Egypt's forgotten revolutionaries

Editor’s note: Concern is mounting in Egypt that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will not live up to its promise to relinquish executive power in July, a fear that led to the Saturday announcement by Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei that he would withdraw in protest from the presidential race. A small number of mllitary officers are joining the growing opposition to SCAF and its increasingly brutal crackdown on the protest movement. It is a spirit of questioning within the military never imaginable under the military-backed regimes that have ruled the country for 60 years. At least two dozen officers have stepped forward to challenge the military since April, which is seen as tantamount to defection. In this report, Egyptian journalist and GlobalPost ‘reporting fellow’ Ahmed Ateyya goes inside the nascent movement of military ‘defectors.’

CAIRO — Mohammed Al Wadee never studied music and he’s not a professional singer, but he has a good voice and he wrote a song in June 2010.

That song landed him in prison.

An Egyptian army captain, Al Wadee, 23, wrote verses which in no uncertain terms accuse the high commanders of the military with financial and political corruption. And he sang, perhaps longingly, of a desire to see youth leaders rise up against the regime.

"Agents and traitors,

dogs are commanding lions.

Take care now, the lions are growing restless ..."

In early 2010, he shared the song with fellow army officers, one of whom notified his superiors. With Egypt still in the tight grip of Mubarak and the police state filled with informants, Al Wadee was charged with “promoting divisions” within the army and he spent approximately 9 months in the brig, according to his family and political activists who have met with him. And it was from behind bars in the military detention center that he heard about the dizzying events of Tahrir Square and the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

He was released in March 2011.

Then on April 8th he and other "restless lions" joined the Tahrir Square protests in their military uniforms, unarmed, demanding the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) immediately step down and hand its authority to a civil presidential council.

Twenty-two army officers are now in jail. At least four were arrested in the square. Others turned themselves in, or were hunted down at their homes or places of work.

While some were sentenced, others are waiting their next court hearing on February 11. Two more ‘defectors’ surfaced in November and some military analysts are now wondering if this trickle of dissent could become a movement.

Al Wadee’s family is worried about his fate and his mother has begged the military to release him, but he remains behind bars.

Hoda Naguib, Al Wadee's mother, described him as a devoted soldier who respected the military life since he was very young. His father is a retired army officer who used to take him to the barracks as a young boy.

"My son was a true man, and an excellent soldier," she said. "But he felt discontent of the corruption of the political life in Egypt before the revolution, and that Mubarak was not charged after the revolution."

Naguib said that her son joined his fellows in Tahrir Square on April 8th and chanted "mothers of the martyrs are my own mothers," but he didn’t join the sit-in which was later attacked by the military.

They found him anyway.

Around 1 a.m. on April 9, Al Wadee’s home was surrounded by military police vehicles. They stormed the family house and confiscated his identification cards.

"He didn’t resist, but they treated him as if they were arresting a dangerous criminal," Naguib said.

Isolation

The April 8th officers may be the only political prisoners in Egypt that human rights organization seem unwilling, or perhaps too intimidated, to champion. Political parties have also steered clear of their cases. 

Heba Morayef, researcher in the North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, was asked about the ‘defectors’ and their cases. She replied, "They are officers, and by law they can be subjected to military trials."

She conceded that the April 8th officers’ case is not the kind of topic that can be easily discussed with SCAF.

As a result, their families say, the ‘defectors’ are isolated with few allies.

Laila Al Gohary, mother of First Lieutenant Mohammed Hanafy, choked back tears while describing the deteriorating health of her son in the military prison.

"If they were farm animals, they would have received better treatment," said Al Gohary who claims her son is suffering from diabetes and a severe heart condition.

"He would have received treatment if he was a regular prisoner," she added that the political nature of his charge is the reason he is still in his cell and not in a hospital.

Al Gohary could not provide a medical report to back up her story, but such a report is virtually impossible to obtain. The military typically does not grant access to medical reports, court rulings or any kind of information about army officers.

This is one reason why the story of the April 8th movement has been one of the most underreported stories in Egyptian media.

In a press conference by SCAF on April 10, an army spokesperson said that the demonstrators of April 8th were not army officers, "but people who wanted to cause a chasm between Egyptians and their army." He added that the military is investigating in the incident; no further information was released publicly about the results. Despite repeated requests for interviews with members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces about these cases, the military declined to answer questions on the record for GlobalPost.

Few reports have appeared in the Egyptian media about the progress of the military trials about the condition of the officers. Their families have demonstrated in Tahrir Square and in front of the Ministry of Defense. They have handed out leaflets telling the story of their sons and brothers. But because of the media blackout, little is known to the public about these officers' motives, their histories, and their fate.

Roots of Conflict

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on April 8, 2011 for a "day of cleansing calling for the trial of prominent figures from the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. Seven army officers defied a warning from the ruling military council when they joined the protesters' call for former regime elements to face trial.
(Thomas Hartwell/Courtesy)

"The army. The people. One hand” was a chant that echoed in Tahrir Square since the Egyptian police withdrawal from the square in January 28th, and the army took over the streets.

It didn't take long till "The army. The police. One hand” started to become a popular and cynical response to what many in the protest movement saw as a dramatic change in the spirit of the military.

It was in March when small protests and grassroots movements first began showing opposition to the SCAF for what protesters saw a surprising stepping up of more aggressive tactics.

Back then, Mubarak, his family, and the old guard were not yet put on trial, which raised questions about the sincerity of SCAF in responding to the public demand.

As protests turned violent, thousands were arrested and some 12,000 civilians were arrested and detained under emergency laws and told they would face trial under the military tribunals.

The “No To Military Trials” campaign also faced a media blackout but continued to speak of alleged tortures, forced “virginity tests” and other brutalities said committed by members of the military police and the army.

A leaked secret cable of the American Embassy in Cairo from 2008 offered a glimpse into what may have been a small-scale opposition movement within in the Egyptian army.

The cable, which was obtained through WikiLeaks, summarized an interview with a civilian analyst, whose name was redacted, saying that mid-level officers were being "harshly critical of a defense minister," whom they perceived as "incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates."

The analyst reported that military salaries had fallen below those of comparable private sector jobs and that the military life lost some of its prestige. "Privileged social position of its elite members has been in decline as society’s respect for the military fades," the analyst wrote.

Professor Khaled Fahmy, chair of the American University in Cairo's department of history, offers his own explanation about the birth of the movement.

Fahmy was heading to a meeting in downtown Cairo at the morning of April 9, when he passed by Tahrir Square. He was met by protesters showcasing cartridges from the bullets they claimed the army had used while dispersing the sit-in, and heard their stories about the "revolutionary officers" SCAF refused to publicly acknowledge.

"Those officers had very strong reasons to oppose their leadership," he said. "Lack of transparency and absence of public right to inspect military budgets definitely leads to discontent and oppression."

'Friday of Purification'

By the beginning of April, activists and political parties were calling for the "Friday of Trials," demanding that SCAF press charges against Mubarak, his family, and other former high-profile figures in the old regime. Meanwhile, a mysterious Facebook group, "Officers for the Revolution," called for the "Friday of the Purification of the Army," claiming that army officers were planning to join the Tahrir protests.

Nothing appeared about the movement in the media, and it was largely ignored. This quickly changed when two former army officers living abroad began posting videos on YouTube. Captain Hatem Abdulbady, who was granted political asylum in Norway in 2004, and Captain Sherif Othman, living in the US since 2004, accused SCAF of orchestrating a counter-revolution, and announced that April 8th will be the beginning of the revolution inside the army.

SCAF responded with a media campaign against the officers. A series of stories quoting unnamed military senior officials warned citizens about the possibility of "intruders disguised in military uniforms" who might appear in Tahrir to stir hatred against the army.

The officials claimed Abdulbady and Othman officers had bad records and were motivated by their personal grudges.

"I didn't want to be a slave of Eagle 1 anymore," Othman said, referring to the military code name of the ousted president.

Othman claims that he served at Almaza airbase in Giza, from which bags of money were smuggled into to Switzerland, among other illicit acts.

"Military crafts were used to fly Mubarak's barber from Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh and back," he said. When he was sent to a training course in Texas, he decided to go AWOL.

Reconstructing the Zero Hour

Tahrir Square was charged with optimism and determination in the morning of April 8th. Makeshift podiums around the square were gathering points for protesters.

"I didn’t believe that these are real army officers when I first saw them," said Nesreen Yousef, an eyewitness, as she recalls the day.

Around 4 p.m, she saw men in military uniforms walking in the square. A jubilant crowd hoisted them on their shoulders and paraded them around Tahrir. The crowd was chanting "The people, the army, one hand," but this time it was different: the word "army" referred to the ‘defectors’ who were challenging the army.

Yousef said that the officers climbed a podium and started to address the crowd, "We are true army officers, and we didn't steal these uniforms," one of them said, while all showed their army identification cards.

"We will spend the night here,” another officer said. “A sit-in until all the revolution demands are met.”

"I was very impressed by their bravery," said Yousef, who decided to join the sit-in and has been demonstrating for the 22 officers’ release since their arrests.

The few thousands who continued the sit-in into the evening were not representative of any political group. The officers occupied a tent in the middle of the square, video-blogging.

They demanded that General Mohammed Tantawy, high commander of the Egyptian army, resign his position and hand authority to a civil presidential council.

"We formed human chains around their tent," said Nesreen, explaining that the crowd twice prevented military police head Hamdy Badeen from arresting the ‘defectors.’

"Many prominent bloggers were criticizing the soldiers at that time, accusing them of treason, which convinced more people to leave the square," said Yousef, asserting that by dawn, there was a maximum of one thousand protesters.

At dawn, hundreds of military police, special forces, and paratroopers stormed the square. At least four officers were arrested, and two turned themselves in.

By April 15, the 22 officers were in custody. Not all had taken part in demonstrations; Major Mohammed Omar, for example, was arrested because he posted a video in which he spoke furiously against SCAF.

What were they thinking?

"They truly believed they would be sniped down the minute they walked up the podium," said Yousef, who has visited the officers many times in prison. This is not possible anymore, since prison visitations are now limited to first-degree relatives.

"They chose Tahrir Square because they wanted to support the revolution, not organize a coup," Yousef said.

That same week, the general prosecutor pressed charges against Mubarak, his two sons, and the top tier of the former regime. The officers were not widely credited for bringing about the charges.

Yousef recalls the reaction of the officers when they were called traitors by political leaders and some revolutionaries. "They laughed at how blind everybody was not to see how SCAF is not leaving power anytime soon," she said, "and they were very sure that those who looked down on them would soon be victimized by SCAF too."

Special Treatment

The officers were charged with "inciting strife within the military institution" and "attitudes that are against law and order of the military system," and each received 10 years in prison.

After several appeals, demonstrations, and light media exposure, the trial was repeated and the sentences were reduced to 3 years.

According to families of several officers, General Tantawy has not yet ratified the sentences, and many of the officers’ families are literally begging him to acquit them.

"They have been punished enough already,” said the songwriter Al Wadee’s mother, Naguib. “They were humiliated and been treated as if they were traitors.”

There is, however, evidence that the 22 officers are representative of a larger body of potential dissidents.

In November, police and army orchestrated a violent dispersion of a sit-in in Tahrir Square, sparking protests calling for immediate end of military rule.

At least two army officers joined the November protests: Major Tamer Badr, and Captain Amr Metwally. Both were arrested in Tahrir Square and are awaiting trail.

Major Badr was interviewed by the Guardian and in a video of him looking out on Tahrir Square which is posted on YouTube, he said, “I am on the right side. I am with the people … If I die, I die with a clear conscience. They’re demanding me to go back to unit. But I refuse until the revolution is over.”

"Sooner or later, people will start to ask questions about the alleged corruption in the military," Fahmy said. "As long as calls for reform and transparency are suppressed, the opposition will erupt."

His comments recall Mohammed Al Wadee's song from 2010, which questioned the income gap between mid-ranking officers and generals:

"Why are we so lost, while our elders are millionaires?"

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.