Beneath the high voltage campaign of the Egyptian presidential elections-the first after the 1952 revolution when the country’s monarchy was overthrown-big questions are being raised about the quality of Egypt’s fledgling democracy.

Under the scanner is the current state of the country’s commitment to civil liberties, which came under sharp focus following the recent heavy clashes between protesters and the security forces outside the defence ministry. During this bout of high-intensity violence at Cairo’s Abbasiya square, 12 people were killed and dozens were injured. But apart from the bloodshed, the arbitrary detention of hundreds of youths who were allegedly picked up in the aftermath of the protests, has become equally worrisome.

Dismayed by the mass arrests and the thick flow of allegations about custodial torture, a group of young people have now come together to highlight the plight of human rights under the de facto military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). SCAF was formed after former president, Hosni Mubarak’s unceremonious exit from office last year, in the aftermath of a spirited uprising led by the country’s youth.

Torture of civilians

The “No to Military Trials Campaign” that rights activists have launched has documented the arrests of around 320 protesters from the square. In a statement issued last week, the group said that there were hundreds of other cases of torture and random arrests of civilians from the area.

The campaigners allege that protesters were hounded out from hospitals where they were being administered emergency medical treatment. Also detained were doctors and paramedics who were treating the wounded in make-shift field hospitals. Many of the arrests were made without charge inside and outside the Nour Mosque, and the detainees subsequently faced torture in custody, said a statement of the detainees which was posted by the activists.

In a recent report, the Human Rights Watch, basing its findings on interviews with the lawyers and victims who were subsequently released says that “military soldiers beat and tortured protesters they arrested at a demonstration near the Defence Ministry”.

The ‘No to Military Trials’ is demanding that the authorities should release a full list of the names and whereabouts of the detainees so that their families and lawyers can contact and assist them. All charges should be dropped against them, and there should be no restrictions on the flow of food and medicines to them till they are released.

Their demands have acquired grim urgency as the Abbasiya detainees have now launched an open ended hunger strike, calling for their release, as well as an end to the extension of military trials over civilians.

The post-election scenario

In the heat of the election campaign and in the wake of the Abbasiya clashes, the role of SCAF in the post-election scenario is also being debated heatedly. Activists such as the Mohamed Waked of the Center-Left National Front for Justice and Democracy, which has decided to boycott the polls, point to the haze surrounding the post-election scenario. He told the website of the daily Egypt Independent that his organisation was boycotting the polls because “there are no clear indicators of what these elections will lead to”.

He added that future was worrisome as “the new constitution has not yet been drafted, and nobody knows what the new president’s powers and authorities will entail”. Amid anxiety regarding the yet-to-be-decided power-sharing formula between the President and the parliament, many are wondering what role would SCAF play in the future, and whether the President would be empowered to exercise authority over the military.

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