Back to square one for many Egyptians
by Sandhya Jain on 27 Aug 2013 4 Comments

Egypt may be poised for fresh turmoil after the army-controlled Supreme Court ruled on August 19 that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak was not guilty of misusing State funds to finance construction of his presidential palaces and ordered his release in another corruption case, even as the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide Mohamed Badie was arrested on August 20.


The synchronised arrest of one leader and release of another is widely perceived as negating the Tahrir Square uprisings of 2011 and 2013, and entrenching a pro-US Army dictatorship that may endure awhile. Fearing that popular aspirations for democracy could once again be aborted, leaders of the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement that helped oust the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi in June, condemned Mubarak’s release and demanded a “popular trial” for his crimes.


On August 23, however, the day a committee of jurists released a proposed constitutional draft reviving draconian features of the Mubarak-era, the aging autocrat was released from prison and placed under house arrest, mainly to prevent him from speaking in public and triggering disharmony.


Mohamed Badie was sent to Tora prison after a court ordered his detention for 15 days on charges of incitement to violence and the murder of eight anti-Brotherhood protestors outside its headquarters in Cairo in June. Badie’s detention follows the extension of former President Morsi’s detention by 15 days as prosecutors examine new allegations against him, including complicity in violence against protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012. The detention was already extended by 30 days in a separate case on August 15.


The decision to release Mubarak is clearly political as Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi and the interim government have abandoned the Morsi regime’s practice of invoking fresh charges to keep the ‘last pharaoh’ in custody each time he won reprieve in a corruption case. The prosecutor general’s office said they would not appeal the judgment as Mubarak had paid restitution of millions of dollars to the State for gifts received from State institutions while in office, including watches and jewellery. His two sons, Gamal and Alaa, are still in jail, facing corruption charges.


The most serious case still pending against Mubarak pertains to complicity in the murder of around 800 unarmed protestors in the Tahrir Square uprising of February 2011. It too, may end in nothingness, given the flawed nature of the verdict that convicted him last year. The judge said he was sentencing Mubarak to life imprisonment on the general principle that as the then President, he should have been responsible (for the deaths). But he simultaneously dismissed all charges against officials in the police chain of command and held there was no evidence linking Mubarak to the police shooting of protesters. Obviously, Mubarak’s lawyers appealed against the contradictory judgment, and may win on legal niceties.


The Muslim Brotherhood claims that Mubarak’s release points to the restoration of the ‘deep state’ he created. Gehad al Haddad, spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said that after the military coup, “there was no longer any revolutionary force to stand in the way of his release”. Gen al-Sisi was head of military intelligence under Mubarak; Adli Mansour was appointed judge during his regime. Since his appointment as interim president in July, Mansour has rehabilitated several figures from the Mubarak era and revived some of its autocratic features, such as an “emergency law” removing the right to trial and curbs on police abuse, and the appointment of generals as governors in provinces.


The proposed new constitution plans to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties that emerged in the political space briefly available after the fall of Mubarak. If approved by national referendum, the ban on politicians who were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party would also be lifted. This politics of convenience has prompted many in Egypt to question the facile return of the old order and the lack of accountability.


In the week from August 14, there were violent confrontations between Brotherhood supporters and the police, in which over 1,000 persons, mostly Brotherhood members and supporters, died in police action; another thousand were imprisoned. Churches were targetted, with both sides blaming each other, and in Sinai, suspected militants (not linked to Morsi) took advantage of the chaos and killed 25 police officers and wounded three others on August 19. Initially, clueless officials said the men died under a hail of rocket-propelled grenades, but later they said the men were bound and shot, an account supported by photographs of the deceased. The Muslim Brotherhood denounced the killings and continued protest marches across the country.


Tensions have risen following the custodial deaths of 36 Morsi supporters on August 18, which the regime cannot explain. It shifted position several times – saying the prisoners had taken a guard hostage; then militants had attacked the prison van to free the prisoners who got killed in the process; then the detainees suffocated over teargas following an abortive escape bid; and still later claiming the deaths happened in prison and not in the van. But photographs taken at the morgue on August 19 showed that at least two detainees were badly burned from the shoulders up, while others bore evidence of torture.


A fear psychosis is spreading with reports of police dragging men out of their cars at checkpoints for interrogation merely for sporting beards, and tales of Mubarak-era-style arbitrary beatings. The regime defends the highhandedness on grounds of ‘fighting terrorism’ (read the Brotherhood’s opposition to the military coup).


But following Badie’s arrest, the Brotherhood is rethinking its strategy and avoiding confrontation with the security forces by cancelling several planned protests against Morsi’s ouster, and scaling down others. An official ban on the organisation may drive it underground, but its roots in Egyptian society are eight decades deep and will not be easily severed. For now, security forces are also opting for restraint; there have been no street killings since August 18 and the enforcement of martial law, including the 7 pm curfew, is less rigid.


Foreign governments are split over the events. Washington has suspended financial aid to the regime, but not the critical military aid. The European Union says responsibility for the violence lies with the interim government. The oil-rich Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are delighted with the coup and have pledged billions in aid to the new government. For the thousands who joined the uprisings at Tahrir in 2011 and 2013, it is back of square one.

The Pioneer, 27 August 2013 

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