Last Updated: Fri Aug 19, 2011 12:09 pm (KSA) 09:09 am (GMT)

Sonia Farid / Letter from Cairo: Forgive me, General, for I have sinned

Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz faced military trial on charges of defaming the Higher Council for the Armed Forces and inciting violence. (Filephoto)
Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz faced military trial on charges of defaming the Higher Council for the Armed Forces and inciting violence. (Filephoto)

“If you exceed the speed limit … ” reads a sign on the Cairo-Alexandria highway. “If you don’t pay the bill on time …” says a recorded message on the mobile phone provider’s automated welcome. “If you don’t declare any newly-purchased electric appliances upon entering the country … ” announces a customs official at the airport. “If you buy tickets from the black market … ” cautions the head of the football federation. “If your cell phone is caught ringing during the performance … ” snaps the opera house manager. “If you don’t turn off that TV right now and go finish your homework,” yells a fed-up mother at the horrified six-year-old. “If you post a tweet that messes with our mood at the start of the day,” warns the Higher Council for the Armed forces.

You go to a military court.

I was almost a child when first I heard the words “military trial.” My cousin, about 15 years my senior, was telling us at a family gathering how devastated he was because in a few days he was supposed to start his military service, which is compulsory in Egypt except for men who have no male siblings, and how it would have been less painful to be detained in a mental asylum than to stand army life for almost a whole year.

I remember how difficult it was for me to see where the problem was. “Just don’t go,” I said, and gave him that “couldn’t you figure this out on your own?” face.

I was sure he wanted to slap me, but looked like he was rehearsing some barracks-like discipline, so he just let out a scornful smile and said, “And face a military trial, right?”

I shrugged, part ashamed after hearing everyone laugh at my stupidity and part curious about this type of punishment that seemed much more formidable than being deprived of your daily intake of Tom and Jerry. However, the first overcame the second and my pride overcame both, so I didn’t ask what that meant.

A while later I saw a movie in which an army commander asked a soldier to shoot on something or someone and apparently the soldier did not want to, possibly because he had ethical issues with the war or something of that sort.

After an excruciatingly long scene in which we get to live the conflict he was undergoing, the principled soldier laid down his weapon and a moment later was arrested by fellow fighters on the commander’s order. The accompanying sound effects and the expression on the arrested soldier’s face made me realize some serious punishment was awaiting him, and from the trial that followed I learnt that his crime is called “insubordination,” not that that meant anything for me at the time, and that this is a serious violation of army laws, since officers are expected to obey the orders given by commanders.

Putting one piece of information next to another, I gathered that a military trial is some kind of penalty imposed by army people against other army people for some kind of offense related to the army and which is judged according to laws pertaining only to the army.

In addition to beginning to sympathize with my conscripted cousin, I was intrigued by the way the military was treated as a different species, with a separate set of laws that do not apply to “normal” people; you definitely don’t stand trial if your father decides you’re grounded and you decide you’re going out — well, not until now, at least!

The same goes for running away from an angry dog, deciding to break up with your girlfriend, or snapping at your demanding boss.

In the army, these offenses are called “cowardice,” “desertion,” and “contempt,” and no wise officer would want to surrender to the enemy while under orders not to, abandon his post without permission, or call his commander a son of a bitch.

Regardless of how shocked I was to see how army officers are not treated as human beings, people susceptible to all kinds of weaknesses and prone to all sorts of mistakes, I once read an analysis that explained to me – without convincing me, however - why what seems commonplace for civilians can be a fatal crime in the military: the vast difference between civilian and military lifestyles explains the equally vast difference between the guidelines according to which each of them is governed.

I can’t say that this exactly fair, but it isn’t totally devoid of commonsense, for when you come to think of it, military mistakes can change the fate of entire nations or turn an imminent victory into a shameful defeat.

When, after the January 25 Revolution, calls for trying Mubarak and his family and members of the former regime in a military court gained momentum, the Higher Council for the Armed Forces decided that as part of being the civilized country we are aspiring to be we should grant the former president and his henchmen all the rights to which a civilian defendant is entitled - including the right to defense and the right to appeal - even as aware as we were of their horrible crimes and which could, in fact, be much worse than any of those listed in the military code.

I kind of agreed, because even though Mubarak was a military man, the crimes for which he is tried are civilian ones that he committed against civilian Egyptians, and since the rest of the gang were civilian, too, then that looked like the most reasonable approach.

But, of course, this should not be the case all the time, since, as we all know by now, there are certain crimes that might not be committed by a member of the military nor within a military context, yet are far more dangerous than making your country fall in the hands of the enemy because you decided to chicken out at the last minute or disobeying an order that might have won your army the war or quitting at the time when the dignity of your country is contingent upon the likes of you.

Here’s the newest addition to the military offenses that jeopardize the stability of the nation and compromise its sovereignty: “tweeting.”

The crime of tweeting, usually committed by a group of outlaws referred to as “activists” or “bloggers” and now “revolutionaries,” revolves around the offense of voicing your objection to the performance of your military rulers owing to the similarities you are gradually detecting between them and a former regime you paid a very dear price to get rid of and to the provocative slowness with which justice is taking its course in a country in which a revolution had just happened to put an end to tyranny and oppression and to your ability to predict the grave consequences that are bound to happen if things remain the way they are.

The crime of tweeting has destructive repercussions, for it spreads chaos, incites violence, and calls for mutiny. It doesn’t stop at that, though, for sometimes it even involves engaging in acts of blasphemy, such as defaming a group of people who, we just got to know a couple of days ago, are untouchable and infallible.

Well, if a post of 140 characters has now become the noose we tighten around our necks, let us all gasp our last breath rather than see Egypt go back to the time when we were slaves and they were gods. The Dark Ages are over and you are no longer in possession of our one-way ticket to heaven, so keep your indulgences and leave us our country or kill us all and rule over a wasteland inhabited by the ghosts of martyrs who will never give you a moment of peace!

(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya, teaches English literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: sonia.farid@mbc.net)

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