No generals in the dock: Impunity soldiering on in Egypt

Two years after a bloody crackdown on protesters, Egyptians wait in vain for security forces to be brought to justice.

There is "a dire need for judicial reform" in Egypt, writes Aboueldahab [Reuters]

Egypt’s courts have been busy lately, but not busy enough.

This fall marks the second anniversary of a string of brutal crackdowns on protesters by the military and riot police in Egypt. Two years ago this week, more than 45 people were killed during clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud street between protesters and security forces. October also marked the second anniversary of the Maspero protests, when at least 24 people were killed while protesting against the military. 

Meanwhile, the country’s military generals continue to escape criminal prosecution. This is a painfully clear indication of not only the abysmal state of Egypt’s politicised judiciary, but also of the collective amnesia that plagues much of the Egyptian elite regarding crimes committed by the military two years ago.

Two former presidents and dozens of their fellow regime members are on trial in an uncanny development following the 2011 uprising in Egypt. But the absence of military generals in the dock is a gaping hole in the Egyptian justice theatre.

The leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – what now seems to be a forgotten former regime – have escaped prosecution for the multiple deadly crackdowns on peaceful protesters during their 16-month rule following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Campaigns such as Kazeboon (“Liars”) and Hakmoohom (“Prosecute Them”), exposing crimes committed by Egypt’s military and calling for accountability, are now a distant memory.

No justice

There has yet to be a transparent investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the deaths during the crackdowns, save for a light sentencing of three military officers for “involuntary manslaughter”.

The families of the victims of the October 2011 Maspero protests filed complaints with the public prosecution to have military leaders tried for their alleged role in the killings. Civil society and victims’ families made similar prosecutorial efforts following the November 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud killings. Within days of taking office, former President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree forming a fact-finding committee to investigate the killing of unarmed protesters during the 2011 uprising and during SCAF’s rule. The findings of that committee were never made public and little was done to pursue criminal accountability at the military level.

The pursuit of criminal justice in Egypt is in a dismal state of affairs. There are multiple reasons for this, including entrenched flaws in investigations and judicial proceedings, heavy political influences at the judiciary level, and a lack of separation of powers – all pointing to a dire need for judicial reform.

Echoes of South America

The perpetual impunity enjoyed by the military generals and the ease with which this impunity has sunken in is akin to the long amnesty period that plagued Uruguay, Brazil, and other countries where transitions did not signify a definitive break with military rule. Egypt’s current military leaders have already signalled their intention to institutionalise their immunity from prosecution under a new constitution. It took Uruguay 25 years to remove institutionalised impunity for its former military rulers. It was thanks to the tireless efforts of anti-impunity civil society organisations that prosecutions of former military leaders in Uruguay are finally possible.

Like Uruguay, it could very well take Egypt another 25 years before we see any criminal prosecution of a military leader. But first, a more discernible transition from military to civilian rule needs to take shape. The Egyptian elite has been turning a blind eye to the lack of accountability for crimes committed under military rule, thanks to an obsession with the military’s role in ridding the country of all things Muslim Brotherhood and to “Sisi-love” – the public adulation for the current de facto leader of Egypt, Abdelfattah El Sisi.  

The Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the military have taken a number of ironic actions recently to “commemorate the martyrs” killed during clashes between protesters and the police and military. In a recent statement [Ar], the Ministry of Interior honoured the martyrs whose “blood nourished the tree of national struggle”. Meanwhile, the military erected a monument in Raba’a Al Adawiya Square, the site of the worst mass killings in modern Egyptian history. The monument honours the military and the police, effectively erasing the memory of more than 600 protesters who were killed at the hands of the military and the police. In another disturbing development, the “Complete Your Good Deed” campaign – a petition calling for General Sisi to run for president – announced it will be collecting signatures to that effect on the anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud killings.

Once this glorification of the military begins to fade, perhaps so will the collective amnesia regarding crimes committed during military rule only two years ago.  

Noha Aboueldahab is a PhD Candidate at Durham University’s law school, where she researches the prosecution of political leaders in the Arab region. She has also consulted for various United Nations agencies since 2004.