Army Out of the Barracks, Back On the Streets

December 11, 2012

The following post is from Amnesty researchers who are currently in Egypt monitoring and documenting the situation there.

Protestors on a tank in Cairo, Egypt
Protestors on a tank in Cairo ©Amnesty International

President Mohamed Morsi decision to give the army new policing powers has raised new concerns about Egypt’s future, raked up painful memories of the past.

In protests around the Presidential Palace on Friday, we saw tanks and armoured vehicles belonging to the Presidential Guard parked in the streets.

Protesters were climbing on them and taking pictures. A few fearless parents even let their children climb on them, posing with the soldiers.

The scenes were eerily reminiscent of the days after the “25 January Revolution,” when many welcomed the army on the streets after the 18 days of mass protests that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

But the military ruled with an iron fist; more than 120 protesters were killed in demonstrations and in excess of 12,000 civilians were tried unfairly by military courts.

And it was clear on Friday that many found the reappearance of the army deeply unsettling.

“Remember Maspero?” cried one woman in the crowd, referring to the army’s suppression of a protest by Coptic Christians in October 2011 in which 27 were killed.

She began to chant slogans against the army.

Many are still waiting for truth and justice for the 17 bloody months of army rule that ended in June.

But the announcement the army will have policing powers until the results of a constitutional referendum are published may also pave the way for new abuses.

One person worried about the future is Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman, who was beaten by soldiers suppressing a protest at Cairo’s Cabinet Offices in December last year.

Today, she told us: “The President is giving the army more powers in addition to his own extended powers… It is as if we are back to military rule but even worse.”

Under President Morsi, there have been some steps towards justice. An investigative judge was appointed to investigate the former Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (the SCAF), his chief of staff and the former head of the military police.

But it is not clear where the investigation will lead; under Egyptian law, the military can rule on whether or not a crime falls under its remit, making justice for many painfully elusive.

Only three low-ranking soldiers have been convicted of human rights violations during the rule of the SCAF, for their role in suppressing the Maspero protests. In the only other case, a military court cleared a doctor of overseeing forced “virginity tests” on women protesters.

A member of a fact-finding Committee set up by the President to investigate human rights violations during the “25 January Revolution” and the SCAF told us they are still preparing their final report, due this month.

The Committee has reportedly uncovered new evidence of human rights violations committed by officials and members of the security forces.

But it is again unclear whether their report will mark a step towards real accountability, or whether its findings will be brushed aside or buried by the authorities.

For now, the army’s role in the coming days is a source of great concern.

One ominous sign was during Friday’s protests, when we asked one officer about why he was letting protesters get so close to the Presidential Palace.

“I’m following orders,” he told us. “If the orders say clear the area of protesters, that’s what I’ll do.”