Photos of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s 83-year old former dictator, lying on a gurney in a prison cage as his trial began in Cairo, may well be amongst the defining images of the year, along with the giant circle of protestors in Tahrir Square, which dominated broadcasts in February this year, and led to Mubarak’s fall from powerafter nearly three decades running the country with an iron fist.
As the Guardian reported, Mubarak “stands accused of economic corruption, striking an illegal business deal involving gas exports to Israel, and the unlawful killing of protesters during the 18-day uprising against his reign,” and could face the death penalty if found guilty. However, as he entered a not guilty plea, stating, “I deny all these charges and accusations categorically,” the sight of the former dictator, lying down in white prison overalls, behind the bars of the courtroom cage in which so many of his former victims once stood, was a powerful symbol of how even the most seemingly impervious tyrants can fall from grace.
Mubarak’s two sons, Alaa and Gamal, who are also charged, were also in court, where they too protested their innocence, and others are also facing similar charges — specifically, former Interior Minister Habib El-Adly and six of his senior police deputies.
Saeeda Hassan Abdel-Raouf, the mother of a 22-year-old protester who was among those killed in the uprising, captured the spirit of those hoping that Mubarak will be held to account for his actions. “I am delighted that I see them in a cage,” she said. “I feel that my son’s soul is finally starting to be at rest and that his blood will cool.”
The former President was flown in from Sharm El-Sheikh for the trial, but will be held in hospital in Cairo until August 15, when the trial will resume after today’s opening session, although the trial of Habib El-Adly will resume on Thursday. As it was revealed that the prosecution file was “believed to run to over 12,000 pages,” and Mubarak’s defense team announced plans to call more than 1,000 witnesses, one of his defense lawyers, Farid El-Deed, “hinted that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi — Mubarak’s defence minister and current de facto ruler of the country — may be called as a witness,” as the Guardian explained. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Tantawi, has been running Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, and, as the Guardian put it, is “nervous about what may emerge from the current legal proceedings.”
The Supreme Council had reason to be nervous. Having promised to oversee a transition from dictatorship to democracy, the military officers, who were, of course, all allies and/or colleagues of Mubarak before he was ousted by the Egyptian people (with Tantawi serving as Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades), have put back the date of democratic elections to November, prompting fears that their commitment to democracy is insincere.
Furthermore, since Mubarak fell, the Supreme Council has held at least 10,000 military trials for civilians, a higher rate than under Mubarak. As the actor Actor Aly Sobhy told Reuters just two weeks ago for a feature by Dina Jayed, “There are thousands of youth held in military prisons simply for the reason that they were on the street at the wrong time. It’s a plan to dismantle the revolution. If they arrest some, others will be scared to go protest.” Sobhy’s trial in an Egyptian military court “lasted just 20 minutes, hours after he was detained in March with more than 160 other protesters in central Cairo,” as Reuters explained, but he was “among a score of lucky ones acquitted of charges of ‘thuggery’ after a campaign for their release.” However, he spent four days in custody and, as a result, has found himself seriously questioning the intentions of his country’s military leaders.
While the military has claimed that military trials are “reserved for serious crimes and not to quash freedom of expression,” those questioning the transitional leaders’ motives “point to at least six incidents of random arrests to disperse demonstrations in the past few months.” Shadi Hamid, the director of research at Brookings Doha Center, told Reuters, “The military has shown itself to be guilty of many of the same practices used under the Mubarak regime. Being condemned to prison for protesting is the complete opposite of what people are calling for in Tahrir Square.”
As Reuters also reported, the military courts have dealt with a wide array of charges and have handed out savage sentences. A shop-owner, convicted of stealing four pairs of shoes and a mobile phone card, received a seven-year sentence, and critics — including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — are not happy that the Military Council, while “accept[ing] the principle, enshrined in international law, that military courts should not try civilians,” has claimed that “they are needed temporarily to handle Egypt’s security problems.” Spokesman General Mamdouh Shaheen told reporters, “No civilian should be tried in front of military courts. But in this emergency situation … military courts took the place of civilian courts until they were able to work.”
The Supreme Council has now provided contact numbers “for queries and complaints on past convictions,” but, understandably, these minor concessions have failed to assuage the critics, who are demanding a thorough demonstration that the Council had broken with the ways of the past, and the dreadful legacy of the emergency laws, military trials and detention and torture in Egypt’s internationally reviled prisons.
Adel Ramadan, a human rights lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Reuters, “Their insistence on defending military justice is a problem. This is a policy that the armed forces has adopted and it is not willing to give it up.” The figures back him up. As Reuters explained, “Military courts, which often deal with groups of five to 30 defendants in a single trial lasting 20 to 40 minutes, have given out sentences ranging from six months to 25 years, on charges of breaking a curfew, possession of illegal weapons, destruction of property, theft or assault.”
As Reuters also explained, rights groups say that the continued use of military trials is undermining the civilian justice system during this transitionary period. Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch said, “I regret the fact that there isn’t more focus on the substance of transition. We are being left with a very serious legacy and a challenge to the rule of law and the independence of judiciary.” Reflecting that up to 14,000 people were imprisoned by the Interior Ministry under Mubarak (as the last phase of the dreadful emergency laws in place for most of the last 50 years, which had seen many more imprisoned and/or disappeared), Morayef added, “What we may have done is remove the Ministry of Interior and replaced it with the military.”
Activists accepted that the military courts had a role to play immediately after Mubarak’s fall, because of a “security vacuum,” but warned that Mubarak’s trial should have begun sooner and that military trials should have been phased out. The Supreme Council responded to criticism by stating on its Facebook page that military trials “would be limited to ‘thuggery’ cases involving weapons that ‘terrorised’ citizens, rape, and ‘intentional attacks’ on security,” but as Mona Seif of the group No Military Trials for Civilians told Reuters, the “thuggery” charge was a “catch-all” charge that has been “used sweepingly.”
“As long as military trials exist,” she said, “they will find a way to suppress protests and threaten civilian liberties. It makes no difference because most accusations are fabricated.” A case in point is the military trial of the blogger Maikel Nabil, who received a three-year sentence for allegedly “insulting the military establishment.” His younger brother Mark secured a lawyer for him — unlike others who are tried in closed courts without any reliable legal assistance — but the courts then arranged for him to be convicted after his lawyer had been asked to leave the court temporarily. As Mark Nabil explained, “The military council arrests anyone they feel like arresting, accuses them of being thugs, and in 10 hours, they can convict them to a three-year sentence.”
Beyond the spectacle of Hosni Mubarak’s trial, these problems — less spectacular, but ultimately much more significant — still need to be addressed. At the conclusion of her excellent analysis, Dina Jayed noted that, despite the military’s claims that “it only arrests ‘thugs’ seeking to sow rifts between the army and the people,” its military trials “fuel mistrust of the generals and a lingering sense of injustice.”
As Mark Nabil put it, “Whether the council likes it or not, they will have to retreat from using military trials. The people that stayed in Tahrir for 18 days to topple Mubarak will stay just as long and longer to force the Field Marshal — or anyone else seeking to impose their vision on the country — onto the right path.”
I hope Mark Nabil is correct, but those who watched the uprising in February and were inspired by such a brave and vibrant demonstration of people power also need to keep Egypt under scrutiny and to make sure that their supportive voices — for the successful struggle of the Egyptian people against unfeeling leaders backed by cynical Western governments — continue to be heard.