Monday, May 02, 2011

Egypt: What Else is the Army Not Doing?

By William Fisher

Over the weekend, as I was writing a piece about the failure of the Egyptian Army to put a stop to former President Mubarak’s grisly practice of arresting people on the flimsiest grounds and then proceeding to detain, torture and abuse them, I was reminded of a couple of other big things the Army isn’t being helpful about.

One of them is press freedom. The other is labor unions. In the former, the interim military government is proposing new regulations that will give journalists less freedom, not more. And in the struggle of working people to morph from pathetic “company unions” to free and independent 21st century unions, the Army seems to be a significant obstacle.

When the Army first weighed in on press freedom, I was cautiously hopeful.
Here what the Supreme Council said:

“Maintaining the council’s policy to communicate with the Egyptian population and the youths of the revolution these days to spread the truths and reply to rumors that may harm the revolt’s achievements and cause strife between the Egyptian people and the Armed Forces, the council stresses on the following:

“1- Since the beginning of the January 25 Revolution, the Supreme Council
has been keen not to interfere in the editorial policies of all kinds of

“2- The media in Egypt is absolutely free to publish or discuss any matter
and assume responsibility for the consequences of its coverage based on
its credibility.

“3- All statements issued by the Supreme Council are made without the
hiding of any facts as the council believes in the importance of spreading
truths as soon as possible.

“4- The ultimate goal of the Supreme Council and the Egyptian people
nowadays is to support all kinds of Egyptian media to restore its vital
role that made the most powerful impact on our Arab and Islamic nation
while back.”

Well, that was encouraging. Restoring the press’s “vital role.”

Until I learned that the Army (which is ruling Egypt until elections can be held) has issued orders that require local print media to obtain government approval, before publication, for any reference to Egypt’s armed forces.

A letter sent to editors by the director of the "morale affairs directorate" of the Egyptian military ordered them not to "publish any (topics, news,
statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures) pertaining to the armed forces or to commanders of the armed forces without first consulting with the Morale Affairs Directorate and the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Information Gathering."

Sound familiar? That letter could have been signed by Hosni Mubarak!!

According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the letter's content has not been reported in Egyptian publications, but “the regime of censorship has been noted by bloggers.”

There is nothing theoretical about the Army’s intentions. Witness the military court in Cairo sentencing blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for "insulting the military." His crime: Writing an article in which he criticized the military for not being transparent in its decision-making.

And what was he doing in a military court? He was there because he wrote about the military.

Sanad, 25, was sentenced after participating in a hearing on his case that left the defendant and his lawyer believing the case would be continued later.

But, after his lawyer had left, Sanad was given a 10-minute “trial” and sentenced to three years in prison. Without his lawyer or any family members present.

Maikel Nabil Sanad is well-known to the powers that be, especially the military. He is a conscientious objector and a known critic of the Egyptian military.

"In a way, his arrest proves that his criticism of the role of the military in the revolution is very true", says Andreas Speck of War Resisters International.

"Far from being a free country, Egypt is presently governed directly by the military, which did never and does not now care for political freedom or human rights. The revolution might have gotten rid of Mubarak as figure head, but it has not - yet - achieved political freedom."

"The methods used by the Egyptian military do not seem to have evolved since Hosni Mubarak's fall," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Fran├žois Julliard said. "They show the degree to which the military still cannot be criticized and are still a taboo subject. A civilian should not be tried by a military court. This is not the way things are done in the democratic society to which Egyptians aspire."

Julliard added: "The circumstances of this blogger's arrest and the conduct of his trial demonstrate a complete lack of consideration by the military for the most basic principles of international law. Egypt has begun a process of democratization and it should now be possible to criticize the armed forces like any other component

Meanwhile, on the labor front, workers were struggling to come to grips with a draft anti-strike law ratified by the military in late March. According to Egyptian press reports, “this law 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 or peaceful demonstrations.”

The local press reports that 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.”

Meanwhile, in a historic “first,” Egypt’s working class was able to celebrate
Labor Day (May 1) in Tahrir Square with independent unions, said Kamal Abbas, a worker and general coordinator for the Egyptian Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services.

The newly founded Egyptian Independent Trade Unions Federation (EITUF) is now home to at least 12 labor unions. The federation sees itself as an umbrella for all independent unions created before and after the 25 January revolution.

According to the El Masry El Yaum newspaper, the EITUF aims to compete with the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which has been accused of repressing workers and being a tool of the ousted regime.

The newspaper said labor groups have called for disbanding the ETUF, and additional demands include setting a higher minimum wage, nullifying the newly implemented protest law, permanently hiring workers who currently have temporary contracts, and removing company management accused of corruption. Workers' rights groups have highlighted the difficulty in establishing new labor unions during the transitional period.

Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) and board member of the EITUF, filed a lawsuit earlier this week to disband the ETUF and put its money under judicial supervision.

The group also called for the nullification of the law criminalizing sit-ins and industrial actions.

"The demand for a minimum wage and, more broadly, the restructuring of the national wages scheme, is one that brings together everyone who works for a wage. Doctors and professors are at the forefront of this battle, not only
industrial workers,” said Salma Saeed, an activist and member of one of the
parties organizing Labor Day told the press.

The coalition will also call for demands that include benefits, amending the
labor law to limit the powers of employers, protecting rights for unemployed and irregular workers and resuming work in places where employers have fled the country.

The official federation, in the meantime, announced last week the cancellation of Labor Day celebrations since its chairman, Hussein Megawer, faces corruption charges and is undergoing investigations.

Egypt’s labor unions have been consistently weakened by the state exercising control over a wide range of issues. Some of these issues have arisen from the stonewalling of employers to increase wages or enhance benefits. But others have grown out of the gradual dismantling of much of the state-owned industrial sector in favor of privatization.

Privatization has had some beneficial effects, since government enterprises were generally inefficient and unable to compete in markets outside Egypt. Some private companies that purchased government-controlled industrial properties were genuinely dedicated to remaining in production with a better competitive environment based on increased efficiencies.

But many others turned out to be a scam. For example, a syndicate of Egyptian investors, or a foreign company, would acquire a state-owned company and thereby privatize it. But instead of retaining the work force to bring about increased efficiencies to boost sales, the new owners dismantled the factories, sold its equipment, with the intention of using the land for non-industrial purposes, for example, tourism.

Government officials were bribed to allow this to happen and the factory labor force was dismissed and sometimes replaced by foreign workers familiar with the planned new incarnation of the one-time factory.

In a move triggered by desperation, workers from a once-profitable privatized factory staged a sit-in in the factory rather than allow all its equipment – and their jobs -- to be shipped elsewhere. Broadcaster Paul Ray has details in his Real News broadcast. (

I’m sure many of you remember the infamous photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and the allegation by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the torture of prisoners was the work of “a few bad apples.”

Well, as we learned more and more about “enhanced interrogation” techniques, we believed less and less of what Rumsfeld and his generals (and his president) told us.

But even if there never were any written orders for “enhanced” interrogations, that phenomenon known as “commend influence” would probably have got the job done. Command influence means “everyone knows what the boss wants done, so let’s get it done!”

Was there not command influence working in the sentencing of a blogger? Was there not command influence working in the attempt to emasculate the labor movement? And was there not commend influence working as military guards snatched protesters out of Tahrir Square, arrested and detained them, and proceeded to do to prisoners exactly what Hosni Mubarak’s MPs would have done to them?

I have two questions: First, how will it stop? What will stop it? These kinds of aberrations don’t go away by themselves. They’re hard enough to change even with the best training money can buy. And here we are dealing with a culture of brutality that has been nurtured by the military for a generation!

Second question: When the Egyptian people finally get to vote for a parliament and a president, will the military accept its new civilian masters?

In the answer, we’ll know the future of the Arab Awakening in Egypt.

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.”