This blog is intended to provide the reader with important world news with an emphasis on Middle East and North Africa. It will publish news, analyses, comments, and opinions concerning those two regions. However, We welcome any comments, news or opinions which are related to their countries. You can visit too www.asswak-alarab.com for more information.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The Egyptian Army's Mask Has Slipped
Those in control have draped themselves in the revolutionary flag – but trials by military tribunals show how phony this is
By Austin Mackell
Egyptian activists chant slogans and carry banners that read in Arabic 'No to military courts, no to confiscating our freedom of speech' during a protest in front of the military prosecutor's office. Photograph: Nasser Nasser/AP
The growing practice of sending Egyptian civilians for trial by military tribunals is one sign that the armed forces council now ruling the country is not serving the goals of the revolution.
Since 1962, when a law passed by President Nasser allowed civilians to be put before military tribunals, such trials have been used to convict political enemies of the regime – often on evidence too flimsy for civilian courts.
Following the revolution earlier this year, many hoped that such trials would cease. But the supreme council of the armed forces (Scaf), which assumed power after the fall of President Mubarak, has not only continued resorting to military tribunals but has been using them more and more. Now, rather than communists or Islamist groups, it is democratic activists, and indeed the population at large that have become the targets.
Since 28 January, when the military, while publicly remaining neutral in the revolution, began grabbing activists off the streets, there have been at least 5,000 cases handled by these kangaroo courts. Adel Ramadan, a lawyer from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), points out that in many such cases there is more than one defendant, so the number of people tried is probably more like 10,000 – more than during the entire reign of Mubarak.
Many of these imprisonments were clearly political in nature, such as the 500 or so people arrested during protests in Tahrir Square on 9 March, on 9 April, and outside the Israeli embassy on 15 May (Nakba Day). In these cases, because of the public nature of the arrests, activists were able to campaign successfully for the prisoners' release. There are however, a handful of known political prisoners still behind bars, including Maikel Nabil, who is currently serving a three-year sentence for writing an article critical of the military.
Then there are the thousands of cases about which the details are still kept secret. In many, perhaps the majority of cases, the charges relate to ordinary criminal acts. Given the secret nature of these trials, however – defendants generally have no access to family or lawyers – this is impossible to know. However, activists allege serious maleficence even in these cases, and rightly demand that the judgments – which according to EIPR include eight death sentences – are re-examined in civilian courts.
Many of these activists, including Ragia Omran, a lawyer with the hastily formed No Military Trials group, challenge any characterisation of these inadequate trials as the product of a military institution clumsily attempting to fill a security vacuum left when the police (who have largely returned) disappeared. Instead, she describes it as an attempt by the Scaf to "terrorise" the population and assert its control.
Attributing such malicious motives may seem dramatic, but taken in the context of other actions by the military commanders, like the issuing of a decree banning strikes and protests (and various brutal attempts at its enforcement including the infamous "virginity tests" that female protesters were subjected to), the intimidation of journalists and investigation of three judges who dared to speak out against the use of military trials, it does, unfortunately, make sense.
The military commanders who currently control executive, legislative and judicial power in Egypt have managed, with great success till now, to drape themselves in the revolutionary flag, with billboards appearing showing the face of a saluting general, surrounded by photos of the revolution's martyrs. It seems they continue to enjoy support from the majority of the public. However, for many of the most active and informed Egyptians, this mask has already fallen.
Since February 26, when the army first clashed openly with protesters, attacking groups gathered in Tahrir Square and outside the parliament, the activist community and the military have been increasingly at odds. And while activists have welcomed promises made by the Scaf to look into certain cases, and "consider" submitting others for some kind civilian review, they remain sceptical that these will be anything more than just promises unless the pressure is kept up. They know that any increase in freedoms will have to be fought for by the people, not handed down by benevolent and patriotic generals.
This is not surprising considering the privileged positions the upper echelons of the army occupied under the old regime. Indeed, while the National Democratic party might have been the body of the old system, the military – where all three of Egypt's dictatorial presidents began their careers – was its heart.
Like some godawful zombie, Egypt's oppressive system refuses to die. The head may be gone, but the heart is still beating.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 22/06/2011
-Austin Mackell is an Australian freelance journalist with a special interest in the Middle East and a progressive outlook. He has reported from Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli invasion, Iran during the turbulent 2009 elections and recently moved to Cairo to report on the transition to democracy.