A day at Cairo’s military court

A venue for political talk

Cairo’s al-Nayaba al-Askariya, the Military Court, is located on the far edges of Nasr City in an unexceptional neighbourhood called District 8. A dusty sprawl of large apartment buildings and the occasional vegetable market; at this time of the year, goat herds. Then, at the centre of the area, the tall and imposing Military Court, engraved on one of its faces by the anachronistic Blind Lady of Justice.

On August 17, I found myself at its entrance with some friends and activists who were there to support members of the EDA, or Egyptian Democratic Academy, in their complaint against General Hassan al-Ruwainy. During an interview with al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr channel, Ruwainy had accused popular political and social movements like April 6th and Kefaya as well as others like the EDA, of creating conflict and division between the army and the people. He also accused these groups of espionage and of receiving funding from abroad. Summoned by the court for a cross-examination of sorts, the lodgers of the complaint — Hossam el-Din Ali, Bassem Samir and Ahmed Ghoneim — were questioned separately as they presented their case for at least five hours each.

It had been only a few days before that the well-known activist Asmaa Mahfouz had been released on a LE 20,000 ($3,350) bail after posting on Twitter: “The justice system does not give us our rights, nobody should be upset if armed groups emerge and carry out assassinations” and “As long as there is no law, there is no justice, anything can happen and nobody should be upset.” Many activists believe that the only reason she was released was because of the huge outpouring of support online.

The court has two entrances: one is more ominous than the other. Soldiers in clean uniforms and bright berets stand in a line in front of a grand gate, tanks flanking either side of them. The gate through which we entered was the smaller gate. Families sat in the heat dispersed around the entrance of the building. We were immediately separated from them and taken inside another gate to a macabre waiting room. A film crew from On TV had entered the gate at the same time that we had. They had filmed some short interviews with the EDA members before they approached the court.

Now we were all sitting together in this waiting room — a fully tiled space with tiled benches, a short pink wall and a fetid bathroom. I made a joke about how easily a person could clean up a crime in this room, with the large drains pockmarking the tiles at regular intervals. Everyone was silent. We were watched over by a young soldier in tight pants, evidently too distracted by the young women in the group to maintain a cold façade. When I asked him who all of the people outside the gate were, he simply answered, al-Baltagiyya, the thugs. It’s hard to say whether or not he was simply trying to impress us, but his readiness to answer struck me as something unusual. In this post-revolutionary chaos, the concept of al-Baltagiyya has been a slippery one, used by many factions to justify their actions and vilify the efforts of other groups.

The group was held for hours in this tiled space before finally being brought to a general wishing to speak with us. For all intents and purposes, we were detained. Our phones, and our passports and IDs were taken, and if the topic of our departure was mentioned, the answer provided was, “wouldn’t you prefer to enjoy the air-conditioning for a while?” Those of us who weren’t fasting were offered coffee. The women in the group were ignored. At least the presence of two foreign passports in the pile was not the object of the discussion. Instead, the general wanted to talk about politics and social media. This surprised me. I had never considered that the office of a general in the building of military prosecutors could be a venue for political discussion.

Egypt military

I could summarise his fears as three-fold. The first was espionage. The main reason for our detention was the presence of the film crew, who were assumed to be attached to us, despite absolute denial from both groups. The crew had filmed near the entrance of the building. Soldiers watching us in the tiled room also noted that one of the members of the crew had filmed the group with his phone. My friend and I had indeed remembered seeing the light of his phone lit up as he panned around the room. These accusations were continuously denied by the crew, making the rest of the group — or at least myself and my friend —feel incredibly uncomfortable for the possibility of being caught in this serious lie.

The second fear of the army was apparently the use of social media. At regular intervals during our detention, the general speaking with us mentioned Facebook and Twitter, and accused us of wishing to furiously upload and update various bits of information criticising the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). On the way to this man’s office, we had passed a computer lab full of teenage soldiers most likely spending their days sifting through social media from around the country.

The biggest agitation was what the general called “provoking” (istifzaz) the army. The most poignant part of the day was watching this man try to explain the politics of the SCAF to the television crew and the few activists associated with the EDA. Everyone assembled in the general’s office understood the gravity of the situation, but the group spoke eloquently about their own opposing points of view. Many of them had been politically active for at least the past six or seven years and had already risked their personal freedom to question the state of the country. Some had spent time in prison. Yet the general spoke passionately about the need to keep the country stable in this transitional period, and about how certain actions that had been blamed on the military had not happened at all. Certain journalists, he said, had been provoking the army. There was a difference between criticism and provocation, he insisted.

It seems strangely naïve to expect a broad coterie of citizens who had worked so tirelessly and at such personal risk to depose a dictator, to then choose to care no longer. Or for no other reason than frustration and exhaustion, to trust another set of actors who held the old regime in place, and who prove far more able than an ailing man and his villainous sons to continue to control the country. Propitiously, the military has felt the need to become more accountable to its country, at least outwardly.

Apparently social media has made a huge impact on the administration of power in this country. Not only is social media responsible for the threat of large-scale mobilisation and organisation, it has created a nebulous news agency based on interpersonal networks that is difficult to infiltrate. Therefore, the army is on the offensive. In a two-pronged attack, the SCAF targets those who denounce them in the online realm, and attempts to reason with the rest. Most of their justifications and politicking seem a little too unbelievable to support, but at least there’s dialogue.

Photo credit: Isabelle Mayault, Cairo, January 2011

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