August 19, 2011
by Shahira Amin
Egypt’s ruling military council decided on 18 August to drop charges against high-profile activists Asmaa Mahfouz and Louai Nagati. The two had been charged with “insulting” and “defaming” the military after posting their personal views (which were critical of military policies) on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.
A statement posted on the military council’s Facebook page on Thursday night declared that the two activists “were pardoned because they were in a revolutionary mood that had affected their actions.”
The announcement followed a public outcry and growing demands that the military stop the trials of civilians in martial courts.
After being investigated for three hours by the military prosecutor last Sunday, a tearful Mahfouz was released on a 20,000 LE bail, which was paid on her behalf by other activists. A date for her trial was set for a later date. Throughout the investigations, Mahfouz remained vigilant, and posted another message of defiance on her Facebook page afterwards: “After what I have seen and heard today, I will continue on the same track. Down with military rule!”
But that was before she’d received the good news. Hossam Eissa, her lawyer who had offered his services free of charge, welcomed the decision to free Mahfouz, calling it “a good start”. He added that he would thank the Military Council publicly.
Many Egyptians rejoiced at the news, especially since Mahfouz was one of the key organisers of the January 25 uprisings that brought down former dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Rasha Abdulla, Professor of Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, was glad to hear of Mahfouz’s release. Abdulla opposes the usage of military trials for civilians, and views them as “a serious violation of civilians’ rights.” She also expressed hope that the move “would usher in a new atmosphere of greater civil liberties and freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, technology- savvy Egyptians used social media to share the good news and congratulate each other on what many saw as “another victory brought about by people power.”
It was clear, they wrote, that the interim military rulers had caved in under pressure, especially as the revolutionary forces had threatened to organise fresh protests to decry the repressive measures being used to silence voices of dissent. A cynical few, however, suggested that the council may have bowed under international rather than domestic pressure, implying that US interference was behind the military rulers’ change of heart. New US Ambassador Anne Patterson had met privately with Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Head of the Military Council, last week to hand in her credentials.
She had pledged the United States’ full support for Egypt as the country makes the democratic transition.
“What matters, however, is that the council is rethinking its repressive policies,” one Facebook user argued.
Presidential hopefuls Mohamed el Baradei and Amr Moussa, and leaders of political parties had earlier joined the chorus of condemnation, possibly seeing the standoff between the military council and the revolutionary forces as an opportunity to widen their popularity. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had previously guarded against losing favor with the interim military rulers, also expressed its rejection of martial courts for trying civilians. Hafez Abou Ismail, the presidential candidate for the Salafists meanwhile drew a comparison between military trials for civilians and those of Mubarak’s corrupt former regime members in civilian courts.
Skeptics took the military’s latest announcement with a grain of salt. They cautioned that the military statement on Facebook carried a veiled threat and urged users of the social media network to “read carefully between the lines.”
The military council, they noted, had called on journalists and intellectuals ” to be careful in expressing their viewpoints and to voice them responsibly in a manner that would not be offensive.”
“What would happen then to those whose opinions are considered offensive? ” they asked.
General Mamdouh Shaheen, the spokesperson for the military council has made it clear that offenders will be dealt with firmly. Appearing on Al Jazeera from Egypt, he reiterated that military trials would be reserved solely for thugs, criminals and drug dealers. But he did try to evade questions about what would be considered “offensive” by the military council. He also insisted that a three year jail sentence for blogger Maikel Nabil was not a disproportionate punishment. Nabil’s only crime was “criticising” the military council in a blog post.
While the pardoning of Mahfouz and Nagati is a welcome step in the right direction, Egypt has yet to see the release of Nabil and more than ten thousand other activists still languishing in prisons after facing hasty military trials in the post-revolution period. Their liberation, many say, will be the “real” gesture of goodwill that would help restore faith in the military.
Journalist and television anchor Shahira Amin resigned her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV on February. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.