Democracy Now! correspondent. His coverage in Egypt is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Over the weekend, Egyptian political parties dropped a threat to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, the first multi-candidate vote since the ouster of longtime president, Hosni Mubarak. The parties agreed to take part in the vote after Egypt’s ruling military council vowed to amend a voting law that would have made it easier for former Mubarak allies to return to government. But the military council’s shift fell short of ongoing demands by opposition activists for an end to the military trials of civilians and the lifting of 30-year-old emergency laws. Meanwhile, freedom of the press in Egypt is becoming increasingly limited, and a massive strike is underway by teachers and other government workers. Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous has been reporting in Egypt since January, and he joins us in our New York studio just before he returns to Cairo. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now for an update on recent developments in Egypt with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Over the weekend, Egyptian political parties dropped a threat to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, the first multi-candidate vote since the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. The parties agreed to take part in the vote after Egypt’s ruling military council vowed to amend a voting law that would have made it easier for former Mubarak allies to return to government. But the military council’s shift fell short of ongoing demands by opposition activists for an end to the military trials of civilians and the lifting of 30-year-old emergency laws.
Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous has been in Egypt covering the revolution since it began in January. And he’s here with me in studio, just before he heads back to Cairo today. His articles and videos are available at his website, egyptreports.net, and we link to it as well at democracynow.org.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this very significant election law issue.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, 13 political groups met with the military council over the weekend, and they signed on to this elections law, which basically puts in place the first multi-party elections in Egypt. But there has been an outcry over these parties signing this elections law, for a number of reasons. One is, is that it does not lift the state of emergency in Egypt that has been in place for over 30 years. The law that was signed on means that they will review the elections law. This is one of the key demands of the revolution, and part of the reason that this all took place on January 25th was this emergency law.
Another issue is that it does not ban former members of the National Democratic Party from participating in elections. This was a key demand of many political groups. And the way the elections are set up right now is that two-thirds of—this is for parliament—two-thirds of the parliament will be chosen by list-based candidacies. What that means is you go to the poll, and you’ll vote for a political party. A third will be individual-based, so you you’ll go and vote for a specific candidate. What political parties and many activists have been calling for is a hundred-based list base, so all of the seats will be voted on by just voting for a political party, because what people are afraid of is that these individual candidates, former members of the National Democratic Party, powerful businessmen, will be able to run in these seats and win, because we haven’t had a lot of time to organize for these elections, and there’s a lot of new groups and new candidates that are coming out.
But as it stands right now, the elections are set up in—we have two houses of parliament in Egypt, one called the People’s Assembly, and they will start voting in November in three stages, that ends in December. The upper house of parliament is called the Shura Council. That will begin in January and end in March. Parliament will convene in March. This is how everything stands now. And they will appoint, somehow, a body that will write the constitution. This body has up to a year to write this constitution, which will then be put to a national referendum. After that’s passed, the next day, presidential candidates can be nominated and begin campaigning. So this actually—we may have the military council being the ultimate ruling power in the country through 2013.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, weren’t there supposed to be presidential elections in September, now, the month we’ve just passed, a long time ago?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Supreme Council of Armed Forces’s mandate, they said they would give up power and transition it to civilian rule six months within coming to power. They came to power in February, so we’re passed that right now. Many people think they’re overcomplicating the issue. This is not a difficult thing to set up. They seem, Amy, unwilling to govern, but unwilling to let anyone else do so, either. And it’s creating a lot of problems in Egypt.
And let me just talk a little bit more about this emergency law and why it’s so significant. On October 6, 1981, that’s when the state of emergency was declared in Egypt. That’s the day that President Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, was assassinated by Islamist gunmen, and Hosni Mubarak came to power in his place. He’s been extending the emergency law since then every few years, up until his ouster from power. The emergency law is very draconian. It allows for widespread powers of search, arrest and seizure. It denies the right of assembly, so they can arrest people holding a protest. And so, this has been in place. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces made a constitutional declaration in March vowing to abolish the emergency law, or not renew it, by September 30th. So this was supposed to pass four days ago. And what happened was they actually extended the emergency law until June 2012, and they broadened its scope.
And let me just give you some context in which this happened. This was all after the storming of the Israeli embassy, which made international headlines around the world. What happened was, in mid-August, an attack on a bus of Israeli tourists happened in Eilat, where eight Israeli journalists were killed. The Israeli military, pursuing the perpetrators of this attack, somehow ended up in Rafah, and five Egyptian soldiers were killed by Israeli forces. Israel did not apologize for this and blamed Egypt for the attack on the Israeli bus, when there was no evidence at the time. This sparked outrage in Egypt and protests in front of the Israeli embassy.
Let me just be clear: people have not been allowed to protest in front of the Israeli embassy in Egypt for a very long time. This is the first Israeli embassy in the Arab world, and the flag flies 20 stories up in this building. There were protests on May 15th, which is the anniversary of what’s called the Nakba, the catastrophe, what people protest, the founding of Israel in 1948. The crackdown on May 15th was extremely harsh. There was a lot of tear gas. A lot of people were wounded, a lot of people arrested. This time, in mid-August, the army could not really intervene, because their own soldiers had been killed, and people were protesting the Israeli embassy at that time. So for three days, people basically had an encampment outside the Israeli embassy. They kept trying to take down the Israeli flag. One young man climbed up the outside of the building at night—he became a national hero—took down the Israeli flag and replaced it with the Egyptian one. And then, in response to this, the military council, in its reactionary way, built a wall in front of the Israeli embassy. It was really a wall that was built kind of 10 meters apart from the Israeli embassy. And it was very provocative, the symbolism of the wall, especially when talking about Israel and the Occupied Territories.
So, on September 9th, there was a protest in Tahrir Square. People headed to the Israeli embassy after this protest, and they, with hammers, took down this wall. And for the first time—I wasn’t there that night, but many eyewitnesses have told me there was no police. There was no army whatsoever guarding the Israeli embassy. And so, people stormed inside. They broke into one of the floors of the Israeli embassy, and people started throwing documents outside the window—low-level correspondence, but still a great breach of diplomatic norms. A crackdown then came after protesters attacked a nearby security directorate.
And then, two days later, after this grave storming of the Israeli embassy, which many think that the military council allowed to happen, the information minister announced that the emergency laws in Egypt would be extended until June 2012 and broadened to include new crimes. And these crimes include the publishing of false information, which basically means they can arrest journalists, something about aggression against freedom of work, which basically means arresting people who are on strike. So this has sparked an outcry in Egypt. And the fact that Egyptians will be going to the polls in their post-revolutionary election for the first time, under the same state of emergency that we’ve been under for the past three decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, talk about journalists and bloggers. Talk about Maikel Nabil.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Maikel Nabil is a 26-year-old blogger, an avowed pacifist and a longtime campaigner against military conscription in Egypt. On March 28th, he penned—he was arrested by military police after he had penned an article on his blog titled "The Army and the People are Not One Hand." The common chant in Tahrir during the revolution was "The army and the people are one hand." And in it, he criticized the Supreme Council of Armed Forces for cases of torture and abuse, which had already been documented by human rights organizations like Amnesty International. And he said, you know, "We’ve gotten rid of the dictator, but not the dictatorship." He was tried in a military court. His lawyers were not present when the sentencing happened, believing that the trial had been adjourned or postponed. He was sentenced to three years in prison for publishing false information.
And on August 23rd, he started a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. He’s still on this hunger strike, so he’s entering what must be now day 44 of this hunger strike. His family says he’s close to death. Today, actually, there was supposed to be an appeal in the trial. They adjourned the case until October 11th, until another week. And he has now vowed to—his brother says he will stop drinking water. So, his case is—this is an outrage that someone like this, for criticizing the military in post-revolutionary Egypt, sentenced in a military trial to three years, is being left to die. And it’s becoming a rallying point for many activists across Egypt.
And it really highlights the point of the military trials issue, which is really one of the key issues in this post-transitional period. Since February 11th, when Mubarak was—I’m sorry, since January 28th, when the army took to the streets of Egypt, until today, there’s been 12,000 Egyptians put on military trial. That’s the rate of 70 a day, Amy. That is more military trials than the 30 years of Mubarak in power. Military trials deny people access to a free and fair trial. Many people are sentenced within a matter of hours or days to sentences of a few months to a few years. This issue was a fringe issue in the beginning, when activists first raised it. It now has become the leading issue in Egypt after these activists, really a grassroots group documented all these cases and kept putting the pressure on. And the opposition to military trials was regalvanized in August, when one of the leading activists in Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz, who is a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, really a key group in Egypt, and also became more well known for the videos that she posted online on YouTube the days before January 25th, saying and pledging to go down on January 25th—she was arrested and brought before a military prosecutor for a two-sentence tweet that she posted. This sparked outrage around Egypt, and it brought many of the presidential candidates, for the first time, to condemn military trials and for the Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time, to condemn military trials. Despite all the—and her charges were dismissed. But many, many people who are not known, most of them poor, are still in prison and are facing years-long sentences. And the practice continues.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the trial of Mubarak, meanwhile?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Mubarak was put on trial on August 3rd, and it was really a very significant moment in Egyptian history, in Arab history. And we saw for the first time Mubarak appear on TV since his ouster, really. Many people did not believe that he would be put on trial, until his face appeared on the screen, behind bars. That was televised. But since then, there’s been a complete—ordered by the judge in the trial, a complete media blackout on the trial. This was implemented when the former vice president and former head of the intelligence services, Omar Suleiman, was called to testify, and Tantawi was called to testify, the field marshal and de facto head of Egypt. And this media blackout is not just that the trial won’t be televised. Journalists are not allowed into the courtroom. Journalists are not allowed to quote what lawyers say about the trial in the courtroom. So you have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Tantawi testified—
AMY GOODMAN: And who has instituted these rules?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The judge, the judge in the case.
AMY GOODMAN: And who is the judge?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: His name is Ahmed Refaat. And lawyers for the victims of families killed, victims of those killed in the revolution, have called for him to be replaced. And so, the trial has been adjourned, I believe, 'til the end of the month. But Tantawi testified, and apparently a leaked transcript of his Q and A was put on the internet. And in it, he doesn't answer decisively, yes or no, whether Mubarak can be held complicit in the killing of protesters. And people are very worried that Mubarak, his sons, will not pay for their crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: And Tantawi testified favorably, the head of the military council, could remain in place for years?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, he—I mean, let’s remember, this is Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years and a very loyal person to Mubarak. He didn’t really decisively say either way. He just kept saying, "I don’t know." And many people were disappointed as he was privy to a lot of the meetings that Mubarak had with the interior minister and that involved the killing of protesters.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sharif, let’s do part two just after the show, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. And have a very safe trip back to Egypt.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, our former senior producer here. His videos and articles are available on his website at egyptreports.net, and of course at democracynow.org. His reporting made possible in part by the Pulitzer committee.