Thousands of Egyptians protested on Monday in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of an uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak this year, after a prominent activist was detained by military prosecutors.
The military detained Alaa Abd al-Fattah on Sunday; he is a high-profile blogger whose arrest by Mubarak’s security forces in 2006 led to a large campaign to release him.
Abd al-Fattah refused to be questioned by military prosecutors over “inciting violence and sabotage” in connection with deadly clashes between the army and protesters on Oct.9, when more than 25 people were killed.
The blogger said the army had no legitimacy to interrogate him and said he would only speak to a civilian official, prompting his detention pending investigations.
“Field Marshal, the revolution is coming,” one protester cried over loudspeakers, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the army council now ruling Egypt, Reuters reported.
About 3,000 protesters marched in solidarity with the blogger, calling on the military council to step down.
More than 25 people were killed in clashes that erupted during a demonstration by Christians on Oct. 9, an incident now commonly known as the “Maspero” events.
“Alaa is causing them trouble because he’s been an activist for so long. He has many people around him he can influence. They don’t want this voice now,” said one 24-year-old protester, Andy Ishaq, referring to the military leadership. Like others in the march, he wore a yellow sticker reading “I am against military trials for civilians,” he told The Associated Press.
Amnesty International criticizes military trials of civilians
Amnesty International on Monday also criticized the trials of civilians in military courts, as well as the military’s expansion of Egypt’s emergency law, which gives police almost unlimited powers to arrest. The law was widely opposed in Egypt and its lifting was one of the demands of the protesters who brought down Mubarak.
Rights groups say at least 12,000 civilians have been brought before military courts since February, calling into question the willingness of the army to transform Egypt into a democracy.
“Military courts should never be used to investigate or try civilians,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, adding that the army has not held its officers to account for using too much force.
“Instead, they have continued to insist that the demonstrators were responsible for inciting the violence and have cracked down on those criticizing the way they handled the demonstrations,” the London-based rights group added.
Excessive use of force
Protesters said military police used excessive force, firing live ammunition and driving armed vehicles into the crowds. The army defended their actions during the protest and blamed “foreign elements” and other agitators for the violence.
A military prosecution source said they had received footage of Abd al-Fattah in possession of weapons they say he confiscated from officers at the scene. Supporters of the blogger doubt the credibility of any such evidence.
Abd al-Fattah and another activist Bahaa Saber were questioned for “incitement.”
Critics say the army is shifting blame onto activists, instead of conducting an impartial investigation. Seventeen human rights groups said in a joint statement that Abd al-Fattah’s detention was reminiscent of Mubarak’s crackdowns.
“The activist exercised his right to not stand before military prosecution because he is a civilian,” the group said.
“We see that the Maspero massacre and its repercussions, which ended yesterday with the detention of Alaa Abd al-Fattah are a flagrant challenge to achieving the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” the statement added, describing the arrest as an attempt to “distort” the image of activists.
Twitter hash tag
A twitter hash tag used to campaign to free Abd al-Fattah, who along with his wife Manal started one of the first blogs in the Arab region, in 2006 was revived by activists on Sunday and has since gone viral. Activists said they will continue their march onto the prison headquarters where he is held.
“We say to the military council, our numbers will grow and you cannot plan to quell the power of the people,” activist Mohammed Fahmy said at the march.
Authorities have detained 28 others on suspicion of attacking soldiers. Any trial will be before a military court, a move that has drawn broad criticism from politicians who want the army to use civilian courts and say the military cannot be the arbitrator when it is accused of having a role.
Amid the criticism, a member of the ruling military council, Maj-Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, on Monday joined a ceremony for the raising of the country’s flag on a new 192-yard-high (176-meter-high) iron tower built in recent weeks on an island in the Nile in the center of Cairo as a new landmark on the city skyline, AP reported.
The hoisting of the flag, which was privately financed, was billed as part of the 38th anniversary of Egypt’s 1973 war against Israel – and it coincided with military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s 76th birthday.