CAIRO — The committee writing Egypt’s constitution is enmeshed in a contentious debate over provisions that would grant the military special privileges, including the power to try civilians in secret military courts amid a widespread crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The head of the 50-member committee, former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, has held a series of closed-door meetings with top military officials, who are pushing to persuade delegates to include such a clause. The army says it needs the ability to prosecute civilians who harm its interests as militant attacks increase. A final draft of the constitution is expected to be finished by Dec. 3.
But the provisions would further entrench and expand the military’s already considerable authority. With its troops on the streets and a military-appointed government in power — after a July coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who is set to go on trial Monday — the army is the country’s dominant political actor.
“This is not a moment where there is any likelihood of limiting the military’s privileges” in the constitution, said Heba Morayef, Egypt director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “They see the civilian justice system as an infringement. And one of the privileges the military has clung to very consistently is the broad discretion to punish and try people as they choose. They really care about maintaining that.”
Now, the army can indict anyone for any crime in which an officer is involved, sending defendants to secret trials that lack the basic tenets of due process. Military judges regularly mete out harsh punishments that cannot be appealed and bar detainees from access to legal counsel.
The 2012 constitution, drafted under the Brotherhood-backed Morsi, also gave the military wide discretion to indict civilians for vaguely defined “crimes that harm the armed forces.” And in the period following the 2011 uprising against former strongman Hosni Mubarak — which many protesters thought would usher in a new era of democratic rule — the country’s interim military council put some 12,000 civilians on trial in special army courts.
But rights advocates had hoped they could use Morsi’s ouster, facilitated by mammoth grass-roots protests, to overturn or at least restrict the military’s power to prosecute.
“We wanted the committee to support a complete ban on the use of military trials for civilians, even in cases where one of the parties is a military officer,” said Mona Seif, co-founder of the No Military Trials advocacy group, established in 2011.
But Seif said the pro-army political climate and recent violence — in which at least 1,000 people have died and militants stage regular bomb attacks — have created broad support for the military’s requests for harsh security measures.
Seif was called on to brief the committee but said she was later sidelined in the panel’s closed-door discussions with the military.
Seif and Morayef said the generals are insisting on an article with similar wording to the 2012 constitution that would give the military wide-ranging authority.
“The army knows that having this in the constitution makes their use of military trials much more legitimate,” Seif said. “Now we know they will never give it up. It’s their most powerful tool.”
The military has stepped up its use of special tribunals to quickly prosecute Morsi supporters and opponents of the government it installed following the July coup.
At least 300 people are facing military trials in Ismailia province, according to Seif, whose group tracks civilians in military detention. An army court sentenced 60 others, mostly in the city of Suez, to 5 to 25 years in prison for offenses such as violating the army’s nightly curfew.
The committee’s spokesman, Mohamed Salmany, said its members are working to draft a provision that would safeguard the military from terrorist attacks while addressing the concerns of rights groups.
“The people want military trials, they do not want chaos,” said 43-year-old Sayed, a street vendor in downtown Cairo who said he was afraid to give his full name. “Not only should these people go on trial, they should also be hanged in public squares. The only thing that works for us is military rule.”
But rights groups warn that such broad power will have unintended consequences.
On Wednesday, a Cairo military court sentenced a journalist with the el-Watan newspaper to a year in prison for “impersonating an army officer,” the publication said on its Web site. It was unclear under what circumstances the reporter, Hatem Aboul-Nour, had been arrested.
Because troops are stationed across the country, policing volatile areas and manning checkpoints on major highways, the army can arrest citizens easily, Morayef said.
“They’re in the streets, they are the law enforcement,” she said. “So if a military officer thinks you have insulted him at a checkpoint, you can be brought to a tribunal. If you are arrested by a military officer, you can be brought to a tribunal.”
And sometimes, rights activists say, nobody even knows you’re there.
“This will have very serious consequences for all civilians, and not just political activists,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“We’re talking about people — ordinary people — who get caught up at a military checkpoint and are never heard from again.”
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.