Palestinian hunger strikers breathe life into ongoing Egyptian revolution

Egyptians seeking an end to military trials emulate a new tool in the arsenal of Palestinian protesters: hunger strikes.

Khaled Ali supporting hunger strikers
Egypt's youngest presidential candidate, Khaled Ali, joined dozens of activists on hunger strike to protest the continued detention of more than 300 people who face possible military prosecution [AP]

Cairo, Egypt – The stately marble staircase of the Journalists’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo, a common setting for protests over decades, slowly filled on a Sunday afternoon in late May.

Young activists, dressed in t-shirts expressing disdain for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, were busy hanging images of fellow protesters now in military detention. One young demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask – popularised by the revolutionary protagonist in the American film V for Vendetta – climbed a wooden ladder to hang a bold yellow banner that declared “No to Military Trials for Civilians”.

The yellow logo and the cause that it represents existed long before the collapse of the Mubarak regime. It was among the several demands of the January 25 revolutionaries, and gained traction in the months after the fall of Mubarak that witnessed the military detention of over 12,000 civilians – more than those detained in the past thirty years.

Before the revolution, the cause was championed by the Muslim Brotherhood whose members were often victimised by the state. The Brotherhood’s disqualified presidential candidate Khairat el-Shater was among those tried in military court under the Mubarak regime.

Striking back against military courts

The practice of trying civilians in military courts, illegal under international human rights law, was codified in the Nasser era, and was used by the president and his predecessors as a tool to deter political dissent. The practice finds even deeper roots in British-controlled Egypt when the occupying government used it to circumvent the national judicial system.

During the last two decades of the Mubarak era, political activists were subject to military tribunals on trumped charges that often involved terrorism. Under the pretext of maintaining security, the Egyptian government was able to continue the practice with certainty that western governments would turn a blind eye.

The SCAF, empowered by emergency laws, has legal support for the military trial of civilians. The opposition movement has had no success in its demand to change these provisions, although on occasion popular outrage has resulted in the release of some prisoners.

 Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan ends hunger strike

The opposition, however, has recently found an unexpected source of inspiration for its cause. In recent months, Palestinians detained in Israel have made waves across the Arab world with a mass hunger strike that, at its height, boasted nearly two thousand participants.

The strike was sparked by Khader Adnan, who was released from an Israeli prison after more than two months with no food. The size of the strike as well as the near-death state of several prisoners forced Israel to reconsider conditions for Palestinian prisoners.

The relative success of the movement and parallels between the injustice faced by Egyptian and Palestinian prisoners inspired emulation of the hunger strike, a form of protest new to the Arab Spring.

On May 20, over one hundred and fifty Egyptians in military detention began a hunger strike, with more expected to join. The strikers demanded an end to the military trial of civilians and the establishment of a civilian committee to investigate the arrest and abuse of peaceful protesters. Other activists demand medical attention for detainees, a number of who sustained severe injuries from torture while detained.

Sending a message

As activists gathered in front of the Syndicate, they poured into its first floor where many added their names to a long list of those participating in a day-long hunger strike in solidarity with the military detainees.

Presidential candidate Khaled Ali was notable among the nearly five hundred fasters. By night time, hundreds flooded the building. The crowd that gathered to launch the strike was a mix of protesters, former detainees, families and friends of current prisoners, as well as a few members of parliament including the Assembly’s youngest member, Zyad Elelaimy.

The strike sends a strong message to the SCAF, which many suggest has purposely used the threat of economic hardship to dissuade people from demanding greater rights.

Nawara Negm, a well-known activist, stood at the front of the crowded lobby, visibly tired from the hunger strike she began that morning, and proclaimed the importance of dignity over bread.

A former detainee, Anas, both of his arms broken by officers, recalled his physical torture to the crowd that gathered. The torture, he said, was meant to scare prisoners into silence upon their release. Instead, it outraged him. Comparing his plight to that of Palestinian prisoners, Anas found it atrocious that Egyptians were abused by their own government, after a revolution that supposedly brought more freedom. Anas was given no rights during his detention; he was questioned at late hours, with no notice, and was not permitted to summon a lawyer. In addition to the abuse he suffered, he was forced to watch the torture of fellow prisoners.

The attempt to silence Anas by destroying his dignity has only made him more outspoken and, like many other former detainees, even more determined to end the practice of military detention.

Starving for justice

In recent weeks, the lower house of parliament considered changes to the 1966 Code of Military Justice, which provides the main legal justification for the military trial of civilians. Many hoped that attention from the “post-revolutionary parliament” would result in ending military trials for civilians.

Unlike the many demonstrations that have taken place in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, this form of protest cannot be simply dispersed through force.”

Only days after a government round up of over 300 protesters, however, the Assembly maintained most of the provisions and restricted only the right of the president to refer a civilian to military tribunal. In a parliament dominated by representatives affiliated with the MB, at one time the most afflicted group by these provisions, it is quite ironic that little was done to alter the status quo.

The Palestinians have recently emerged to fill their role in the Arab Spring. With their introduction of the hunger strike as an effective tool for protest, their impact will likely be felt throughout the region.

Unlike the many demonstrations that have taken place in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, this form of protest cannot be simply dispersed through force. Additionally, the focused demands of the strikers eliminate the confusion that surrounded many recent demonstrations.

In the midst of presidential elections, the strike plays an important role in drawing attention to the unanswered demands of the revolution, and fosters new hope that this Mubarak-era practice will be eradicated. 

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.

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