Detainment of Student Activist Angers Egyptians

Cairo had been relatively quiet for a few weeks. Economic and political uncertainty still lingered in the air, but post-Mubarak Egypt was recovering to a level of stability after the #Jan25 revolution. However, the recent clashes between protesters and security forces were a bitter realization that, five months later, little has changed.

#Jun28 was no different than #Jan28, the infamous Day of Anger that ignited the mass protests. Tahrir Square was once more a war zone. The stench of tear gas filled the air again, and armies of riot police officers were back to chasing protesters, firing rubber bullets throughout the night and the following morning. Over 1,000 people were injured, and at least 49 protesters were randomly detained and referred to military prosecution.

Loai Nagati, a 21-year-old student, is among the detainees held for 15 days pending investigation. The young activist has been charged with rioting and throwing stones at police officers, a claim that is neither supported by his live-tweets from the fateful night nor his brother Taher who insists Nagati could not have thrown any stones, as “he is very thin and has heart problems,” and thus shied away from violent confrontation.

Within hours, an internet campaign was launched to #FreeLoai, the popular revolutionary who has been amidst the action in Tahrir since Day 1, on January 25. Nagati has been practicing citizen journalism by reporting events live from the scene on Twitter, at a time when local media was feeding the public lies and his was the only trusted source.

Nagati’s family’s main concern was him missing his medication by being locked up. His brother quickly went to the military prison where he is currently held, and insisted that at the very least Nagati’s medicine be available to him. His attempt was in vain; security officials refused to let him, or the prescription pills, through the gates. Eventually, he left the pills at the entrance and prayed they would somehow reach Nagati.

Local media soon picked up the story, and a popular talk show talked to Taher via phone about his brother’s case. Media attention was certainly helpful. Shortly after, a higher official from the military prison phoned Taher, asked him where he had left the pills, and ensured him they would get to his brother. Taher was dismayed to find out that if it were not for the media attention, his brother would never have gotten his medication.

Nagati is just one among countless others who have been wrongfully detained and prosecuted by the military. Amr Eissa was also arrested in Tahrir Square on March 9 during a peaceful sit-in that demanded the dismantling of the former regime. The army dispersed the sit-in by force, randomly picking protesters and choosing to identify them as thugs. Eissa was not a thug, but a student and an artist. He received a military sentence of three years for practicing the basic right of peaceful assembly.

A similar case is that of Amr el-Beheiry, who was arrested when the army violently dispersed a sit-in in front of the People’s Assembly on February 26. Beheiry was tried in a military court without a defense attorney, and was not allowed to contact his family. He was also deprived of witnesses or presenting evidence to prove his innocence. On March 1, he received a sentence of five years.

A number of activists have been lobbying against the military trials of civilians, arguing that a fair trial is a human right. Members of the "No to Military Trials for Civilians” campaign claim over 7,000 civilians have been tried in military courts since January 25. They remark that before the revolution, military trials were the exception and reserved for political activists, now it seems they are the rule.

This rule does not apply to Mubarak, however. In a published interview, the Minister of Justice said that a military trial would be unfair to the former president. The same logic does not extend to those who have been illegally detained and tried in military courts; a fair trial is not what they get.

The two-day clashes helped rile up people for the next million-man protest planned for July 8, and Nagati’s unjust detainment served as a reminder that the country still has a long way to go. Wake up and smell the tear gas, Egypt. This battle is far from over.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons