed anti-terrorism campaign. "A man or a woman can hide in this niqab; any terrorist can wear it and do whatever they want," said Amal Mahmoud, 30, who works in a hotel.
Security expert General Sameh Saif El Yazal denies that the security services have asked for a budget increase, adding that the "already existing emergency law allows police to use severe measures when facing terrorism".
But the notorious emergency law, which was extended again last year for two more years, has been the subject of protest by many human rights groups and activists. The recent anti-terrorism campaign has already resulted in one death by torture.
El-Sayed Bilal, a 32-year-old married resident of Al-Zahiriya in Alexandria, was summoned to state security headquarters in Alexandria on 5 January. As soon as he presented himself, security forces accompanied him to his home and searched it, confiscating his computer and some books. They then detained him in the Labban Police Station transfer building located in Attarin. Twenty-four hours later he was dead.
“We hoped the Egyptian government would have learned its lesson over the past two decades and implemented a new policy for countering terrorism and sectarian violence, but the conduct of the security apparatus and statements from officials indicate that the policy of violence, abuse and complete disregard for the rule of law still prevails in its worst form,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of EIPR.
Most experts are unsurprised by the government's reaction to the latest crisis. "First of all, the government overreacts towards all sudden problems. Swine flu is a good example. Random arrests, using violent interrogation tactics and expanding police round-up operations is normal official conduct in security related problems. The security forces want to know as soon as possible who is behind such attack, not only to calm down furious public opinion, but also to get reliable information to prevent similar attacks occurring in future," said expert Sameh Fawzi.
The police is yet to announce any progress made in the investigation of the Two Saints bombings. The delay doesn’t help to comfort an angry and afraid Egyptian public. While arrests continue, sectarian tension increases. Watchdogs argue that this is not how to treat such a sensitive issue and national security question.