Large parts of Egypt’s civil infrastructure were placed under the jurisdiction of the army. This move is nominally aimed at terrorists and makes it easier for the government to bring members of the political opposition to justice in the country’s opaque military courts.
In a presidential decree, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi classified all public property – including power plants, universities, roads and bridges – as “equivalent to military facilities”. The decree means that any defendant accused of having committed a crime against public property could be tried in military tribunal, a judicial system that, according to Amnesty International, is not due to due process and “cannot be considered impartial and independent” .
Sisi’s decree, stamped by his cabinet in the absence of a sitting parliament, follows the deaths of at least 31 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula on Friday. The militant attack, one of the bloodiest attacks on the Egyptian army in its peace history, has prompted Sisi to step up efforts to stop a long-running uprising by jihadists with ties to the Islamic State (Isis) that has been going on since the overthrow of the former President Mohamed Morsi escalated the state considerably in July 2013.
Since Friday, Sisi has declared a state of emergency and a curfew in the affected part of the peninsula and has now expanded the influence of the military on public spaces across the country.
The government says this is only aimed at facilitating the defense of state institutions and prosecuting terrorists who attack them. “Do you really think the government will use these military trials? [to] Activists without a reason? “asked a senior government official.” We are talking about terrorists who commit serious crimes against the military and police.
But human rights activists believe the decree clearly makes it easier to jail protesters and student activists, especially in a country where demonstrations without permission are now illegal and in an environment where political opposition is often equated with terrorism.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “This will pave the way for mass trials of civilians, including peaceful protesters and students. The wording of the law is so broad that it can actually be used to ban all protests, to silence any disagreements and to put protesters in the hands of kangaroo courts. “
Since Sisi Morsi fell, tens of thousands of political prisoners have been detained or tried in Egypt’s civil justice system, which is also widely accused of lack of due process. Hadj Sahraoui argued that the new decree would make it even easier for the Egyptian authorities to convict those who think differently.
“Military courts cannot be viewed as impartial and independent,” she said. “The disturbing truth is that the government passed this law to eliminate the possibility of an independent and impartial judge ever delivering an innocent verdict.”
Even so, many Egyptians applaud Sisi’s response to Friday’s attacks. His reign as a strong man is believed to be the only bulwark against the chaos that extremists like Isis have wreaked elsewhere in the Middle East.
On Sunday, 17 editors from state and private newspapers made a joint statement supporting the government’s fight against terrorism and “our opposition to attempts to question state institutions or to insult the army, police or judiciary in any way which adversely affects this performance of the institutions ”.