Monday, May 02, 2011

The Army is Watching Over Egypt. But Who’s Watching Over the Army?

By William Fisher

Mounting criticism of the way the Egyptian Army is governing Egypt grew louder yesterday with press reports that one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers has been arrested and will likely face a military trial..

The Egyptian Daily News quoted activist Mona Saif as saying that, “Law professor at the American University in Cairo Amr El-Shalakany was arrested two days ago and will be tried in a military court in Suez.” Saif is a member of "No for Military Trials for Civilians" campaign, a grassroots campaign to eliminate such trials, which were allowed under the country’s 30-year Emergency Laws.

She said El- Shalakany faces a possible sentence of 15 years in prison for "insulting the supreme military council" and causing riots and burning a police station.

Hailing from a family of prominent lawyers, El-Shalakany has not yet been officially charged.

Initial reports said he was arrested when he attempted to drive in a restricted area near Neama Bay in Sharm El-Shiekh, one of Egypt’s top beach resorts in South Sinai. He allegedly exchanged verbal insults with the military officers who tried to stop him.

Saif told the newspaper that initially El-Shalakany was to be released Friday when the detaining officers suddenly decided to transfer him to Suez for a trial under martial law.

He faces a possible sentence of 15 years in prison for "insulting the supreme military council" and causing riots and burning a police station. El-Shalakany, who has not yet been officially charged, was arrested when he attempted to drive in a restricted area near Neama Bay in Sharm El-Shiekh, one of Egypt’s top beach resorts in South Sinai, the newspaper reported..

"We assume that he would not set fire in a police station, and would calculate his actions in this context, as someone who is very aware of Egyptian Law," said Saif.

El-Shalakany's lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

El-Shalakany blogged for the NY Times during the revolution. His page at the American University says he's a member of the New York bar, who studied at Harvard and at Columbia, in the law, gender and sexuality program.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been the sole executive power in Egypt since Mubarak resigned on 11 February, and their position of authority is expected to last at least another nine months, until the next presidential elections. To date, however, there has been little effort exerted to hold the military accountable for its actions.

The military is widely credited with securing the fall of the Mubarak regime by placing pressure on the president to step down. But as Egypt enters its tenth week of martial law, activists and analysts are questioning the ruling military council’s decision-making process and challenging the military on frequent allegations of human rights abuses.

The Egyptian public’s unwavering support for the military is particularly problematic. In the early days of the Tahrir Square revolution, the Army won the applause of the anti-government protesters by using its tanks to keep pro-Mubarak forces from attacking demonstrators. Later, the Army was seen clearly to take the side of the anti-government protesters.

But, even during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Army was accused of roughing up and arresting many anti-government demonstrators, torturing them in custody, and holding some of these civilians for military trials. Their actions sparked an outcry from the anti-Mubarak forces and an investigation by the Army Supreme Council, which is running the country until elections are held.

In recent weeks, Amnesty International has documented the continuing use of torture, arbitrary detention, trials of civilians before military courts and repression of freedom of expression by authorities.

After the army violently cleared Tahrir Square of demonstrators on 9 March, women protesters told Amnesty International that they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches, then forced to submit to “virginity checks” and threatened with prostitution charges.

Many revolutionaries and others have expressed serious concerns over the
performance of the SCAF, such as the continuation of military trials for
civilians, and the relatively slow pace of certain reforms, including the
dismantling of local councils and the prosecution of corrupt figures from the
former regime.

“That’s what we were out protesting against on 9 March,” said Hazem, a
30-year-old granite contractor who was arrested by military police during the 9 March protests in Tahrir. A judge in a military court gave him a quick trial and sentenced him to three years on charges of "thuggery".

Hazem, whose name has been changed for his safety, spoke to the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper by phone from Tora prison.

“They interrogated us for 10 minutes in the kitchen of the military police
prison before quickly giving the sentence,” he said.

Military trials are perhaps the main concern of human rights organizations
regarding SCAF performance so far. At least 40 people out of a group of 150 who were arrested on 9 March remain in prison, having been tried as "thugs", says Hazem. Legal activists say that at least 130 of the 150 arrested were recognizable figures from the Tahrir uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

Many caught by the military so far say that military police beat and insulted
them more severely than the State Security apparatus ever did under Mubarak.

“When they arrested us, they continuously beat us for seven hours straight
without even looking at our IDs and checking who we were,” said Hany Adel, another 9 March detainee who is now in Torah (spelling) prison.

Human Rights Watch has criticized torture in military prisons, as well as many military arrests and trials, such as the recent one of blogger Michael Nabil.

While the military denies any systematic use of torture or abuse -- including
"virginity tests" for women -- activists feel the evidence suggests that the
military is guilty as charged.

“There are too many similarities between the acts of physical and verbal
assaults in military prisons from all over to say that they are individual and
sporadic incidents,” said Mona Seif of the “No to Military Trials” campaign.

Evidence gathered by the campaign shows that many of the detentions were of known revolutionary faces, picked out by informants.

“They made fun of us and said things like ‘Do you think you will change the
world!?’” said Hazem.

With the ongoing sparcity of law enforcement on the streets, the strict
anti-thuggery laws are generally accepted as being necessary, by Egyptian
activists and laymen alike. The law was made very public, and the military
constantly lauded any resulting arrests and sentences. However, with their quick trials and harsh penalties, anti-thuggery laws have created a system by which many revolutionaries and innocent people are not given due process.
Some inmates in Tora have told Al-Masry Al-Youm that they were arrested, beaten and put in prison without having once shown their IDs to any military personnel.

“I understand, though, that the military is burdened these days with a huge
responsibility. We just want fair trials,” said Adel.

The sometimes repressive nature of SCAF’s policies is constantly lauded by its apologists as being necessary due to the supposedly precarious security and economic situation of the country.

For others, it has raised questions about the military’s ability to handle its
position as the sole executive power in the country; its ability to control
civilian life, the caliber of the civilians advising the military, and its plans
for the handover of power.

“The Supreme Council has previously said that they acknowledge the legitimacy of the revolution. However, they are not engaging enough revolutionary figures in any of their decision-making,” said Hassan.

He added that the continued presence of figures from the old regime represents a major stumbling block in the dismantling and rebuilding process necessary in this phase of the revolution. Political figures have proposed a series of reforms to enhance increased dialogue with the SCAF.

Presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei has proposed that SCAF create a 50-person civilian consultative council to help them with decision making.
“Even though the revolution has been successful in dismantling the old system, the rebuilding process is deficient. Many of the decisions are not made with enough popular or representative participation,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, an independent political analyst and columnist for the Arabic edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm.

In late March the military ratified the draft anti-strike law, which
criminalizes organizing or inciting a demonstration that is deemed by the
military to halt production or the flow of public life. Those convicted will be
subject to a fine of up to LE500,000 and a year in prison, even for peaceful

The ratification was tucked away in a few lines in SCAF’s last 15-page decree in the Official Gazette. The discreet announcement comes in stark contrast to the multi-colored, user-friendly SCAF announcements posted as pictures on their Facebook page.

“Since the referendum, where we voted on a few constitutional amendments, 52 additional articles and three important laws have been passed, with almost no open participation,” said Hassan.

But public pressure in the form of protests has had an effect on the military’s
operations. The military council said they would investigate accounts of abuse and torture and have also agreed to the retrial of some of those caught and tried during the demonstrations.

“Public pressure has yielded many positive results in the performance of the
SCAF. I think they’re concerned they might lose their benevolent public image, and so they responded to some of the demonstrations and public calls for retrial,” said Seif.

The military responded to earlier protests by replacing the cabinet and
releasing some army officers who had protested against the military council.
Many feel that continued pressure could change how the military runs Egypt.

“We need to have the rule of law if this situation continues with the SCAF,”
says Hassan. “For now we are acting on good faith.”