Islamists and transitional justice

Khaled Fahmy , Sunday 19 May 2013

Islamists have recently shown sudden interest in transitional justice. But this interest focuses on revenge, not achieving societal reconciliation, restructuring the police, and ending all human rights violations

Suddenly, and in the same week, three of the largest Islamist movements started talking about transitional justice, demanding its implementation at once. Spokesman for the Salfist front, Hisham Kamal, asserted, "Mubarak should have been tried for all his crimes from the start, not only for killing protestors." Political consultant to the El-Benaa wa El-Tanmia (Building and Development) Party, the political army of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Ossama Roshdy, said that the NCHR has set out to form a specialised committee for transitional justice. And member of the parliamentary bloc of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political army of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saad Emara said, "Torture crimes are not subject to a statute of limitations, and we cannot limit retribution to the previous regime alone and not its predecessors, even if they are no longer alive."

What is the secret of the Islamists' sudden interest in transitional justice? Since the onset of the revolution, liberal forces have called for the necessity of re-opening the files of the past, while human rights organisations have held numerous seminars to draw more attention to this thorny topic, reminding us that we should not focus solely on cases of killing protestors, despite their importance, or on uncovering what has happened during the first 18 days of the revolution only, while re-publishing statistics confirming that there were hundreds of confirmed deaths that took place in police stations under Mubarak's rule.

Many articles were written to try to shed light on the concept of transitional justice, and to suggest different models of societies that have undergone transitional periods, from dictatorship to democracy, drawing on the experiences of South Africa and Morocco and countries in Eastern Europe, among others. Lectures were given and conferences were held to discuss the goals of transitional justice, which range from putting a stop to systematic attacks on human rights, investigating the crimes of the past, and holding people accountable for violations of human rights and bringing them to trial, re-structuring the security sector, offering compensations for victims, and achieving a sort of societal harmony, so that society can leave the past behind it, turn over a new leaf, and look towards the future.

In all this creative engagement with the concept of transitional justice, Islamists were conspicuously absent. Throughout the tumultuous two and a half year period since the outbreak of the revolution, the Islamists’ main focus was on questions of identity, a focus that left its mark on the constitution; this pivotal text was devoid of any mention of transitional justice, expect for a few vague phrases in the preamble, and Article 232, which barred former leading figures from the toppled National Democratic Party from participating in political life.

And the Salafists have made it clear that drafting a new law for “Al-Hisba” (legislation derived from Sharia law) is more important for them than dealing with torture cases committed during the previous regime, and it appeared that what concerns them is not putting a stop on the ongoing practice of torture or trying the perpetrators, as much as it is "the absence of gallantry from Egyptian society," as deputy leader of Al-Daawa Movement (Al-Da'waa Al-Salafiyyai) Yasser Borhami professed in his famous interview with Al-Shorouk on 27 December 2012.

So how then are we to understand this human rights awakening that has materialised within Islamist forces all of a sudden? Answering this question is difficult, in light of the plethora of Islamist movements and parties, and considering the opaque nature by which the Brotherhood undertake their policies and actions.

Yet it seems that the concern over the possibility of the release of the toppled president is an explanation for their sudden interest in his earlier crimes. As Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Ossama Roshdi said, "It is not fair and just that Mubarak be punished for his final moments in power, and not for all the crimes he has committed since 1981, particularly torture cases that were performed on many of the Islamists' youth."

It is as if the Islamists are becoming more and more apprehensive of the prospect of the judiciary (of whom they are suspicious and sceptical) ordering the release of Mubarak, and are now realising that the prosecution had prepared a bad case for the current trial to begin with, because the charges against him were limited to his actions during the 18 days, and ignored crimes committed during his 30-year rule.

And while Islamists are to be thanked for such an awakening, regardless of how late that awakening came, there are two peculiar, and worrying, points in their sudden interest in transitional justice. The first is their narrow definition of transitional justice; their successive statements over the past few days imply that they define it as "vengeance," which is the interpretation that one detects in expressions like "implementing transitional justice on Mubarak," which is what Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya has recently called for. In such a phrase, the term “transitional justice” appears synonymous with "retribution" or "death penalty." In doing so, Islamists overlook the other noble goals of transitional justice, such as achieving societal reconciliation, compensating victims (in material and non-material ways), and putting an end to ongoing human rights violations.

And as for the second disturbing point, it is their monopolising of the victim mentality while belittling the suffering of others. In that regard, the Brotherhood occupies pride of place for they contend that the oppression and injustice they experienced at the hands of the regime exceeded that experienced by others, including other Islamists. This is what explains the insistence of the remark of the FJP's Saad Emara, that despite the fact that the revolution erupted against Mubarak, "there were many injustices and violations of human rights that had been committed under Egypt’s previous rulers."

"Under late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, [for example,] there were bogus trials and torture. And given that torture is not subject to a statute of limitations, wouldn’t this mean that previous regimes, even if the president has passed away, can still be held accountable? Or is retribution limited only to the regime against which this revolution erupted?"

Over many years, human rights organisations have adopted the position not to differentiate among torture victims. We have all been carrying our crosses and the Muslim Brotherhood has no right in monopolising victimhood. And while human rights organisations are willing to concede that Islamists have received a large share of injustice, not only under Mubarak, but also since the 1952 coup, they also insist that torture under Mubarak was experienced by Islamists and non-Islamists alike.

They further stress that torture became so widespread and systematic that it ceased to be limited to the regime's political enemies, but extended to include ordinary citizens as well. And therefore, any discussion over transitional justice must include the entire society, and should not be limited to redressing one faction’s share of humiliation and pain.

The liberal forces’ definition of transitional justice, moreover, is broad, in that it does not focus merely on revenge. This definition emphasises the importance of starting with the immediate end of systematic violations of human rights, re-structuring the security sector, and compensating victims and acknowledging their plights.

However, Islamists, and in particular the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, have turned a blind eye to the urgency of undertaking these important steps, and have chosen instead to direct their rage towards the judiciary, not the police. They have repeatedly overlooked the violations that the security sector continues to hurl upon us, let alone redressing the painful record of torture in the past.  

Here I mention the incident of 19-year-old Wael Hamdy Roshdy, who died in Heliopolis police station on 24 April 2013. The police say that he hanged himself in his cell at night, without explaining how the six other inmates sharing the same cell did nothing to prevent him from killing himself, or where he had acquired the knife which he used to cut the rim of his blanket and weave a rope to tie around his neck, or the absence of a chair for him to stand on.

Evidence strongly suggests that the cause of death was the officer on duty that night, who had struck Wael on his head with a pole. This is an incidence of murder in a police station during the rule of President Mohamed Morsi and not President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

So if the Brotherhood and other Islamists are really serious about implementing transitional justice, are they willing to cooperate with human rights organisations in this case and to put an end to the torture that is still being performed by the police?

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