Protest Context: The History of Mubarak Abuses

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Egyptian anti-government demonstrators hold their national flag as they gather at Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 10, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Lawrence Wright,  staff writer for The New Yorker and Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, discussed the history of oppression and abuse under the Mubarak regime.

While the army has cultivated a image of neutrality throughout the protests, The Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday that human rights groups have documented the detainment and torture of hundreds of protesters at the hands of the military.

Amid reports that Mubarak will step down today and power will be transferred to Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former top intelligence chief and military officer, Stork was quick to say the public should not assume the army is taking the side of the protesters, despite their claim they are stepping in to "safeguard the country."

Language about protecting the country or even protecting the citizens, when an army is using that language, I wouldn't assume that's in the best interest of citizens.

As the White House said, this is a fluid situation, and no one knows what the repercussions of a transfer of power would be. Though the crowd in Tahrir Square is cheering, Stork said they are likely to be disappointed unless major changes are made in country whose authorities have a culture of torture.

Will the same individuals who have been responsible for the kind of abuses we've seen over the last 30, 40 years be essentially the same people doing the same thing? We don't know. Or will the army be taking on more of a policing role, which it's very ill-equiped to do, both in terms of training, equipment, and so forth. So we're looking at what could be a very messy situation.

Wright noted that Egypt's horrific practices implicate the United States—damaging our credibility as a force for good in the region.

One of the shameful things of our own Egyptian policies is we took advantage of that kind of system to let them interrogate some of these Al Qaida suspects.

Ending police abuse has been a major rallying cry among the protesters. Stork said unless the government adopts a zero tolerance policy to torture, it will continue to afflict the population.

Torture actually spread, it became sort of an epidemic, which is what it is today, I'm sorry to say. It happens in police stations, it happens not just with political dissidents, it happens with people just picked up for suspicion of committing ordinary crimes. This has become a serious and widespread problem.

Human rights defenders like Stork are more concerned that any change at the top would be accompanied by institutional changes like ending the 30-year law that allows the president to arrest anyone who is perceived to threaten the government's security (in practice, this has meant any political opposition groups).

There are things that should happen before Mubarak leaves, such as ending the emergency rule. I think that's more key than whether Mubarak steps out of the picture today, tomorrow, or next week. And I'm afraid this is going to preclude that.

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