Public Opinion Plays Witness to Egypt’s Military Trials

No to Military Trials Protest

When prison doors were flung open in January 2011, releasing both political prisoners and criminal convicts, it gave rise to what is possibly one of the most overused words in Egypt’s lexicon today: baltageya. Often translated as ‘thugs’, it is weighed down with far more connotations and negativity than the four letter English word affords us.

It is this very word that has become the cornerstone justifying continued military trials, in which civilians have found themselves sentenced to months or years in prison, with no possibility of appeal.

Many had high hopes that Morsi may put an end to these trials, often taking place in the complete absence of a defense lawyer, ending a mere matter of minutes after they begin. The recent sentencing of eight protesters in the Suez Military Court says otherwise. Their trials came just five days after Morsi issued a decree ordering the formation of a committee to review cases of military arrests of civilians.

While Morsi’s committee has announced, in its first press conference, that it has “good news for the families of those militarily detained”, the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign has already outlined their reservations about the committee’s work.

Speaking on a State TV morning show, campaign member Amal Bakry listed three main concerns:

The first reservation is that the committee includes representatives from the Ministry of Interior, the Military Judiciary and the Attorney General’s office – all whom they see as having played a part in civilians ending up before military courts in the first place.

The second reservation is that the committee will only be looking into the cases of protesters and not those of alleged criminals, in other words, ‘baltageya’. This differentiation all but limits the committee’s work to hundreds of cases as opposed to the thousands that exist, according to Bakry.

Their third and last reservation is that the committee will only look into trials that took place before June 30, 2012, meaning that the 8 civilians sentenced in Suez have no hope of receiving fair trials as a result of the committee’s findings.

Bakry explains, “To create a committee and then differentiate – we haven’t done anything. We’ve returned to square one.”

One of the over-riding factors affecting the fate of civilians facing military tribunals over the past year and a half has been public sentiment. When high profile protesters or activists have been detained by military police, public pressure has seen them released from detention relatively fast. For thousands others whose names are known only to their families, and in some cases, the No Military Trials campaign, chances of release are slim.

These trials have continued to occur, after the election of President Mohamed Morsi, who in his speech on June 29 in Tahrir, promised to do his “best to free all detainees, including the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman.” It did not help that he lumped Egypt’s detainees with Abdel Rahman, particularly as most media outlets chose to pay attention only to the second half of that statement.

With the escalation of protests, violence, and arrests, many Egyptians, including elected members of parliament, have been quick to place labels of crime or espionage on these civilians. The disturbing reality is that, with these labels, come certain qualifications – one that often states that they deserve what they’re getting because they willingly placed themselves in those situations.

One of the most horrific images to emerge out of Egypt – of a woman being dragged on the ground and her chest being stomped on by a soldier – was met with global outrage, but in Egypt, a different reaction was seen from some. They criticized her for going there, with some even going so far as to accuse her of orchestrating the event to defame Egypt’s army. Like baltageya, other labels have been placed on protesters, no different from those used by Mubarak’s security and media apparatus during the 18 day uprising. Conspiracy theories have continued to label these protesters spies, accusing them of being hired hands, working for foreign governments with hidden agendas.

The use of this alarming logic to alleviate any sense of compassion for protesters or for criminals has become the norm. Labels like ‘baltageya’ or ‘spies’ have made it easy for the general public to disassociate itself from the injustice, and ignore the fact that no matter the crime, a civilian’s place is not before a military court. In a video (Arabic) produced by the No Military Trials campaign, clips are shown from Egyptian state TV in which Cairo residents, randomly picked or otherwise, speak about a need for the use of military trials in the past chaotic year.

The security vacuum Egypt witnessed during the transitional period saw the general public accepting of military trials, emergency law, and any other measures that would give them a sense of safety. The use of the word baltageya has created yet another stratification in Egyptian society, where class dictates the extent of your rights, and these so-called ‘thugs’ have been assigned the lowest rank.

Bakry explained the phenomenon, “SCAF has succeeded in creating an image of those being tried in military courts as being ‘thugs’. It’s an arbitrary accusation. How do you define a ‘thug’? The problem is that most of those who have been tried in military courts are poor.” She goes on to explain that as a result, civilians are being classified as ‘thugs’ on the basis of their impoverished appearance.

The sad irony is that the very same weapon of public favor has been used against the People’s Assembly itself, and by extension Morsi’s presidential decree calling for its reinstatement. When SCAF made the move to dissolve the parliament in June, many cheered at the prospect of bidding farewell to a legislative body they saw as ineffective, and in some extreme cases, as an embarrassment. The similarities are uncanny – public opinion is being used to negatively impact the mechanisms of democracy in Egypt, and the legal system has become part and parcel of this machine.

While trying to bring a semblance of stability to the country, laws have been manipulated to rationalize any given decision. The general public often sees these measures as being in Egypt’s best interest. Morsi’s brief attempt to reinstate parliament left us in the midst of a game where the intricacies and nuances of constitutionality and legality were lost on many.

In the case of military trials, it is far from a game for those facing trial, and it should be much more cut and dry, but that does not seem to be the case, as public favor continues to be manipulated against the so-called baltageya. 

Photo Credit: AP

Image: AP.jpg