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CAIRO — It took tens of thousands of Egyptians to upend the 31-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in the Arab world’s most populous country. Can a single dissident curb the authoritarian inclinations of Egypt’s current military rulers during what is supposed to be a democratic transition?
Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a blogger turned political activist, is trying to do just that, by challenging the military authorities’ right to prosecute civilians.
His case stems from controversy surrounding the terrifying breakup of a Coptic-Christian-led demonstration in Cairo on Oct. 9. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which has run Egypt since Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster, put itself in charge of investigating the violence.
It quickly absolved its soldiers from any wrongdoing in the deaths of more than two dozen protesters, but has arrested Abdel-Fattah and about two dozen other civilians so far in connection with the incident. Authorities jailed Abdel-Fattah on Oct. 30 and charged him with incitement, damaging military property and stealing army weapons during the episode.
He was detained because he has refused to cooperate with military prosecutors. By doing so, he is striking at one of the lengthening list of powers the army is reserving for itself even as Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections, constitution-writing, and an eventual presidential election. Since Mubarak’s downfall, military courts have tried about 11,000 Egyptians. Defendants in Egyptian military courts usually have no access to counsel of their own choosing. Judges in the military justice system are military officers subject to a chain of command and cannot easily ignore instructions from superiors.
The SCAF has kept in place emergency laws that were a mainstay of Mubarak’s rule, and penal code provisions that provide incarceration for such supposed crimes as besmirching Egypt’s image or insulting the president. The generals have added to these repressive laws by decreeing strikes illegal, and prosecuted activists for criticizing the military. Some detainees have been tortured in custody. The SCAF also proposed a “draft guide” to a new constitution that would give the military effective veto over its articles and keep future military budgets off-limits to public scrutiny.
Abdel-Fattah, by refusing to cooperate with the military prosecutors, is effectively saying no more running roughshod over basic rights. He is in Tora prison; on Nov. 13, a military court extended his jail stay for a second 15-day “investigation” period.
If SCAF actions embody Mubarak-era habits, Abdel-Fattah represents the persistence of pro-democracy dissidents. He and his wife once blogged on social and cultural matters, but turned to political criticism in 2005, after Mubarak police and plainclothes henchmen beat women pro-democracy demonstrators. A year later police arrested him and dozens of other demonstrators marching to support judges who denounced electoral fraud. He was held for 45 days.
It runs in the family. His father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, founded the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a law firm specializing in human rights litigation, especially for torture victims. His sister, Mona Soueif, founded a group called No to Military Trials — well before Abdel-Fattah’s arrest– to protest army prosecutions of civilians. His mother, the university professor and academic freedom proponent Laila Soueif, is on a hunger strike to protest the jailing.
“The bright side to all this is that Alaa and other people are not afraid,” Laila Soueif said. “Why should I be afraid of missing meals?”
She said her son arrived at the Oct. 9 Coptic demonstration after the main violence had occurred and ferried a wounded 16-year-old to a hospital. There, he helped organize families to demand autopsies; doctors found that 10 of the 17 people whose bodies were there had died from being crushed, six from gunfire and one from stab wounds. On Oct. 20, in the newspaper Shorouk, Abdel-Fattah wrote about how he and some comrades persuaded the family of Mina Daniel, a pro-democracy activist shot during the demonstration, to permit an autopsy rather than bury the body right away. Other families followed their lead. In another letter published in Shorouk, Abdel-Fattah wrote, “I never expected to repeat the experience of five years ago: after a revolution that deposed the tyrant, I go back to his jails?”
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Nov. 11 called on Egyptian authorities to free him “and all others who have been imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights to free speech and association” and expressed concern “about what appears to be a diminishing public space for freedom of expression and association” in Egypt.
The Obama administration has not called for Abdel-Fattah’s release.
Quiet approaches to Mubarak’s repression rarely worked; it would be wrong to think coddling the current military overseers of the country will work now. On Nov. 7, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the National Democratic Institute in Washington that in America’s Middle East past, “America did push for reform, but often not hard enough or publicly enough.”
Administration officials have put out the word they are taking a tougher line with Egypt’s military rulers and cautioning them not to hold on to power. They should also speak out clearly on the ongoing abuses the SCAF has countenanced, starting with the detention of Alaa Abdel–Fattah.
Daniel Williams is a senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.More Daniel Williams.