With Mubarak gone, Egyptians turn to courts for justice

Egyptians are filing a flood of cases against everyone from the interior minister to local cops, feeling safe for the first time in decades to challenge those who once acted with near impunity.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Egyptian Christians protest outside the Egyptian state television in Cairo on Feb. 20. They are demanding for a civilian state. Egypt’s new military rulers told the nation on Saturday they were committed to civilian rule and democracy after President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow and said they would respect all treaties, a move to reassure Israel and Washington.

Hossam Said rested his head against metal crutches as he waited inside the Lawyers’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo. A policeman shot him in the leg several weeks ago and Mr. Said was there to seek justice by filing a report.

“We want the people responsible to be executed,” said Mr. Said, referring to the violence used against demonstrators during 18 days of antigovernment protests. “We won’t stop the fight until this happens.”

Papers and pens swirled around him in a room inside the syndicate as lawyers documented case after case of Egyptians issuing grievances. Said, who made his visit last week, is just one of a flood of petitioners seeking redress in the courts now that he feels safe to do so. Like others, he wants his oppressors to be held responsible.

“The number of cases filed has definitely increased now because people were really scared before this,” says lawyer Tarek Ibrahim Abdel Qader, an attorney of 21 years who was working in the syndicate that day.

Egypt has long been a land of petty tyrants, of local politicians and cops who acted with near impunity on the average citizenry for decades. If calls for justice spread and are met, it could amount to a social upheaval greater than the removal of Mubarak himself.

'Police could have hunted me down'

Mr. Abdel Qader says he is glad to see Egyptians fighting for their rights now. “People protesting knew how to be civilized and ask for their rights in a proper way, and that is reflected in how people are filing law suits because now they feel they can get their own rights peacefully,” he said.

Abdel Qader coordinates the Freedoms Committee, an organization established in 1919 that is helping Egyptian citizens who can’t afford legal fees to file cases against the government. On Jan. 25, the group of 100 volunteer lawyers created five different teams to handle the influx of cases they expected in the days after the uprising began.

Most of the cases he has seen in the past several weeks deal with corruption and most are against the former minister of Interior, Gen. Habib Ibrahim El Adly (ret.), he said.

“I just want the man to be executed,” says Mohammad Hassan, who is filing a case on behalf of his brother, 23-year-old Ahmad Hassan, who was shot in the head and killed during protests on Jan. 28.

But if Mubarak was still in power, Mr. Hassan says he would not have filed the report. “Police could have hunted me down and killed me,” he says. Now it’s different. “People who want to express themselves should do it. I want freedom for everybody and a proper life for everybody.”

Mokhtar Ali Mahdi was one of the few Egyptians to file a case under Mubarak’s regime. He has been fighting since 2004, the year he says authorities seized his land by force in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut. “They captured me and hit me and used brutal force against me,” he says. They threatened to accuse him of being a terrorist in court if he didn’t cooperate with their demands.

For seven years, the case went nowhere. But Mr. Mahdi thinks he has a chance to successfully proceed now that Mubarak is gone. “I think justice will prevail,” he says, pulling a two-inch stack of documents from a crinkled yellow folder.

Concern that progress may be short-lived

According to a public prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice who spoke on condition of anonymity, so many corruption cases have been filed at the office of the attorney general recently that his team of specialist investigators expanded fourfold on Saturday.

"Every hour, my friends who specialize in corruption cases are asked by the attorney general to work on a new one,” the prosecutor says.

Egypt’s new military rulers have ordered prominent businessmen and backers of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party not to travel abroad while they’re investigated for corruption.

Said, however, worries that the justice-oriented mindset will not last forever.

“We think it is only in the current time that people will ask for their rights,” he said. “But we’re not optimistic. The oppression we’ve felt in the past is eventually going to be the same all over again.”

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