News / Africa

Egyptian Civilians Caught in Military Tribunals

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his trial at the police academy in Cairo, August 15, 2011
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his trial at the police academy in Cairo, August 15, 2011
Elizabeth Arrott

Egyptian protesters who ended the presidency of Hosni Mubarak continue to endure one legacy of the past - an all-encompassing emergency law.  Unlike Mubarak, who is on trial in a civilian court, thousands of civilians face military tribunals.

The dismantling of Egypt's emergency law has been a key demand of anti-government protesters, and the current military rulers say they are considering its demise.

But human rights groups argue that actions speak louder than words and note that some 10,000 Egyptians have been put before military tribunals in the months since the January uprising.  That is more, they say, than during the whole of Mr. Mubarak's 29-year rule.

The government counters that the military courts, which under emergency law are allowed to try civilians, are now used only for common criminals who undermined national security during the political unrest.  It is a point adamantly rejected by political activists like Ibrahim El Houdaiby.

"Those are not thugs who are being tried via military tribunals," said El Houdaiby. "Those are our friends, our comrades, our brothers and sisters. People who have been demonstrating on the street. People who have been active and have managed to oust former President Mubarak."

The secretive nature of the military courts makes it hard to know the exact status of each case. Most defendants have no access to lawyers or others on the outside.

Certainly, criminal acts appear to have been committed during the uprising -- an event seen in real time by millions around the world.  

But people also witnessed the roundup of political protesters, during raids on Tahrir Square sit-ins in recent months, and at demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in May.

Political activist El Houdaiby finds the reliance on tribunals for these cases particularly galling, given the treatment of members of the old guard.

"If former president Mubarak, who has allegedly killed over 800 Egyptians, ordered the death of over 800 Egyptians in a few days, not to speak of the 30 years and crimes therein, is now standing in front of a civilian court, it is inconceivable that we would accept civilians standing before a military tribunal," he said.

One activist group, which calls itself "No to Military Tribunals," has met with government officials to demand all civilian cases be moved out of the military, which has lower standards for conviction and blocks the appeal process.

In several cases, the state has obliged. But the vast majority of those arrested remain in the military system, where the detentions themselves give rise to concern.

Human rights groups allege that those held under emergency law face some of the abuses of the former government, in particular beatings and torture.  Authorities deny the charges, but defend one controversial practice - the administration of what are called "virginity tests" to female prisoners. Activists decry the practice as a rights violation. Officials say it is to protect security personnel from accusations of rape.

A political science professor of the American University in Cairo, Said Sadek, says the actions of the interim government are not surprising in a time of continuing instability, and show that even after a revolution, political culture is slow to adapt.

"They are still using the old tactics of the old regime in trying to scare people away from taking to the streets," said Sadek. "It will take time before this political culture changes and I think if the emergency laws are lifted and you have an elected parliament, a new constitution, a permanent cabinet, an elected president, the new political system will be more democratic and respecting human rights."

Such a future is, at the very best, months away, leaving many who fought for a new Egypt still suffering the worst excesses of the old.  

And activist El Houdaiby says it is not just pro-democracy demonstrators who are affected.

"I have seen them from across the political spectrum. I have seen them from the [Muslim] Brotherhood," he said. "I have seen them from the Gamaa Islamiya and all Islamist factions and even from ordinary Egyptians.  I don't want to make this a classification between revolutionists and Egyptians, because we are all civilians at the end of the day and everybody deserves a civilian court."

As for Mr. Mubarak, who appeared in court again Monday on charges that also include corruption, there may be practical reasons he is being treated as a civilian.

"Internationally they do not recognize ruling of military courts, said political analyst Sadek. "And if there is a court ruling that would require the president to bring money from abroad, they need a civilian court ruling."

On the other hand, Sadek argues, it could also be a stalling tactic by the interim government in a politically sensitive case. Civilian cases can be delayed - Mr. Mubarak's is adjourned until September - and the appeals process is lengthy.  It is a far cry from the swift and often irrevocable justice handed down by military tribunals.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs