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 into evidence the group’s arsenal, consisting of a baseball bat and an air rifle. 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.”
According to the US State Department’s 2000 report on human rights in Egypt, “the use of military courts to try civilians continued to infringe on a defendant’s right to a fair trial before an independent judiciary…. While military judges are lawyers, they are also military officers appointed by the Minister of Defense and subject to military discipline. They are neither as independent nor as qualified as civilian judges in applying the civilian Penal Code.” It will be interesting to see what the State Department says next year, now that military trials for civilians have become US policy.
Critical human rights reports, of course, never stopped the United States from considering Egypt its “strategic partner” in the war on terror, as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in November. Nor, according to reports in both the Arab and US press, did such reports discourage the CIA from assisting in the extradition of alleged jihad activist Ahmed Naggar from Albania to Egypt, where a military court tried and convicted him in 1999. He was hanged early the next year.
Nor have they deterred the tribunals from processing alleged Islamists at a fairly brisk rate: The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights counted a total of thirty-two trials involving 1,001 defendants in 1999, of whom 625 were sentenced to prison and ninety-four sentenced to execution (only sixty-seven were actually executed). Mubarak declared that military courts “would only be used to confront terrorism.” In 2000, however, fifteen members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has renounced violence since the 1970s, were given prison sentences of up to five years for “conspiring” to run for office in local and parliamentary elections.
Certainly, a few of those convicted over the past decade in Egypt’s military trials were murderous fanatics. However, even when the trials deal with genuine militant groups, rights activists say, you rarely know which of the defendants are truly dangerous and which were simply picked up from the local mosque to round out the numbers.
Early in the 1990s, when bombs were exploding in Cairo and every week brought fresh reports of officers killed in the Islamist strongholds of southern Egypt, it was easy enough to figure out why the regime might resort to military trials. Perhaps they’ve continued after the demise of the militant movement partly because security officers want to show their utility (there have also been proceedings against a gay “conspiracy,” an allegedly treasonous academic and a sacrilegious author in the past year). Perhaps they’ve continued because the regime just wants to keep Islamic activists on edge or feels it necessary to show that it’s keeping up with the war on terror. Whatever the reason, the regime has certainly taken the West’s “new concept of democracy” as a sign that it’s on the right track.