Prosecuting Egypt's former SCAF leaders Tantawi, Anan: How realistic is it?

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Friday 17 Aug 2012

Revolutionaries say they want to see the prosecution of SCAF leaders Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan. But would such a move – at the current critical juncture – have the necessary popular support?

In this Thursday, July 5, 2012 file image released by the Egyptian President, Egyptian Field Marshal Gen. Hussein Tantawi, left, new President Mohammed Morsi, center, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan, right, attend a medal ceremony, at a military base east of Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: AP)

Last Monday, the president's office was quick to dismiss reports that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had put Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan under house arrest following Morsi's decision to retire the two high-ranking military leaders.

The rumour surfaced while many were wondering if Morsi had taken a sizeable courage pill to be able to make such an earth-shattering move, while others wondered if Morsi did not actually reach an agreement with the army generals before ordering the reshuffles.

As soon as Morsi's abrupt decision to retire the two leaders of Egypt's military council – and cancel the constitutional declarations that had upheld their political involvement – sunk in, pro-revolution voices brought up the subject of prosecuting the generals for their involvement in the deadly crackdowns on protests and violations of due process that occurred during Egypt's transitional period, which the military council had been mandated with handling.

"The military council held the position of acting president throughout the transitional period, and they are directly, not only politically, involved in the several deadly crackdowns of protests," said Osama Khalil, rights activist and lawyer at Cairo-based NGO the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre.

Army forces were accused of assaulting – even murdering – protesters more than once during the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which lasted for nearly a year and half following Mubarak's ouster in February of last year.

Dozens were killed during clashes in the Maspero district, downtown's Mohamed Mahmoud Street and near the Cabinet office in October, November and December respectively. Army forces appeared on all three occasions and are held responsible by many for the deaths and injuries of protesters.

Adding fuel to the fire, the SCAF took another blow after 16 Egyptian border guards were killed earlier this month by unknown assailants in Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula.

The military council was lambasted for negligence, as it has been widely reported that Jihadist groups have significantly increased their presence in the peninsula amid the post-uprising security vacuum. The army, however, failed to send reinforcements to Sinai until after the incident.   

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, from which President Morsi hails, is reportedly mulling a lawsuit.

"The freedoms sub-committee of the Lawyers Syndicate will submit an investigation request to civil and military prosecutors against the military council leaders for their responsibility for the recent Rafah attacks [near the Egypt-Gaza border], as well as other incidents of violence that occurred after the uprising," said Mohamed El-Damaty, a lawyer and member of the legal committee of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

"The military council clearly bears responsibility for the Rafah attacks. [Former head of intelligence] Mourad Mouafi said he had information about the attacks. Thus, he should have given his superiors this information. So the charges against the military leaders could either be negligence, or they might have intentionally allowed the attacks to happen," El-Damaty added.

He went on: "But Rafah attacks aside, there is a conviction among many people that the military council was responsible for the killing of protesters in the several violent clashes that occurred during the transitional period. We will also include this in our investigation request."

Little hope without popular pressure

Nonetheless, rights lawyers and activists who have been legally pursuing the military council have little faith that the new investigation requests will be seriously considered, even in light of Morsi's latest move.

Many lawyers say that the medals Morsi has given to Tantawi and Anan upon the two men's retirement does not give them immunity from prosecution. However, the gesture has raised doubts about the president's intention to initiate an investigation.

"Serious investigations would only happen if the order came from above," Khalil asserted, in reference to Morsi himself. "But if [Morsi's] intent had been to bring them to trial, he would have ordered the prosecutor to begin investigations, and then he would have still been able to remove them from their positions after they had been prosecuted."

"But instead of doing that, he awarded them with medals. I believe his move was merely meant to end their control over his powers," Khalil continued.

"We had submitted several investigation requests against the military council throughout the several violent crackdowns, but the requests were always ignored," he added. "Morsi could have ordered an investigation into these requests, but he didn't. I still doubt that new ones by other lawyers would be considered now."

Alongside lawyers' efforts, there is another factor: popular pressure.

"Upon the 25 January uprising, there was no intention to prosecute Mubarak over the killing of protesters, but it was popular pressure that brought him to trial," said El-Damaty, who believes the same might go for the generals.

This argument is supported by many who believe that mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square – the focal point of the 2011 uprising – during the transitional period is what had forced the SCAF to prosecute Mubarak and his clique.

Indeed, grassroots movements are in the process of working to mobilise popular pressure, to inform the public of some of the reasons why the generals deserve to be prosecuted.

"After Morsi's decisions, we've established a special campaign under the name of 'No to safe exit' for the military council, to put pressure on Morsi to cancel the article in the military judiciary law which states that even retired military officers cannot be prosecuted by the civilian judiciary," said Heba Hegazy, one of the coordinators of the 'Prosecute Them' movement, which was launched in early 2012 to demand bona fide trials for all the Mubarak regime figures, many of whom are accused of corruption.

Hegazy went on: "After the military trials conducted for civilians since the uprising, we can tell by now that the military judiciary is not independent. They need to be brought before civilian courts and tried for their responsibility for the deadly crackdowns on protesters throughout the transitional phase."

"As part of our campaign, we have created a telegraph format for people to submit to the president, calling on him to order the prosecution of the senior military generals and [former head of intelligence] Mourad Mouafi," she added.

"In the upcoming weeks, we will organise awareness human chains holding signs calling for the trials. We will also prepare video-documentaries about the crimes of violent crackdowns and corruption violations that SCAF members are involved in," Hegazy went on. She pointed out that the movement was holding meetings with other revolutionary groups to discuss how they would cooperate to this end in the upcoming weeks.

"We held two popular rallies in Cairo and Alexandria as part of our original campaign, where we called for the prosecution of the generals. And despite the fact that one of the rallies was attacked by a group of Mubarak loyalists – who are also supporters of the military council – the attendance of people was notably high," Hegazy said.

Some, meanwhile, still view Morsi's decisions as part of a deal with the SCAF generals – one that entails a 'safe exit' scenario, leaving the generals relatively unscathed – which the revolutionaries sternly oppose.

Others argue that, in terms of timing, prosecution of the generals is still premature. It appears that public opinion, however, along with Morsi's Brotherhood-affiliated political party, beg to differ in this regard.

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