Egyptians fear army rulers acting as new Mubaraks

July 17, 2011 - 11:14 AM
Mideast Egypt Fearing New Mubaraks

Egyptian Ramy Issam shows his back covered with scars at the courtyard of the Egyptian museum while visiting the museum for the first time since his detention, in Cairo, Egypt Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

CAIRO (AP) — The soldiers shouted, "Raise your head high, you're Egyptian."

It was one of the most inspiring chants by young protesters during Egypt's revolution, encapsulating the newfound pride of a people rising up after a lifetime of humiliation under authoritarian rule.

From the soldiers, it was a taunt.

They barked it over and over at an activist lying belly down on the ground, stripped to his boxers, his hands and right leg tied behind his back. Each time Ramy Issam obeyed, he said, a soldier would stomp his head back onto the marble of the courtyard in Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

To the youth who led the protests and to a growing number of Egyptians, the secretive council of top generals that now rules the country is looking too much like the regime it replaced — authoritarian, ready to use brutal tactics and out of touch with the nation's aspirations.

The military, which was greeted with cheers when it pushed out longtime president Hosni Mubarak in February, has proclaimed its embrace of the revolution and democratic elections later this year. But protesters have returned to Tahrir Square, holding a sit-in since July 8, to complain that the military has hijacked the transition and has been reluctant to purge members of the old regime.

Reported abuses add a darker undertone to those complaints. There have been multiple reports of torture of detainees. To an unprecedented extent, the army has also been bringing civilians before military courts, notorious for their swift rulings with little chance for defense. In five months, more than 10,000 civilians have been put on military trial, including protesters, activists and at least one journalist who wrote an article critical of the army, according to rights groups tracking the detentions.

"The revolution has been stolen by the military council," said Issam, the long-haired "Singer of the Revolution" who is known for rousing the crowd in Tahrir Square with political tunes on his Spanish guitar. "We made the revolution and we gave it to the military council on a silver platter. But everyone must know that we have learned how to say 'No.'"

Issam seemed close to tears as he visited the Egyptian Museum in early July for the first time since his detention and recounted his ordeal to an Associated Press reporter.

He was among dozens grabbed by soldiers who broke up a March 9 sit-in in Tahrir protesting the generals' slowness in implementing the revolution's post-Mubarak demands.

Issam and the others were dragged to the nearby museum, the treasure trove of pharaonic antiquities that the military used as an impromptu base at times during the uprising. There, Issam says, he was beaten by wooden sticks and iron rods and given electric shocks. His hair was cut off with broken glass.

After a public outcry over that day's crackdown, the council promised to review reports of torture, but no results of a review have been made public. It also admitted that some detained women were forced to take humiliating "virginity tests," and it said the practice would not be repeated.

Amid the beatings, Issam recalled the warning shouted at him by one of the officers:

"We will make you know who are the real masters of this country."

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The irony of Egypt's revolution was that it put one of the pillars of Mubarak's regime in control of the process of dismantling that regime.

The contradiction has caused much of the friction since Mubarak's Feb. 11 fall, as the young activists who led the uprising push for dramatic democratic change in the face of what they see as resistance from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, made up of generals in their 60s to 80s, all appointed by Mubarak.

The council says it is committed to change and that it consults frequently with all political factions. But the council has rarely amended its transition plan or moved against former regime figures without the pressure of new street demonstrations — and even then its concessions have been partial.

And an attitude seen as paternalistic has rankled revolutionaries whose uprising was in great part against the "we will tell you what's best" tone of Mubarak's regime.

In response to the new protest camp in Tahrir, council member Maj. Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari went on state TV last week to repeat vows to hand over power after elections. But he also sternly warned that the military will not put up with "deviations" by protesters that "harm the nation's interests." As he spoke, he wagged his finger at the camera.

The scolding brought open ridicule. Newspaper cartoons depicted parents using the general's speech to frighten naughty children.

Few believe that the council, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, wants to directly rule beyond the election. But protesters suspect it aims to keep as much as the old regime in place as it can and preserve the military's own status as the ultimate arbiters in the country.

Since the 1952 army coup that toppled the monarchy, the military has suffused Egypt's regime. All four presidents in this country of 80 million have come from the military. Generals were given lucrative and important jobs on retirement, including as provincial governors, mayors, heads of state-owned companies and ambassadors.

Other forces dominated the state's workings, particularly Mubarak's ruling party and the powerful internal security forces. The military stood above the fray, content with its perks, including billions in U.S. aid. Criticism of it was unheard of — any news article about it had to be cleared by military censors, so most media stopped trying to report on it.

After Mubarak's fall, the military council declared itself the "protector" of the revolution, capitalizing on its decision not to fire on protesters during the 18-day uprising.

But as the country's politicians debate what the status of the military should be in the new Egypt, activists warn it isn't necessarily a force for democracy.

"We are repeatedly told that the army in Egypt is great because it does not do what the armies of Syria and Libya are doing to regime opponents there," said activist Mona Seif el-Islam. "It is not true. The army here is just as dirty but in a different way."

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On Jan. 28, Cairo fell into looting and arson on one of the uprising's most tumultuous days. Mohammed Adel, a bank employee swept up in revolutionary enthusiasm, boldly went up to an army officer near the museum and asked why his troops were not protecting the building from thieves.

The officer promptly arrested him.

The 32-year-old became one of the first of thousands put on military trial. In a hearing lasting minutes, the court sentenced him to five years in prison on charges of stealing artifacts from the museum, said his lawyer, Mustafa Mahmoud.

His mother, Nariman, who has visited him repeatedly in prison, said Adel told her he had been beaten and tortured by electric shocks.

"Why do they do this people? It's shameful. Don't they know that these are people made of flesh and blood?" she said. "You don't hit a cat or a dog because you know they will be in pain."

Defense lawyers estimate that 10,000 civilians have been put on military trial since protests began. The number is based on case serial numbers, which vaulted dramatically beyond the average 100 soldiers a month who were tried before the January uprising.

The number dwarfs the use of such courts under Mubarak's 29-year-rule, when hundreds of civilians were put on trial in military courts or special security courts that came under similar criticism for lack of due process, rights activists and lawyers say. Mubarak's courts, they note, gave harsher sentences, including 100 death sentences.

"The way these courts run is farcical," said Negad Borai, one of three defense lawyers who spoke to AP about the system. "The injustice starts with the way people are arrested by the military police and the torture they endure until they appear before the court."

Military officials, who rarely give interviews, could not be reached for comment. But the council has defended its use of military courts as necessary to restore order, a major concern for Egyptians worried over a post-revolution jump in crime. The council says that in cases that affect security, such as looting or rioting, they take the issue to the military courts to decide it quickly.

But Adel's case and others raise questions over how many of those convicted were actually involved in violence.

Hossam Nassif, 21, geology student at Cairo University, was among nearly 190 people detained when soldiers broke up a May 15 protest outside the Israeli Embassy. He and others were beaten by policemen, then taken by soldiers to the Haekstep military prison on Cairo's eastern outskirts, he said.

In his military trial, the session covered 50 cases in two hours, he said. After several minutes, the judges emerged with guilty verdicts for all. Nassif said he and the others each received a one-year suspended sentence for "driving a wedge between Egypt and a friendly nation," damaging public property and assaulting a policeman.

His experience is typical, the lawyers said.

Defendants get an average of 20 minutes in court and are denied the right to speak. Lawyer Rajyah Omran said she is barred from being present when her clients are questioned and sees details of their cases only a half-hour or less before trial.

Borai said the courts appoint a lawyer for defendants who don't have one. But the court-appointed lawyers usually speak only to make the formal pronouncement to the judge, "We ask for leniency," he said. Acquittals are extremely rare, the lawyers said, and the overwhelming majority of sentences involve some jail time, up to 25 years in prison. Most convictions have been on charges of illegal possession of arms, thuggery, breaking the now-defunct curfew, attacking policemen, disturbing the peace or resisting authority.

Adel's mother, Nariman, spent four frantic days looking for him after his arrest. Adel is her only child, after his brother died in a road accident in 2000. She finally learned where he was when he and others were paraded on state TV, identified as "thugs and looters."

After his conviction, she went public with calls for justice. In June, the military repealed Adel's verdict and ordered a retrial.

He remains in prison in the meantime. But Nariman is grateful.

"Thanks be to God for everything and anything," she said with resignation. "At least I can afford a lawyer. Most others cannot."