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One year ago, just before Egypt’s President Mubarak was toppled, protesters called the military to their side: The side of history. Hundreds of thousands chanted, “The army. The people. One hand.” The army was seen, then, as heroic. But now many fear the mighty Egyptian military with its vast economic resources will not relinquish power — that it has betrayed the revolution.

Egypt military trials protest
Om Ahmed demonstrates for the release of her son and his friend on July 1, 2011. Both were sentenced to five years in prison in a military trial for breaking curfew. (Mona Seif/Courtesy)

Military tribunals: A continuing crackdown on Egypt’s revolution

More than 12,000 civilians caught in army netherworld.

CAIRO — Before the pro-democracy movement’s demonstrations swelled the streets of this city and ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Amr El-Beheiry was a 32-year-old factory worker who hailed from Nile Delta and was proud of his large and very close family.

El-Beheiry struggled like most Egyptians, but his family says he kept a simple dream of being able to afford an apartment and to save enough to finance a modest wedding. He minded his own business.

But like hundreds of thousands of Egyptians El-Beheiry found himself swept up in the momentum of history and he took to the streets to join the protests that began January 25, 2011 and 18 days later resulted in the downfall of Mubarak. El-Beheiry continued to challenge authority — newly empowered, his family says, by the idea of a better future. On Feb. 25, he was arrested along with dozens of other protesters in front of the building where Egyptian cabinet meets.

El-Beheiry has the unfortunate distinction of being among the very first civilians arrested under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the governing body made up of generals that was given executive authority in Egypt during the transition to a newly elected government.

As a result, he was among the first of some 12,000 civilians to be brought before a military tribunal under the country’s so-called “Emergency Laws.” This process routinely suspends a civilian’s right to a fair trial and human rights activists fear it is an old ploy of the Mubarak regime which is once again being used to crush dissent. 

El-Beheiry has been badly beaten in prison, held incommunicado and sentenced to five years on what his family and lawyers say are trumped-up charges of breaking curfew and assaulting a soldier.

“The military pretended to defend the revolution, and they continued with the same suppressive practices we revolted against.”
~Mona Seif

UPDATE: SCAF head Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi announced that he would partially lift the country's "emergency law" on Jan. 24, a move interpreted by the military's critics as a ploy to temper rising political sentiment ahead of the Jan. 25 anniversary.

He was sentenced at a court hearing that was never announced to the family and which not even his lawyers were permitted to attend.

Mubarak used the “Emergency Laws” for decades to circumvent the civilian justice system and was criticized by international human rights groups for years for doing so. But in three decades of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, there were only 2,000 cases of civilians being tried by military courts. In just ten months of SCAF taking control of the country, there have been six times that many.

Human Rights Watch released a report this week to mark the anniversary of the ‘January 25 Revolution’ in Egypt that highlighted SCAF’s use of these “Emergency Laws” and to call for the newly elected parliament to make it a legislative priority do away with this web of laws that curb free expression, limit the right to assembly and restrict just about any form of opposition to the ruling government. Egypt’s newly elected lower house of parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, will sit for the first time Monday.

In the 46-page report titled “The Road Ahead: A Human Rights Agenda for Egypt’s New Parliament,” Human Rights Watch sets out nine areas of Egyptian law that most need reform if the law is “to become an instrument that protects Egyptians’ rights rather than represses them.”

Amid the call for a change in Egypt’s laws to end the practice of military trials, El Beheiry’s case has become a cause célèbre, launching a popular, national movement known as “No Military Trials.” Bumper stickers and street graffiti supporting the movement can be seen everywhere.

The movement has begun to affect change: three days before the first anniversary of the revolution, and with rising fears of anti-military protests across the country, SCAF announced that Marshall Mohamed Hussien Tantawi signed a pardon decree for 1959 prisoners who have been sentenced by military tribunals. El-Beheiry is not among them.

The news comes less than two weeks after Marshall Tantawi denied the use of military trials in a meeting with former US president Jimmy Carter, who held extended meetings with top Egyptian officials, heads of political parties and NGOs after the Carter Center participated in what they described as “witnessing the Egyptian parliamentary elections.”

The sudden change in the military's stance did not surprise the activist community nor did it slow their preparations for wide-scale protests.


This is how El-Beheiry’s ordeal began.

As the soldiers moved in to arrest him, he was severely beaten. Leila Soueif, one of Egypt’s prominent human rights activists, saw this unfold and intervened. She had never met El-Beheiry but Soueif is the grandmother and matriarch of a family with a long history of opposition to the Mubarak regime. She insisted that she would not leave the scene of the protest without this young man whom she saw unfairly arrested and savagely beaten with her own eyes.