Some of the country’s most prominent revolutionary activists will continue their retrial Sept. 10 after being sentenced to 15 years in jail for breaking the controversial protest law. They weren’t terrorists or armed protesters, yet the current regime, which they helped seize power and topple the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, decided to include them in a nationwide crackdown aimed at eliminating dissent.
I have covered the avalanche of military trials that kicked off in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, visited the families of victims killed during the 18 days of protests and met with others who suffered severe injuries, but researching the Shura Council trial was different. It hit me as one of the most vivid examples of the regime’s war on everything and everyone deemed revolutionary. Blacked out by the media loyal to the regime and ignored by a population told that the revolution was a conspiracy, some of Egypt’s most honorable citizens could be thrown in jail over trumped-up charges and forgotten along with those they will join behind bars.
Notwithstanding the consequences of reporting on such issues in Egypt, the third most dangerous country for journalists in 2013, I decided to write the story told by some of the 25 fearlessly standing retrial for the crime of adhering to the revolution’s most basic demands.
On Nov. 26, 2013, a few hundred protesters gathered in front of Egypt’s Shura Council, the upper house of the parliament on the edge of Tahrir Square, the icon of the revolution smeared by years of injustice. The state-owned pro-regime media described them as violators of the protest law, but the truth is they were protesting the regime’s plan to take the military trials for civilians from being an exceptional procedure under exceptional conditions to a military privilege granted full immunity by the new constitution.
The story of military trials for civilians goes back to Jan. 28, 2011, the “Friday of Anger.” It was the fourth and deadliest day of the Egyptian revolution, the day on which former President Hosni Mubarak’s police suffered an unprecedented defeat at the hands of peaceful protesters. The events pushed the Egyptian armed forces, for the first time in two decades, to fly its F-16s and roll rumbling machinery down the streets of Cairo and other major cities to seize control the country and begin a campaign of military tribunals for the masses.
From that day until the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was elected president on June 28, 2012, more than 12,000 civilians were sentenced to prison and sometimes death after military tribunals under the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It was a shocking number, a number that beat 30 Mubarak years, during which some 2,000 people were tried in military tribunals.
No Military Trials for Civilians (NMTC), an independent initiative established after the 2011 revolution, fought to end what became an epidemic of exceptional military privileges that replaced Mubarak’s emergency law, and in both cases, the defendants were stripped of their most basic legal and human rights.
Not so surprisingly, after June 30 and Morsi’s ouster — a transition dubbed by the current regime and their loyalists as the «revolution that followed the January 2011 conspiracy» — the 50-member panel charged with amending the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution headed by the Mubarak-era Foreign Minister Amr Moussa began discussing an article allowing what they called «conditional military trials for civilians.»
«When the Constituent Assembly discussed the military-trials article and showed its intention to pass it, the revolutionary powers were put in the middle of the battle of the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime that toppled them,» Nazly Hussein, a leading member of the NMTC, told Al-Monitor.
The first call to protest in front of the Shura Council was made by the movement on Nov. 9; about two weeks later, Mosaad Abu Fajr, a prominent activist jailed by the emergency law under Mubarak, stormed out of the assembly’s session in protest of the overwhelming agreement to what Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary activists consider a main element of the military’s crackdown on dissent.
«This is a crooked article and will remain crooked even if voted on by the whole world,» said Abu Fajr.
Yet, the article — described by Abu Fajr as «an article unfit for a constitution drafted after a revolution in the 21st century» — was approved on Nov. 21.
Despite providing constitutional immunity to military trials for civilians, the Egyptian regime decided this was not enough. It insisted on seizing greater powers to crack down on dissent in case the conditions of the now-constitutional military trials weren’t fulfilled.
On Nov. 24, coinciding with the second call to protest in front of the Shura Council, interim President Adly Mansour passed the protest law that Morsi and the Military Council failed to pass during their stint in power. The law banned any protest unless permitted by the security authorities, and even then, the authorities enjoyed a set of other justifications to detain, prosecute and jail any protester across the country.
The law was published in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper and put into effect Nov. 25.