Egypt: Protestors Still Disappearing Or Being Convicted By Military Courts


In the three weeks since I last wrote about Egypt, following the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak and the assumption of control by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a key question I asked at the time has, at least partly, been answered.

That question was: “whether enough people will stay out on the streets, and continue to engage in strike action, to ensure that a second key element of the protestors’ aims — primarily, the establishment of a civilian-controlled interim administration prior to free and fair elections, and an end to the state of emergency that was in force throughout Mubarak’s 30-year reign — will take place sooner rather than later — or, in the gloomiest scenario, not at all.”

The permanent occupation of Egypt’s public spaces — most famously, Tahrir Square in Cairo, but also in the streets of Alexandria and in other towns and cities across the country — overwhelmed Mubarak with sheer numbers (eight million people!) in just 18 days, but was, it is fair to say, unsustainable once the main object of the revolution relinquished control after 30 years.

Nevertheless, it was crucial that protestors continued to exert pressure, as it was by no means certain that Egypt’s aging military leaders — Mubarak’s former colleagues — could be trusted to effect the radical change demanded by the popular revolution: the immediate dissolution of Mubarak’s cabinet and “suspension of the parliament elected in a rigged poll late last year,” plus a transitional administration appointed with four civilians and one military official to prepare for elections in nine months and to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, as one group of activists prominent in Tahrir Square explained.

As the Washington Post explained at the time:

Another organizer of the protests, Issa Adel Issa, stated, “We don’t want a military government. We want a democracy with civilians in charge.” As the Post described it, he “ticked off a list of demands: the dissolution of Mubarak’s handpicked parliament; the dissolution of his ruling National Democratic Party; the release of thousands of political prisoners; and prosecution of those responsible for the deaths of an estimated 300 demonstrators who were killed during the 18-day revolution.”

In the three weeks since the ousting of Mubarak, new political parties, and others that were previously banned or sidelined (like the Muslim Brotherhood) have begun to organize themselves, as the newly liberated newspaper Al-Ahram reported on Friday.

Crucially, however, protests have also continued, and on Thursday the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces responded to protests about Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, the former air force officer appointed by Mubarak soon after the revolution began on 25 January (and, presumably, fears that Friday’s gathering in Tahrir Square could otherwise have become unmanageable), by announcing that he had resigned, to be replaced by former transport minister Essam Sharaf, who, as the Associated Press  explained, was asked “to form a new caretaker cabinet to run the government throughout a transition back to civilian rule.”

Ironically, Shafiq may have invited his own dismissal through the arrogant and condescending position he took on the first ever open debate involving an Egyptian politician, which was broadacast the night before, and which saw him tussle with the novelist Alaa Al Aswany.

If reform continues as the protestors hope, Essam Sharaf’s new cabinet will led to the further exclusion of Mubarak’s former allies from the caretaker government. On February 22, the Supreme Council had sworn in a cabinet with 11 new ministers, although four former members of the Mubarak regime retained senior posts. One of these was Ahmed Shafiq, but two others — Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Justice Minister Mamdouh Marie and Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy, appointed by Mubarak on January 31 (and tainted by his former role as Director of the Prison Authority) — remain, and their continued presence in the cabinet means that critics are unlikely to back down. On February 22, Muhammad Abbas, a member of the Egypt Youth Coalition, another organization that played a role in the uprising, had described the changes as “patchwork,” and had “called for swift, comprehensive changes,” and he was obviously echoing a breadth of popular opinion.

In contrast, on Friday, as the Guardian explained, the new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, a US-educated engineer, who had briefly served under Mubarak as transport minister, distanced himself from the old regime by visiting Tahrir Square — where hundreds of thousands of people had gathered, in large part to celebrate the resignation of Ahmed Shafiq — and calling on the protesters to “rebuild the country,” adding that “he would step down if he failed to meet their demands.”

Sharaf, regarded by many of those involved in the uprising as “one of their own” because he supported the revolution and even “led a small protest among members of faculty at Cairo University as part of last month’s mass demonstrations,” told the delighted crowd, “I salute the martyrs. Glory and respect to the families of the victims and a special salute to everyone who took part and gave for this white revolution. I am here to draw my legitimacy from you. You are the ones to whom legitimacy belongs.”

“The mission that I am trying to realize, with all my heart, is your goals,” Sharaf added, “promising,” as the Guardian put it, “to join the protesters in the square if he could not achieve their demands.”

Even so, those demands are still largely unfulfilled: “an end to Mubarak’s National Democratic party; the abolition of the state security agency, which is blamed for some of the worst human rights violations under Mubarak; the prosecution of security officials behind the deaths of protesters; and the release of political prisoners,” as the Guardian explained.

With reports of prisoners seized during the uprising being tortured (also see my article, In Egypt, Protests Undimmed, as Mubarak Prepares to Cede Power, Torture Stories Emerge and the Revolution Finds a Hero in Wael Ghonim), and with pro-democracy activist Amr Abdallah Elbihiry given a five-year sentence last week by a military court, under the terrible state of emergency that was in place throughout Mubarak’s reign, and that has not been revoked, it is clear that large-scale protests must continue, as few of the demands outlined above have been met. (For further information, see this Human Rights Watch news article).

Other efforts to push the reform agenda occurred elsewhere on Friday, when thousands of protesters surrounded the State Security buildings in Alexandria and Giza, demanding the dissolution of the security forces and the release of political prisoners. At both locations, protesters carried anti-torture signs, and in Alexandria four people were seriously injured, after police reportedly opened fire on the protesters.

While this kind of unrest is likely to continue, progress has been achieved on three other fronts, beyond the resignation of Ahmed Shafiq. The first is the trial of former interior minister Habib al-Adly, which began on Saturday. Accused of money laundering and unlawful acquisition of public money, al-Adly, who “was arrested last month as part of a sweeping corruption investigation by the new authorities, along with several former ministers and senior members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party,” is also “being investigated for ordering the shooting of protesters with live bullets during 18 days of riots that brought down Mubarak,” as AFP reported. He pleaded not guilty on Saturday, but the judge adjourned further hearings until April 2.

The second area in which progress has been achieved is a national referendum on constitutional amendments drafted by a committee of experts, which, on Friday, the Supreme Council announced would take place on March 19, and the third is the release of political prisoners, which I will discuss in a separate article to follow.

Proposed constitutional amendments

Amendments have been proposed to a number of articles in the Egyptian Constitution, including the following changes to:

  • Article 76, removing requirements which severely — and deliberately — limit who can stand as a Presidential candidate;
  • Article 77, limiting presidential terms to two four-year periods instead of the indefinite consecutive six-year terms used by Mubarak;
  • Article 88, which assigns electoral oversight to judicial authorities, to prevent vote-rigging;
  • Article 139, which would make it obligatory for the next President to appoint a deputy within two months of assuming office; and
  • Article 189, allowing Parliament to amend the Constitution.

Not everyone is happy with the scope of the proposed changes. The constitutional amendments do not, for example, address the exclusion of women from Egypt’s political life, or acknowledge the key role played by women in the uprising, and have led to an official complaint by 63 Egyptian organizations. As the Soros Open Society Foundation noted:

In a petition signed last week, the groups said that a committee without a single female legal expert — of which there are many in Egypt — “triggers fears and suspicions with regards to the future of Egypt” after the January 25 revolution. This raises a key question about “the main aims of the revolution which were initially spelled out as equality, freedom, democracy, and participation of all citizens,” the groups said. Women “have the right to participate in building the new Egyptian state.” The petition also questions the selection criteria of Constitutional Committee members and says that women participated equally in the revolution and that some of them have been jailed.

In other ways, however, the proposals represent major reform, and as the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported, Mohammed Beshr, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, said they were a positive “first step in the right direction,” adding, “A lot more needs to be done, but let’s do that after the election when we have a new elected assembly making a new constitution.” His views were echoed by Abouel Ela Mady, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who now leads the recently-approved Wasat Party, who said that he “accepted the changes in the majority,” and noted that they would lead to “serious candidates” being fielded for the elections.

From the left, Wael Khalil, an engineer, blogger and activist who was prominent in the Tahrir Square protests “expressed his support for the changes,” as Al-Masry Al-Youm reported, and said that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the commission’s suggestions. “I am very pleased with them,” he said. “I thought we would never get limits on terms.”

Most significant, from a human rights point of view, is the proposal to to repeal Article 179, adopted in March 2007, which, as Amnesty International explained in a news release on February 28 approving its proposed abolition, “effectively wrote emergency-style powers into the Constitution, overriding constitutional guarantees against arbitrary arrest and detention; police searches without a warrant; and bugging of telephone calls and other private communications,” and also allows the President “to bypass the ordinary courts and refer terrorism suspects – including civilians – to a judicial authority of his choice, including military and emergency courts which have no right of appeal and a long history of conducting unfair trials.”

As Amnesty also noted, “The March 2007 referendum adopting Article 179 was boycotted by the political opposition and widely criticized by independent national monitors. At the time, Amnesty International denounced the adoption of the article as the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years.”

Amnesty also “repeated its call to the Egyptian authorities to immediately lift the 30-year-old state of emergency,” expressing some alarm that another current proposal — to amend Article 148, making states of emergency longer than six months subject to a public referendum, “would be inconsistent with international law.” Amnesty added, “Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party, any measures which suspend rights during a state of emergency must be of an exceptional and temporary nature – rather than be subject to routine ratification by a public referendum.”

This is a crucial point, but as with so many of the changes taking place in post-Mubarak Egypt, it is unlikely that it will remain unchallenged. As the protestors in Alexandria and Giza showed on Friday, a major part of the seemingly relentless demand for change unleashed by Egypt’s popular revolution concerns the state of emergency, and the brutal and unaccountable actions of the various state security services, without which, as the novelist Alaa Al Aswany explained in an important article last year, a new Egypt cannot arise.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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