President Hosni Mubarak is quite happy that the United States has decided to try civilian terrorist suspects in military courts. For ten years, Egypt has been taking fire from the West for court-martialing civilians; the new US policy, plus Britain's enactment on December 14 of a package of antiterrorism legislation that includes the right to hold suspects indefinitely, vindicates him. The US and British measures "prove that we were right from the beginning in using all means, including military trials, [in response to] these great crimes that threaten the security of society," Mubarak told the state-owned Al Gomhuriya newspaper in a December 16 interview. "There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual."
In 1992, Mubarak, his regime under attack from a radical Islamist insurgency, authorized the referral of civilians to military courts on the grounds that such courts dispensed swift justice. Since 1997 there has been virtually no reported militant Islamist activity inside Egypt, but the trials are still going strong. In late November, eighty-seven members of the alleged terrorist group Al Wa'ad ("The Promise") went on trial at the desert barracks of Haikstep east of Cairo, with another seven tried in absentia.
Despite the potentially grim outcome of the case–as leaders of a conspiracy that allegedly planned to assassinate Mubarak, some of the defendants could be sentenced to death–on some days there's almost a carnival atmosphere in the courtroom. The prosecution drew snickers from the audience when it tried to enter the group's arsenal, consisting of a baseball bat and an air rifle, into evidence. Even the judge couldn't help but wisecrack as a state security officer, citing "secret sources who can be trusted" but could not be named, outlined how the defendants were attempting to overthrow the regime by assassinating, in addition to President Mubarak, a movie director who specializes in producing the closest that Egypt's censor will allow to skin flicks.
When the Al Wa'ad suspects were originally rounded up in May 2001, the papers reported that they had been sending money to Palestine and Chechnya. But after September 11, the defense says, the government wanted to show the United States that it was an active participant in the war on terror, so it added assassination charges and downgraded fundraising charges. So far the prosecution case is mostly confessions delivered to state security officers, which the defendants claim were extracted under torture.
Compared with Egypt's civilian courts, the standards of evidence in military courts are a bit looser. Procedurally, however, the two are much the same. The big difference is the outcome. Military trials are "like a movie," says defense lawyer Negad Al Borei. "They look like reality, but you know what will happen from the beginning."