Rare success story for Egypt's revolution: ending military trials

After the revolution, some 12,000 Egyptians faced military trials, which were as short as five minutes and denied them basic rights. But a grass-roots group intervened, with surprising success.

Fredrik Persson/AP
Protester Ahmed Said holds chains and chants, "Egypt is still in the U.S. and military chains," during the third day of a protest by Islamists in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt Sunday, April 22.

It was late February in 2011, and former President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down just two weeks before. But Egyptians were still protesting, demanding that the Mubarak-appointed cabinet also step down. After a peaceful protest Feb. 26, Army soldiers violently dispersed the demonstrators, beating them and firing into the air.

One of the unlucky ones was Amr el-Beheiry. Witnesses say a group of soldiers surrounded and beat him viciously before he was arrested. Days later, in a five-minute military tribunal, he was convicted of assaulting a public official and breaking curfew, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Mr. Beheiry’s case was the first glimpse into what has turned out to be one of the military’s most extensive abuses of power during its post-Mubarak rule of Egypt. Since January 2011, the military has tried more than 12,000 Egyptian civilians like Beheiry in military tribunals that deny basic rights of due process.

But what happened after Beheiry’s arrest and trial is one of the few success stories amid the setbacks and disappointments that have marked the year since Egypt’s uprising. Spurred and angered by what they found was quietly going on in military prisons and prosecution centers, a small group came together to fight it. They faced a battle on two fronts – not only against the Army, but also to convince their fellow Egyptians that military tribunals were actually taking place, and that their victims deserved better.

A year after "No Military Trials for Civilians" was launched, the group has succeeded in raising awareness about the issue and bringing pressure to bear on the military, to the extent that Egypt’s military rulers have promised to end or limit the practice. Though military trials for civilians are still taking place, their numbers are far lower than a year ago. And this month Egypt’s new parliament moved to limit, although not end, the practice.

The group played an “incredibly important” role over the past year, says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researched for Human Rights Watch. “They zoomed in on one issue that, at the beginning, seemed a technical issuer that only human rights lawyers were obsessed with, and they managed to turn this into a rallying call for anti-military protesters and also for intellectuals and politicians looking at civil-military relations,” she says. “I think their work has had a measurable and very significant impact.”

12,000 Egyptians faced military tribunals

The No Military Trials group is a combination of veteran activists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens. It coalesced in March 2011, when activists began looking into Beheiry’s case, and others arrested that month, and discovered that there were hundreds, then thousands, of others like him.

Many were too poor for their cases to gain attention, and their families didn’t know where to turn. Many were discovered by chance, as lawyers who went to aid one victim found dozens of other names on the docket, says Ragia Omran, a lawyer who has been a main pillar of the group over the last year as she worked to defend those brought before military tribunals.

The extent of the practice was not clear until September, when a military general admitted that nearly 12,000 Egyptians had faced military tribunals so far. The trials can take place in as little as five minutes. Defendants sometimes cannot choose their lawyers, and are sometimes allowed to say only a single word before the military judge. Human Rights Watch documented 43 cases of juveniles being tried before such courts.

In the early months of 2011, the tribunals were used not just against protesters, but for trying criminal suspects as well, effectively as an alternative to civil courts. But the military used them often as a weapon against protesters, who threatened military rule.

Even his aunt sided with the Army

Ragy el-Keshef, a young filmmaker, was arrested on March 9, 2011, when Army soldiers attacked a demonstration in Tahrir and took some of the protesters to the Egyptian museum, where they were tortured for hours. Mr. Keshef says military police beat and administered electric shocks for seven hours. The next day, he was put on trial – in the kitchen of a military prison, while soldiers cooked vegetables on the stove.

He wasn’t told his sentence until days later, when he was suddenly allowed to go home. He had been found innocent. But his brother, and about 120 others, were convicted and sentenced to prison. The No Military Trials group rallied around their cause, trying to raise awareness.

The group’s attempt to gain public support may have been the most difficult battle.

Local Arabic-language newspapers refused to touch the issue, out of fear for the military and because many Egyptians didn’t believe the activists. If the trials really were taking place, the Army must be trying thugs and troublemakers, many said. Keshef’s own aunt, after he was released, said he must have deserved what happened to him, because the Army is good and would never do such a thing.

“At the time, nobody believed these things. No matter how many pictures we published, no matter how many stories, no matter how many testimonies, people were unwilling to believe that this was happening,” says Shahira Aboueillail, one of the group’s founders. “They thought these were Photoshopped [images], that they were fabricated, and that we were trying to create a hostile environment for the Army and prevent Egypt from transforming into a proper democracy and creating a state of chaos.”

'If we didn't do this, no one would'

The activists endured abuse, both from authorities and citizens. Their members were photographed, followed, and intimidated by Egyptian intelligence. Their first press conference was attacked by a military soldier and thugs. When they set up a hotline, they received threatening calls.

But they soldiered on. They held press conferences, inviting families of victims to testify in attempts to convince Egyptians of the truth. They called protests, and recorded the testimony of victims families and posted it online. They organized campaigns inviting prominent Egyptians to speak on behalf of victims, hoping trusted faces saying these words would help change hearts and minds.

Eventually, they began to see victories. Because of their pressure, the 120 who had been arrested with Keshef in March were released in May last year. And as the military’s abuses grew, so did people’s willingness to believe the campaign. Their protests increased, and newspapers began covering the story.

They eventually brought enough pressure to bear that the military rulers promised to restrict military trials only to crimes of “thuggery” – a pledge activists consider insufficient, but a measure of their progress nonetheless. Some who had been convicted in military tribunals began to receive retrials; in recent months, some have been freed that way.

RELATED: Atheist and pro-Israel, former detainee Maikel Nabil tests free speech in Egypt

And in February came perhaps the sweetest victory yet: Beheiry, whose case was the beginning of the campaign, was released after a year in prison. But while the group celebrated his release, they say they still have work to do as long as civilians are still in prison as a result of military trials. “If we didn’t do this,” says Ms. Omran, “no one would.”

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