Soldiers of Conscience
The Egyptian military insists it supports the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. So why are these men still in prison?
When Maj. Ahmed Shuman made his way to Tahrir Square one evening last February, his face was soon beamed across the world. The first member of the Egyptian Army to join the 18-day protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, Shuman was hailed as a national hero — a walking embodiment of the chant that echoed through downtown Cairo: "The people and the Army are one hand."
Today, Shuman is locked in a 3-foot by 5-foot prison cell, accused of deserting his unit and helping to incite the unrest that killed hundreds and wounded thousands of civilians during the past year. With protests calling for an end to military rule continuing to shake the country, he awaits trial at the hands of an army that has lost much of the popular acclaim it enjoyed in those heady days early last year. As Egypt prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of its Jan. 25 revolution, he is only one of dozens of army officers jailed after laying down their arms and joining the people of Tahrir Square.
Shuman, a 38-year-old officer from the Cairo suburb of Giza who has served in the military for 15 years, was arrested in February and charged with several counts of defection and subversion. It was only the high-profile nature of his case that saw him receive a pardon from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the country’s military rulers.
Shuman returned to his unit throughout the summer, but once again joined demonstrators during the November clashes with security forces that left 45 people dead. He then handed himself in to military investigators — and this time, there was no pardon in the offing.
"I don’t understand why they are preparing for an anniversary of the revolution when the first officer who joined the rebellion is still in jail," says Mona Salah, Shuman’s wife. "My husband did not incite conflict between the people and the Army. Him entering the square was a reinforcement that the army is with the people and it is not right that he is being treated like this."
Following a series of delays — during which Shuman fell severely ill — his case and those of two fellow officers, Majors Amr Muttawaly and Tamer Badr, were due to be heard earlier this month at a military court in Nasr City, a sprawling suburb to the east of Cairo. A small clutch of protesters gathered outside the compound. Although the demonstration was advertised on social media, organizers said that activists were worried about coming to a part of town known for its staunch support of the military.
Nevertheless, demonstrators chanted "Where are the honorable people of the Army?" and "Arrest me! Arrest me! You will never see fear in my eyes!" as the soldiers manning the compound’s entrance looked on impassively.
Salah eventually brought news from inside the courtroom that the hearing had been postponed for another month. That meant all three men would spend the anniversary of Mubarak’s fall in prison.
Supporters of the officers claim they are being mistreated while in custody.
"[Shuman] kept it very together," says Salah, who managed to catch a glimpse of her husband as he entered the courtroom in shackles. "That is his way. He just kept saying, ‘Whatever happens to me is in God’s hands.’ But he looked tired. The only time he even sees the sun is when he’s going into the court."
The three majors’ story of delayed trials and constant harassment is similar to that of other members of the Egyptian Army’s forgotten group of military dissidents. On April 8, 22 officers who took to Tahrir Square to participate in a mass demonstration calling for SCAF to hand power over to civilian rule were arrested. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison on similar charges to those faced by the three majors. Their terms were eventually reduced to three years’ incarceration.
While the exact number of deserting officers detained by the army is hard to verify, activists fear dozens have been taken from their homes. SCAF’s only overt reference to the group of soldiers came during a press conference in the days following their detention. An Army spokesperson claimed the men had "wanted to cause a chasm between Egyptians and their Army," promising an investigation. The results have never surfaced.
Several of the officers’ family members have been subject to intimidation and are fearful of addressing the issue in public, according to those close to them. The case of Tamer Badr, who served in the Army for 17 years before November violence against protesters caused him to join the demonstrators, has been particularly contentious.
"[Badr’s wife] does not have the courage or the nerve [to talk about the case] because they are always causing her terror," Shirine, a close friend of Badr, says. "They call her constantly to ask her about who called her that day, or to tell her not to let his friends rally for him, or instructing her to stay where she is."
Ali Taha, Shuman’s lawyer, believes that officers who laid down their weapons to join in the protest movement are falling victim to the military’s double standards.
"If we are going to abide by the law, we must take all of it and not what suits us," he says. "What of the men who dragged the women in the street? What about the officers that ruined the image of the Army in the eyes of the people and changed it into that of an Army that breaks the bones of protesters? What are the actions being taken against them? Those officers stepped into the square to attack protesters and Manjor Shuman stepped in to [express solidarity]. Major Shuman is behind bars today and the others have been rewarded."
The jailed officers’ supporters see their actions as no different than those of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the SCAF leader who eventually defied Mubarak during the last days of his regime. "At the moment when Mubarak ordered the Army to use weapons against us, Ahmed followed his conscience. I don’t see the difference between them and him," Salah says. "I am proud to be the wife of such a courageous man."
But Egypt’s military rulers, focused on protecting their privileges, have little use for such courage these days. SCAF announced last week that Army officers will be given medals for their efforts to protect civilians during the 2011 uprising. As Shuman and his compatriots know only too well, however, those who championed the protesters’ ideals are only awarded prison sentences.