Asmaa Mahfouz is one of Egypt’s most prominent activists. The 26-year-old helped co-found the influential April 6 Youth Movement in 2008 that helped pave the way for the revolution through years of grassroots organizing and street protests. A few days before January 25, she posted two videos online in which she bravely faced the camera and challenged Egyptians to fight for their human rights and rise up against the Mubarak regime. Both videos quickly went viral.
Seven months later, Mahfouz is facing prosecution in a military court for speaking out again, this time against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that came to power following Mubarak’s ouster.
Mahfouz was summoned to the military prosecutor on Sunday after she posted two sentences on Twitter. “If the justice system does not give us our rights, nobody should be upset if armed groups emerge and carry out assassinations,” she wrote. “As long as there is no law there is no justice, anything can happen and nobody should be upset.”
After being questioned for over three hours about the post, as well about as comments she made to the media on July 23 in which she criticized the army for failing to intervene to protect protesters during violent street clashes, the military prosecutor charged her with “insulting military and calling for armed operation,” released her on 20,000 Egyptians pounds bail (approx $3,400) and referred her to a military tribunal.
The case epitomized efforts by the ruling military council to clamp down on dissent and silence critical voices through the widespread use of military trials against civilians. It ignited a firestorm in Egypt.
In solidarity with Mahfouz, scores of Egyptians retweeted her post to challenge the military court. A Facebook page titled “In Solidarity with Asmaa Mahfouz” garnered more than 26,000 supporters. Presidential candidates Ayman Nour, Amr Moussa and Mohammed ElBaradei spoke out against the case and called on the military to drop the charges. Islamist presidential hopeful Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail issued one of the strongest statements saying, “[The Supreme Council] will be my opponent until it stops this and refers people to their normal judges, especially because it keeps Mubarak’s regime figures from these trials,” highlighting the fact that Mahfouz’s case comes as former president Hosni Mubarak, his two sons and other top regime officials, are undergoing a public trial before a civilian court.
Amnesty International called on the military council to drop the charges, as did Human Rights Watch. “The decision to try Asmaa Mahfouz is a major attack on free expression and fair trials, using the same abusive laws the Mubarak government used against its critics,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The military is using her to silence potential critics, sending the message that criticizing the current military government will land them in jail.”
Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which had remained silent over the issue of military trials over the past six months, was stirred into action. It issued a statement condemning the case, calling the use of military tribunals “unconstitutional and against human rights” and reminding people that hundreds of its members were tried before military courts at the hands of the old regime.
The latest surge of condemnation from across the political spectrum did not come easily. When a group of activists and human rights lawyers first spearheaded the “No to Military Trials for Civilians Campaign,” a fledgling grassroots initiative, their work was heavily criticized in political circles and ignored by the media. “At our first press conference in March hardly any journalists bothered to attend,” said Mona Seif, one of the group’s founders, in an interview on Egyptian TV. “And those that did attend, didn’t cover it at all in their media outlets the next day, instead they gave voice to the military council’s side of the story.” Undaunted, the small group of activists worked for months meticulously documenting cases and raising public awareness, eventually succeeding in catapulting the issue from the margins of the activist community to the forefront of the political sphere in the post-Mubarak transitional period.
Since the revolution began, as many as 12,000 civilians have been prosecuted in military courts, the equivalent of nearly seventy a day. Defendants are typically tried within a matter of days or hours and have little access to an attorney or family members. Nearly all of those tried have been convicted, with many receiving prison terms that range between a few months to several years.
While Asmaa Mahfouz’s case has received widespread attention, hers is just one among many this week alone. On Wednesday, a military court sentenced two young men, Mahmoud Mohammed Saeed, an 18-year-old student and Kareem Saied, 23, to six months in prison for chanting slogans that it found insulting to the military establishment. A military court also handed down a six-month prison sentence to Hassan Bahgat, a 70-year-old retired army officer, for insulting the military in Tahrir square on August 6. On Thursday, military prosecutors summoned representatives of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, a non-profit organization that raises awareness about democracy and human rights, for interrogation.
Undaunted, activists are continuing their struggle against the military council, calling for an end to the use of military trials against civilians and for all those prosecuted by military courts to be retried in a civilian court. "This issue has united all groups under one clear goal," Mahfouz said in an interview on Egyptian television. "For us to move forward we cannot have these obstacles to freedom."
Update: The head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, ordered the military judiciary on Thursday to drop the case against Asmaa Mahfouz and Loai Nagaty, another activist facing trial in a military court. Activists have welcomed the decision but reasserted their opposition to the use of all military trials against civilians.