Egyptian court curbs military’s power to arrest civilians

An Egyptian court on Tuesday suspended a recent decree giving military police and intelligence officers the authority to detain civilians, a bold ruling by a court that has played a maverick role during the country’s post-revolutionary period.

The decree was issued by the Justice Ministry with little fanfare last month just four days after the expiration of Egypt’s reviled emergency law, which the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak had used to indefinitely detain Islamists and political activists.

Human rights activists who had sued the government over the decree hailed Tuesday’s ruling as the latest sign that Egypt’s administrative court, which reviews grievances against state institutions, is among the few entities playing a meaningful oversight role in the nation’s turbulent transition to democracy.

“This is quite a significant step,” said Gasser Abdel Razek, associate director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which was among the plaintiffs in the case. “We’ve challenged the military in court and won.”

The government can appeal the ruling, but if it does so publicly and aggressively, it risks unleashing a fresh torrent of criticism just as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is due to hand over some executive branch responsibilities to the country’s newly elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

The case could be a key test of Morsi’s willingness to battle the military’s entrenched hold on power. As an Islamist leader who was detained repeatedly for his activism, Morsi is unlikely to sympathize with the military’s desire to retain the authority to detain civilians and try them in military courts.

“It will all come down to how much pressure Morsi is willing to put on them,” Abdel Razek said.

The administrative court has other politically charged cases on its docket, giving it a potentially determinative role in Egypt’s political evolution. It has been asked to rule on the military council’s legal authority to dissolve parliament, following a ruling by the country’s highest court last month. The court is also weighing the legality of a newly created national security council.

In recent months, the court has ordered the council to stop forcing female activists to undergo virginity tests, a tactic activists had decried as an effort to humiliate and stifle critics. That ruling embarrassed the generals and marked a rare instance of government officials taking on Egypt’s long-vaunted military.

Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday’s ruling might discourage the security forces from seeking to restore the type of vast, unchecked authority inherent in the old emergency law.

“This is a victory of a civilian court versus the kind of arbitrary expansion of military powers that would be a recipe for further abuses,” she said.

Also Tuesday, defeated presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq traveled to the United Arab Emirates on what he called a temporary leisure trip that will also include visits to holy sites in Saudi Arabia. His departure came as he faced a flurry of corruption allegations filed with Egypt’s prosecutor general, the state-run al-Ahram Online news site reported. The allegations pertain to his actions in several senior posts under Mubarak.

Shafiq, who has conceded defeat and wished Morsi well, said in a statement on his campaign’s Facebook page that he intends to remain engaged in politics and will launch a new party upon his return.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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