Cairo, EGYPT Memories run deep for 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Loai Nagati – who, despite his best efforts – is unable to shake the chilling recollection of what he calls “humiliating abuse” while being held in military custody for eight days. His is a tale of beatings, threats of rape and harassment. And yet, Nagati knows he is one of the lucky ones.
Nagati is one of an estimated 12,000 Egyptian civilians who have been referred to military courts on charges ranging from insulting the country’s armed forces to inciting violence during and after the 18-day popular uprising that resulted in the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak on February 11.
Egypt’s military rulers had charged Nagati with rioting and preventing security officers from doing their job, after arresting him during a mass protest – called in late July to demand faster prosecution of Mubarak and other former government officials. He was subsequently ordered to military trial.
But in a rare reversal of fate, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took control of the country when Mubarak stepped down, announced on Thursday that it had dropped all charges against two prominent defendants: Nagati and fellow activist Asmaa Mahfouz – best known for a video blog urging Egyptians to take to the streets on January 25.
The announcement followed a massive outpouring of public criticism against the military over the charges facing both Nagati and Mahfouz. This was sparked, in part, by a grassroots campaign by activists on social media sites to clear their names and ban all military trials for civilians.
In its statement on Thursday, the military acknowledged that campaign. It said it had excused the two because they were “in a revolutionary condition which had an impact on their performance in the public and political arena”.
The military’s public acquittal of Nagati and Mahfouz appeared aimed at appeasing a growing number of angry activists disillusioned with the very same body once hailed for protecting the the revolution.
But pro-democracy activists say the gulf is widening between the goals of the revolution and the military’s implementation of those goals – a worry made more real by the increasing number of civilians being ordered to face military trial.
“SCAF is trying to manipulate the public opinion. They are trying to appear as though they are trying to achieve justice for the quote-unquote noble revolutionaries. But they are discriminating between the celebrities and the lesser-known Egyptians being thrown in military trials.”
Noor Ayman Nour, member of No Military Trials for Civilians
“This announcement was to calm people down,” Nagati told Al Jazeera, minutes after the military released its statement dropping the charges against him.
“But we won’t stop demanding the cancelling of military trials for civilians,” he said. “I feel really great to have been pardoned, but I will continue to talk about those other people who are still being tried.”
The difference between the thousands of civilians still facing military trials and the cases of Nagati and Mahfouz is the difference between relative celebrity and anonymity in Egypt, said Noor Ayman Nour, another prominent activist and member of the advocacy group No Military Trials for Civilians.
Nagati credits “the power of the media” and campaigning on social media sites for his release and pardon, but Nour said it is up to activists to remember that, while the cases of Nagati and Mahfouz gained prominence, they are not unique.
“SCAF is trying to manipulate the public opinion,” Nour told Al Jazeera. “They are trying to appear as though they are trying to achieve justice for the quote-unquote noble revolutionaries. But they are discriminating between the celebrities and the lesser-known Egyptians being thrown in military trials.”
Charges of ‘thuggery’
The number of civilians estimated to have been tried or are currently being tried under military courts has only increased since January 28, 2011, three days after the start of the revolution, Nour said – according to a toll compiled by human rights groups in Egypt, including his No Military Trials for Civilians.
His group provides legal assistance for families that are not financially or legally capable of obtaining assistance, and helps raise awareness of the issue of military trials – a cause that is gaining traction across Egyptian political society.
“The main demand behind the group is cancelling all military trials against civilians and helping those who are in desperate need of support, Nour said.
And the number of families in need keeps growing.
Among the thousands facing trial is Abu El-Maaty Abu el-Arab who was arrested in Cairo’s Tahrir square on February 3, following the now infamous “Battle of the Camels'” – when armed thugs invaded central Cairo on camel and horseback, slashing through the crowds of anti-government protesters, attacking those in the way. Abu el-Arab was charged with “thuggery” and sentenced to three years in prison.
There is also the case of Amr el-Bahairy, who was arrested during a protest in front of the Council of Ministers building on February 26. He was also pinned with the ambiguous charge of thuggery and sentenced, without the presence of a lawyer, to five years in prison, Nour said.
And 18-year-old Ahmed Gaber was taken on February 3 from Tahrir. He had been walking the streets of Cairo looking for his brother, in a bid to ensure his family’s safety, when we was seized by security forces and accused of carrying weapons.
Allegations of abuse
But it is not just the charges being lodged against civilians that worries activists such as Nour. It is the treatment the accused face once under military custody. The stories of alleged brutal treatment by military officers abound, and the families of the detained regularly report cases of abuse and discrimination against their loved ones to organisations like No Military Trials for Civilians for help in finding justice.
However, justice is not always forthcoming.
“I follow up on kids in prisons to see if violations happen and sadly there are violations that happen,” said Nour, who works as a liaison between the families of the accused and their lawyers, keeping a record of reported cases of abuses.
“It’s fertile ground for human rights violations, especially against people from less privileged backgrounds, and prison conditions in Egypt are absolutely horrendous,” Nour said.
He cited reported cases of abuse from the notorious Al Wadi Gadid prison facility, a seven-hour drive from bustling Cairo, located in the heart of the desert.
“Some violations include beating, torture, preventing or denying food and water. One of the 18-year-old kids sentenced to five years in prison was beaten horrendously several weeks ago,” Nour said.
“His mother filed a case against a specific officer and several days ago this officer went and once again beat up [this person] whose mother filed [a complaint] against him, and said: ‘This is for your mother who filed against us’.”
‘Threatened with rape’
“Two security force soldiers came and took me to their officer. They asked me questions, and began beating me up and robbing me. They threatened me with rape”
Loai Nagati, Egyptian blogger
But few people have emerged from the throes of military detention to describe the conditions within with quite as much detail as now pardoned blogger Nagati.
He was at the ministry of interior in Cairo on the night of July 28 to document what was rapidly becoming a pitched battle between police and a large crowd of protesters – mainly family members of those killed during the uprising.
Nagati opted to keep a short distance between himself and the crowds in front of the ministry, electing to walk alone on a nearly empty side street, posting frequent updates on the events unfolding before him to his followers on Twitter.
“There were people who were attacking the ministry and even stole some guns from officers. So the officers were very angry; I was in the street and they thought I was one of them.”
It was then that he was summoned by two nearby soldiers, he says, who ordered him over and began peppering him with questions.
“One asked ‘Where do you work?’ I wanted to tell him I am a blogger, but I thought he wouldn’t understand, so I told him I am an independent journalist. He asked for ID, and I said I’m independent, I don’t have any ID. So one stood up, grabbed me by my clothes and they took me to the main headquarters of the ministry of interior.”
He was later taken to a military prison, where he says authorities refused to allow him a phone call. No one would hear any word from Nagati until his second day in custody when he was allowed to make his first call – phoning a friend to inform him of what happened and urging his help.
But help would not come. Nagati remained in military custody for eight days and says he and other detainees were subjected to beatings by military officers.
“In the beginning, after entering the military prison, we got beaten up and slapped,” he says – though he is quick to point out that it “was not torture, just humiliation”.
“Two security force soldiers came and took me to their officer. They asked me questions, and began beating me up and robbing me. They threatened me with rape,” he said.
Nagati was eventually released and was awaiting military trial before Thursday’s announcement. The military has not publicy addressed his allegations of abuse and those of others.
Civilian court for Mubarak
While Nagati and thousands of other civilians were ordered to face hasty military tribunals, former president Mubarak, members of his family and top officials from his government are being tried in civilian courts on charges of killing protesters during the uprising.
The juxtaposition of the two types of trials has sparked angry condemnation from activists and human rights groups, who fear civilians will not receive a fair trial.
“Military trials move a lot faster than civilian courts; defendants don’t have time to call their own families and are often interrogated without the presence of their own lawyers,” said Ragia Omran, a lawyer and human rights activist with the Front for the Defence of Egypt’s Protesters, who has represented hundreds of civilians ordered to military trial since March.
“If lawyers are appointed by the court, most of them are not human rights lawyers.”
She said Egyptians must question why civilians are facing speedy military trials while some members of the former ruling party still have not been put on trial.
“If you are promoting the idea of fair trials for all people, then it should be for all people. [Politicians] are getting a lot of leeway and others who have not done anything wrong get three, five, seven, ten-year-sentences,” she told Al Jazeera.
“There is a discrepancy in implementing the principles of the revolution. If these civilians are really guilty, why aren’t they being put before civilian courts like Mubarak?”
‘Show some honour’
Hers is a question 26-year-old activist Mahfouz has pondered for days, since being summoned for investigation on Sunday, on charges of inciting violence and insulting the military on social media sites.
|Activist Asmaa Mahfouz was summoned for investigation
on Sunday [Al Jazeera]
It started with a video she posted on Youtube that quickly went viral. In it, Mahfouz implored her fellow Egyptians to take to the streets and take ownership of a social street protest movement that would soon spiral into a revolution.
“I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honour,” Mahfouz said. “Come down with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family’s rights. I am going down on January 25 and will say no to corruption, no to this regime.”
On August 10, she expressed frustration with the pace of reforms, tweeting: “If the judiciary doesn’t give us our rights, nobody should be surprised if armed groups appear and conduct a series of assassinations because there is no law and there is no judiciary.”
The military called Mahfouz’s comments an incitement to violence, and in a statement called on the public and the media to check Mahfouz’s postings on Twitter and Facebook to judge whether she was sharing an opinion or sending a call to arms.
“I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone,” Mahfouz said in her Youtube video
But Mahfouz denied all the charges against her, and before her pardon on Thursday, told Al Jazeera that she found it “laughable” that SCAF would subject her and other civilians to military trials while former government officials continued to “live comfortably”.
“When I entered the military prosecution room, I found many being tried. Why are they being tried? At least I have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, but there are people like me who don’t and they are in jail,” she told Al Jazeera, perched on the edge of her seat in a book-filled room at her lawyer’s office.
“The danger is that we relapse to a period worse than that of Mubarak’s. We’re now hearing of people being taken to military court for speaking against the military council in coffee shops. We will once again go back to the stage where there’s a God in power … and talking about him is a red line. This does not only fail the revolution, it fails Egypt, and will breed violence.”
The threat of a relapse into Mubarak-era proceedings has many activists and human rights groups expressing concern.
“The revolution isn’t over yet,” Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher at Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.
“What we’re seeing is a reflection of fact that this wasn’t a full revolution. It was a partial coup and partial uprising.
“It’s a solidification of military rule – the extent to which the military is making all the decisions in the political space. In the human rights community, this doesn’t feel different from Mubarak.”
However, for Loai Nagati, at least one thing has changed since the days of Mubarak.
“We don’t deserve military trials. But now we understand how powerful we are. We can do whatever we want if we push. We overthrew one of the most powerful dictators, so we are not afraid of the military.”
Follow Malika Bilal on Twitter: @mmbilal