ROME — The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed Egypt in the 18 months since Hosni Mubarak fell and apparently wants to hold on indefinitely, can’t justify itself on its record.
Especially when it comes to human rights.
The SCAF presented itself as the shepherd of Egypt’s transition to democracy. Instead, SCAF trampled rights of Egyptians across the board, repressing speech and public gatherings and preserving an unfair justice system.
In some areas, SCAF has outdone Mubarak.
Take the Emergency Law, instituted in Mubarak’s first year in power and maintained throughout his rule, which, among other things, let Interior Ministry officials detain people without charge indefinitely. It also permitted trials in State Security Courts that did not provide the right to an appeal, did not allow defendants adequate access to lawyers outside of the courtroom and did not investigate allegations of torture.
Moreover, in 2011, more than 12,000 civilians, including children, faced unfair military trials, which fail to provide the basic due process rights of normal civilian courts, than during Mubarak’s 30 years of rule.
Just two weeks after Egypt’s newly elected parliament let the emergency law finally expire on May 31, the SCAF-appointed Justice Ministry decreed that the military police and intelligence services may arrest civilians, giving security forces the right to bring them before military courts. This effectively reinstated key aspects of the Emergency Law. A court, however, overturned the decree.
The SCAF also took steps to expand its reach into government with a vague decree resuscitating the National Defense Council, an institution with an undefined mandate. Eleven of its 16 members would come from the military, and decisions would only be made by absolute majority, theoretically prolonging the SCAF by another name. In June, right after dissolving parliament following a court ruling, SCAF granted itself legislative powers and removed control of the military from presidential purview.
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Evidence abounds that military justice cannot be trusted to hold military law enforcement officers accountable for abusing citizens. Consider the acquittal in April of an officer who administered so-called “virginity tests” on unmarried women detainees following their arrests at a demonstration.
Or take the repeated cases of excessive use of force in breaking up demonstrations.
When mainly Christian demonstrators protested at the state television headquarters known as Maspero last October, a pair of armored cars drove into peaceful crowds along Cairo’s Nile riverfront drive, crushing at least 10 people, autopsies showed.
Throughout last year and into this, police and soldiers habitually beat and tortured peaceful demonstrators. As recently as May, soldiers beat detainees as they dragged them from Tahrir Square and again in detention. Whips, sticks and boots were the favored tools. Some got electric shocks. Soldiers detained medics and journalists as well.
The SCAF interregnum has also featured assaults on free speech and the press: military trials of protesters and bloggers, interrogations of journalists, suspension of granting new satellite television licenses.
Perhaps these practices will be inhibited once a new constitution is written. Or maybe not.
It is still uncertain whether the constituent assembly, which is supposed to write the new constitution, has a legal future. A court is set to decide whether it is a valid entity in September. Meanwhile the SCAF decreed itself the right to veto articles that it doesn’t like in the planned constitution— presumably it would use this power to protect its own dominance, or to prevent civilian oversight of the military.
The human rights stakes in Egypt’s power struggle should be clear: No past modern Egyptian constitution has protected citizen rights against a secretive and unelected military operating as the state’s real power. A new one should clearly defend all Egyptians from arbitrary arrest, torture, indefinite detention and other long-standing abuses. Laws should punish such wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, in its single-minded quest to keep power and toss aside civil liberties, SCAF has held an advantage over the divided groups that overthrew Mubarak: The revolutionaries — Islamic and secular, left, right and center — never set out their notions of the immutable rights of Egyptians.
The elected president, Mohamed Morsi, ought to be leading the way in this. It is not enough to tell Egyptians he loves them all, as he did in his unofficial inaugural address in Tahrir Square on June 29. Morsi has defied SCAF by trying to reinstate parliament. He should apply equal energy to insuring that any future government respects human rights.
In dealings with SCAF, the military’s 18-month post-uprising record should be kept firmly in mind. And Egyptians of all political stripes should come together to support the rights of free expression, assembly, and independent, fair and open justice.
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Daniel Williams is senior researcher in the Emergencies Division of Human Rights Watch