Security forces make a comeback to Egyptian universities

On Dec. 17, the Committee on Academic Freedom at the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) drafted a letter addressed to Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy. The letter aimed at expressing the association’s “grave concern” over the recent developments in several universities across the country with the state escalating its violent clampdown on student protests amid fears of a “worsening climate for free speech and peaceable assembly on university campuses in Egypt.” The letter listed three main incidents that render such concerns legitimate. The “worst” of the three incidents is the shooting and killing of freshman engineering student Mohammad Reda at Cairo University by security forces while he was on campus grounds coupled with the Ministry of Interior’s refusal to admit responsibility.

The second incident is the sentencing of 12 students from al-Azhar University in Cairo to 17 years each, a punishment that the association considers “draconian” since it was based on adding up the maximum penalty for all six crimes each of the students were charged with while they should have been handed the sentence for only the most serious of the crimes. The third incident is the storming of the campus of Zagazig University in the northern Egypt by security forces to disperse a sit-in staged by students to demand the release of 23 of their colleagues arrested the week before on charges of sabotage following on-campus clashes. The association called upon the prime minister to look into the three cases and take the necessary measures to see justice done and to make sure that universities remain a place where students can freely and safely express themselves as part of their citizenship rights. “The government of Egypt is responsible for protecting and upholding the rights of all of its citizens, including those who disagree with particular decisions made by the authorities and take to the streets to voice their opposition,” the letter said towards its conclusion. “Academic freedom and freedom of expression on university campuses are two of the most important of those rights in Egypt, where universities have historically played such a vital role in political and civic life.” The ministers of justice, education, and the interior as well as the rectors of Cairo, al-Azhar, and Zagazig universities were copied.

Clashes and student arrests have been ongoing in several other campuses and while many of the protests were initially organized by Islamists, especially the group called Students against the Coup, who call for the return of ousted President Mohammad Mursi, recent ones have started focusing on police brutality and fears of the return of security forces to university grounds. The first intervention by security forces on campus grounds was at al-Azhar upon the request of university rector Osama al-Abd who, according to a security statement, contacted Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim to ask for immediate help to “protect lives and property” following Islamist students’ storming of the university administration building and taking al-Abd and many of the staff hostage.

After relative calm was restored, al-Abd still insisted that security forces remain. “There is no talk now about security forces leaving now,” he said as he toured campus to check the damages. “Not until things go back to normal.” Conflicting testimonies were reported about al-Azhar clashes. Ahmed Saleh, an Islamist activist and member of Students against the Coup said security forces were brutal and insisted that they attacked protestors before they took the demonstration outside campus grounds. “The government wants to muzzle our voices. They do not want to listen to the voice of freedom and truth,” he said. Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif denied Saleh’s allegations and stressed that the police exercised self-restraint even though the protestors started the violence with throwing stones from inside the campus. “They also attacked the police with Molotov cocktails. Protesters destroyed three police vehicles and injured several security personnel, in addition to burning private cars owned by university employees and staff members,” he added. Abdel Latif also noted that had the police not intervened, residents of the neighboring areas would have attacked the protestors anyway: “People are fed up with what they’re doing.”

Public outrage

Official responses to al-Azhar incidents did not spark as much public outrage as they did in the case of Cairo University’s Mohammad Reda who was shot dead. In a televised press conference, Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim warned Egyptian students of being dragged into acts of violence. “I urge students to stay alert and not to be led astray by saboteurs,” he said. “I appeal to their sense of nationalism.” He called the protests in Egyptian universities “a conspiracy against Egypt” that aims at reversing the June 30 revolution and reinstating the Muslim Brotherhood rule. The minister refused to comment on Reda’s death, adding that the investigations would reveal the truth. The prosecutor general’s office then issued a press release stating that the type of gun that killed Reda was not used by security forces and that he was shot by other protestors. Minister of Higher Education Hossam Eissa supported those statements and stressed that the police around the university only use rubber bullets. He also said that the Muslim Brotherhood might be behind Reda’s death. “I don’t find it unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in killing Reda.

They kill police and army officers all the time. They are trying to topple the state through attacking its most vital institutions,” he said in a TV interview. The reaction of Cairo University rector Gaber Nassar was different as he lashed out at the Ministry of Interior for using excessive violence in dispersing the protests and held security forces responsible for the death of Mohammad Reda. “We will not accept the Interior Ministry’s claims that security forces did not use gunshots because if they did not, they must tell us who did,” he said. “The Ministry of Interior attacked Cairo University. This is unacceptable. We are documenting all those attacks and will report them to the relevant bodies so that those who did wrong can be punished.” Nassar refuted the Interior Ministry’s claims that the protests were all staged by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood: “Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests did not exceed 100 students. The rest were against the Interior Ministry and those are expanding.” The university administration issued a statement supporting Nassar’s stance and accusing security forces of “crossing all lines.”

Security forces on university grounds

On-campus violence has also given rise to speculations about the possible return of security forces to university grounds, as was the case before the January 25 Revolution, and raised concerns among activists and academics alike. Revolution Youth Union and member of the politburo of the Revolutionary Forces Coalition Tamer al-Kadi said that the return of security forces to universities is bound to arouse suspicions about the Interior Ministry’s motives regarding academic freedom. “If it is about the safety of students, professors, and staff then there can be security affiliated to the university like court guards, who are affiliated to the Ministry of Justice,” he said. Mahmoud Radwan, head of the Alexandria University Student Union argued that the return of security forces to campuses will endow Muslim Brotherhood protests with legitimacy: “Students from civilian factions will also object to the return of security forces so Islamist students will find support.”

Hani al-Husseini, Cairo University professor and a leading member of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Egyptian Universities, one of whose main goals was to end the intervention of the Ministry of Interior in academic activities, attributes a large part of the recent violence to what he calls “the provocative presence of the police inside and around campuses.” As for protests staged by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers or clashes between Islamist and liberal students, he argues that “those do not usually go beyond some stone throwing and the university’s civilian security is capable of dealing with that.” On the other hand, Minster of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim has been reassuring all concerned parties that security forces would never go back to university campuses. “The presence of security forces on university grounds during the former regime had led to constant tension with students. We do not want to see this happen again now,” he stressed.

Release of Alexandria girls sparks more controversy

An Egyptian Misdemeanor Court of Appeals ordered the release on Dec. 7 of 21 female Islamist protestors whose jail sentences had stirred much controversy.

The 14 adults, who had each received 11 years and one month in jail, were handed a one-year suspended sentence.

The remaining seven minors, who were to be incarcerated in juvenile detention centers until the age of 18, are to be put on probation for three months.

The defendants, now known as the Alexandria Girls, were charged with sabotage, rioting and possession of weapons.

Even though the new verdict was greeted with considerable relief, it has caused nearly as much controversy as that triggered by the initial sentence, as questions are raised about the corresponding political messages.

Human rights organizations were the first to condemn the sentences as harsh and disproportionate.

Violating rights

The National Council for Motherhood and Childhood found the verdict to have flagrantly violated women’s right to protest, and demanded the immediate release of the 21 girls.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, took the same stand.

The council and three organizations issued a joint statement questioning the independence of the judiciary, which is constantly subjected to “pressure by governmental authorities to best serve their needs.”

The statement added that “the country is in dire need of ending the use of the judiciary as a political tool and a weapon against the government’s political opponents.”

It accused the authorities of bringing back the police state that existed prior to the 2011 revolution.

For Azza al-Ashmawi, secretary general of the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, the verdict meant that “no one will be safe from their iron fist.”

The fate of the girls is an example of how the government plans to “crush opposition,” she added.

Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, attributed the verdict to the girls’ affiliation rather than an actual crime committed.

“The government is now arresting and accusing anyone who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, exactly as [former President Mohammad] Mursi did with his opponents,” he said.

‘Same old story’

The “same old story” is being repeated, and nothing has changed since the end of Islamist rule, Amin added.

Under the title “Egypt must immediately and unconditionally release women protesters,” an Amnesty International report condemned the Egyptian state for its “determination to punish dissent.”

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa, called the girls “prisoners of conscience” who had to be freed immediately.

“Instead of imprisoning peaceful protesters, authorities should be ensuring prompt, independent and impartial investigations into police abuse of protesters, reining in security forces, and upholding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” she said.

The domestic and international outrage sparked by the verdict was followed by a statement issued by the office of interim President Adly Mansour, and circulated to the press by his advisor for women’s affairs Sekina Fouad, in which the president pledged to intervene in the case only after all the legal procedures take their due course.

Mansour “will issue a full pardon to the Alexandria females after the final judicial process is completed,” Fouad said, adding that the case would still have to go through the courts of appeals and cassation.

While this statement was seen as an attempt to contain the crisis, it raised more questions about the independence of the judiciary and the president’s powers.

For Judge Ashraf Nada, head of the Cairo Court of Appeals, Mansour did not have the right to pardon the girls since they did not just violate the law that regulates protests.

“Those girls were arrested because they committed criminal offences, and they have to be punished accordingly,” Nada said in a TV interview.

The penal code, under which the girls were tried, allows the arrest of “terrorists” even if they did not engage in protests, the judge added, calling for the Brotherhood to be dealt with as “a terrorist group.”

According to the defense team, the girls should not have been arrested in the first place, since there was no evidence against them.

Ahmed al-Hamrawy, one of the lawyers, lashed out at the authorities for involving women in their attempts to eliminate opposition, a practice that, he said, had not existed before the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.

“Even in Mubarak’s era there were morals. Egypt’s women and girls were a red line,” he told the court.

Hamrawy, however, was not unhappy with the new verdict. “The sentence is satisfying to a degree, and it has a humanitarian aspect,” he said, adding that the verdict will still be appealed until the 14 adults are fully acquitted.

A statement issued by the defense team, however, slammed the new verdict because “the girls are still guilty before the law and their future can be compromised.”

Justice, the statement added, will only be served when the girls are declared innocent of all charges against them.

The new verdict has led to debate as to whether the interim government is starting to soften its stance towards Islamists.

Kristen Chick, Cairo correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, said it is unlikely that other pro-Mursi supporters would be treated with the same leniency.

The girls’ case in particular gained the sympathy of most Egyptians, not only Islamists, due to the harshness of the sentences and the age and gender of the defendants, she added.

“Even Egyptians who agree with government claims that many Muslim Brotherhood protesters are terrorists found it hard to reconcile this rhetoric with the sight of teenagers who appeared in court fresh-faced, smiling, and yesterday, even holding pink roses,” Chick said.

Journalist and TV anchor Emad Adib said the Brotherhood “is the only group that is not happy about the release of the Alexandria girls. The girls were a card they played, and now this card is burnt.”

Military trials back to haunt Egyptian civilians

A few days ago, the 50-member committee in charge of drafting Egypt’s post-Islamist constitution approved article 174 that permits the “conditional” trial of civilians before military courts. Out of the 50 people, 30 approved the article, 11 rejected it, two abstained from voting, and 11 were absent. According to the article, civilians will only be tried by the military under very exceptional circumstances. These include attacking military facilities, vehicles, and staff as well as offences targeting military documents, classified information, and funds. Attacks on border areas and military zones also fall under the category of crimes against the military. The voting was followed by a heated debate in Egypt’s political circles and a protest was organized by activists in front of the Consultative Assembly’s headquarters, where the committee holds its sessions, calling for the controversial article and all articles deemed contrary to the demands of the Jan. 25 revolution to be crossed out of the draft.

The protest was called for and led by “No to Military Trials,” a group of lawyers and activists that was formed in 2011 following a series of arrests and trials of civilians by the military when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was the de facto ruler of Egypt. Following the approval of the article, the movement issued a statement detailing the reasons for its objection which it started by accusing the committee of repeating the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood and even drafting an article that is more draconian than its Islamist predecessor because it expands the powers of military courts. While the 2012 constitution stated that the military judiciary is in charge of handling crimes that involve army officers and personnel, the 2013 draft adds the phrase “and those considered as such,” which, the statement argues, would include civilians working in military institutions as well as students in military schools and colleges. The 2012 constitution states that civilians can only be tried before military courts if involved in crimes that harm the Armed Forces and that such crimes are to be determined by the law whereas the new articles broaden the spectrum of these crimes to include all facilities owned by the Armed Forces and given the number of businesses the Armed Forces owns and runs, the article would apply to a large number of facilities. Lawyer and activist Zyad al-Eleimy commented on this point: “Article 174 means that if I get into a fight in one of the gas stations owned by the army, I face military trial; if I crash into a truck loaded with pasta or water manufactured by army factories, I face military trial.”

Saying ‘no’

The No to Military Trials statement also notes that the article puts at risk Egyptians living in border cities and close to military zones and rules out the public disclosure of the military budget. The statement adds that the article curbs freedom of the press through making information about the army confidential: “This way the army would have the right to bring to a military court any journalist who attempts to make the truth known to the people and this happened before.” No to Military Trials also voiced its objection to the first phrase of the article, the same as in the 2012 constitution, and which states that “the military judiciary is independent.” This, the group asserts, is a contradiction in terms since military courts are by definition affiliated to the Armed Forces and report to the Minister of Defense: “The court pledges allegiance to the army and this is contrasted to the concept of the independence of the judiciary.” Eleimy draws attention to another issue that makes the trial unfair by definition: “It is a trial in which the judge and the plaintiff are one and the same person.”

A large portion of activities vehemently rejected the article and criticized members of the committee who approved it, especially those among them who were generally regarded as revolutionary. Activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, previously accused of inciting violence against the military and known for his refusal to acknowledge the military’s right to interrogate him, said that the new article proves “that the army is determined to bring back the Mubarak regime.” Abdel Fattah explained that military trials “offer a pretext for torturing and humiliating civilians” and creates of the army “a state within a state.” He also accused anyone who approves of the article to be “a traitor to the revolution and the people.” Activist Mosaad Abu Fagr, who represents the Sinai Peninsula in the drafting committee, called the article “twisted” and insisted that it should not have been considered in the first place: “I don’t care if the whole world votes for it. Nothing will make it right.” After rejecting the article, Abu Fagr withdrew from the session as the committee went ahead with the voting and announced he was considering withdrawing from the committee altogether. Mohammad Abul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and one of the committee members who voted against the article, said that he was against amending the article to specify the circumstances under which civilians can stand trial before military courts and demanded that the article be crossed out altogether, arguing that this article would subject the constitution to strong criticism on both the international and local levels: “Keeping this article would compromise the constitution of the revolution internationally and this is something we definitely don’t want at such a critical time. It would also infuriate revolutionary youths and several political factions and would give certain groups the opportunity to persuade people to vote no in the public referendum.”

In defense

Several members of the committee who voted in favor of the article defended their decision. Mohammad Abdel Aziz, co-founder of the signature collection campaign that triggered the ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, downplayed the danger posed by military trials since the conditions according to which they might take place were “very specific.” He also argued that the article, as it stands, is the best that could have been reached at a time when stability has not been yet achieved, especially as it managed to strike a balance between the aspirations of the revolution and the realities on the ground: “We responded to the revolutionaries’ objection to trying civilians before military courts and to the people’s demand that the state eliminates terrorism and which specifically targets the Armed Forces.” Abdel Aziz noted that this article was not drafted to stay forever in the constitution and can be changed as soon as normalcy is resorted: “When stability returns and a real democracy is established, two thirds of the parliament can amend this article.” Unlike most activists, member and spokesman of the committee Mohammad Salmawy sees the comparison between the new article and its counterpart in the 2012 constitution in favor of the former: “The 2012 constitution said that civilians involved in crimes that ‘harm the Armed Forces’ are to be tried before military courts while the new article specifies the cases and therefore is not as broad or vague.” Director Khaled Youssef, one of the members who voted yes and was accordingly slammed by his fellow filmmakers, did not defend the article, but rather described it as “the lesser of two evils.” Youssef explained that crossing out the article altogether, thus categorically banning the trial of civilians before military courts, was not an option in the first place: “It was either we leave it for the law to determine the cases that necessitate a military trial for civilians or we specify those cases from the start in the constitution so we chose the second option.” Youssef justifies this choice by noting that it would have been up to next parliament to pass a law that specifies offences against the military: “And since there is no way we can predict what kind of a parliament we’ll be getting next time, we preferred to do that now instead of crying over spilt milk later. I had hoped that constitution would be an ideal one that sees our dreams come true, but looks like it’s not time yet.” Youssef was kicked out of the protest organized by No to Military Trials.

Although this article was passed, the 50 members of the committee still have to vote on the entire constitution. This is to be done as soon as “the remaining controversial articles are agreed upon and a final version of the introduction is drafted,” said former Arab League chief and current chairman of the committee Amr Moussa. A no-vote is the hope before the last for detractors of this article and other articles seen as repressive and contrary to the demands of the revolution, the last hope being the public referendum.