Ahmed Sabry is a 30-year-old, well-to-do software engineer. Like many young Egyptians, he was not politically active before the January revolution that toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Like millions he joined marches and protests over the past year and a half. Earlier this month on May 5 , he was outraged by the largest mass arrest so far: that of some 350 people in front of the ministry of defense, some them protesting the exclusion of a Salafi presidential candidate by the electoral commission. Not taking part in the violent clashes that left 10 people dead, Sabry decided to protest the arrests. But he too was arrested, along with not only people actively participating in the sit-in, but also random pedestrians, journalists, fruit vendors, women and children. “I was standing away from the sit-in, on the sidewalk with a placard saying 'No to arrests and military trials' when five soldiers surrounded me and starting beating me up,” says the soft-spoken young man. “Soldiers were uttering crazy things, like we were a threat to the ministry of defense that was about to be attacked by Israel! They were completely brainwashed and often purposefully exhausted. I saw some standing guard for more than 24 hours at a time.”
Sabry was taken to a nearby police station and then transferred to al-Tora jail in Cairo. “We were 25 in a tiny cell. People fainted, some were seriously injured from the beatings.” He spent eleven days in jail where he was brutally interrogated. “I was lucky that my family could locate me and found me a lawyer; not everyone has the financial means to get help,” he says. But Sabry’s ordeal is far from over. At least 12,000 civilians arrested since the beginning of the revolution have been sent before military courts, according to Human Rights Watch, although international human rights law bans such practice. And so will the 350 people arrested on May 4 and 5 in front the defense ministry. “Military trials for civilians have become the rule under the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] when it was the exception under Mubarak and used as the ultimate punishment,” says Heba Morayes with Human Rights Watch’s Cairo office. She says there is evidence of torture and severe beatings during interrogations by military police and prosecutors.
At least 256 of the 350 people arrested in front of the defense ministry are still in detention. On Sunday, May 21, 100 of them started a hunger strike, asking to be released and not referred to military trials. Sabry and other activists, including presidential candidate Khaled Ali, joined the strike for 24 hours. “The detainees will continue their hunger strike until their demands are met,” says Salma Abdel-Gelil, a spokesperson for the activist group No to Military Trials, which organized the event.
“We hope that the next president will revoke the 1966 Code of Military Justice.” She says her group has lobbied all 12 presidential hopefuls and that most said they would suspend military trials. On May 6, the Islamist-dominated parliament approved amendments to the Code that limit the right of the president to refer civilians to military tribunals, but failed to address the broad discretion given to the military in articles 5 and 7 to try civilians, according the Human Rights Watch.
Sabry hopes the next president will address the systematic use of military trials. “I pray that the election won’t be rigged and that the next president will herald the return to civilian rule in Egypt,” he says. “[Former foreign minister] Amr Moussa and [Islamist independent] Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh are the leading candidates. I personally believe that an Islamist president will be best to set Egypt in the right path.”
However dreadful and unenviable Sabry’s ordeal and that of hundreds of other Egyptians that stood and will have to stand military trials, the very fact this young man was willing and able to tell his story, not anonymously, and even accepted to have his picture taken is unmistakably a sign that the widespread fear that plagued Egypt for 30 years has forever gone. Whoever is elected to the helm in two days’ time will have to remember that.
Sophie Claudet, Europe and Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor, is covering the Egyptian election on location in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter: @sophieinparis