Acquittals of Ex-Officials Feed Anger Across Egypt
By Liam Stack
The New York Times
July 5, 2011
CAIRO — An Egyptian criminal court on Tuesday acquitted three former government ministers of corruption while convicting a fourth in absentia, verdicts most likely to further inflame public anger over the pace of efforts to hold former officials accountable for killing more than 800 people during the country’s 18-day revolution.
The acquittals were seen as especially provocative because they followed by one day a separate Cairo court decision to release on bail seven police officers charged with killing 17 protesters and wounding 350 in the city of Suez during the revolution. That decision set off a riot at the courthouse and led protesters to block a major highway for hours.
The decisions have aggravated growing anger at the military council now running the country. It has faced mounting criticism from protesters who say it is too slow to prosecute former officials, yet has moved quickly and aggressively to prosecute hundreds of civilians before military courts in connection with pro-democracy activities.
“People see more and more that nothing is changing,” said Lilian Wagdy, who is helping to organize a large protest in Tahrir Square on Friday. “Those who have been robbing this country for 30 years get acquitted, while protesters are found guilty before military courts.”
Egyptian officials have increasingly struggled to contain deep public anger and frustration. Those demanding political change are angry over alleged rights violations and unsatisfactory trials. Others are fed up with the post-revolutionary uncertainty and crippled economy. Their sentiments often erupt in violence, sometimes pitting policemen against protesters, and civilians against civilians.
A coalition of human rights groups sued the military council on Tuesday on behalf of a woman they said was tried before a military court in March, tortured and forced to submit to a “virginity test” within view and earshot of military prison workers.
Violence has also continued in the capital. On Saturday, 47 people were injured when protesters in Tahrir Square clashed with tea vendors they accused of being agents planted by the police.
So far, only one police officer has been convicted, in absentia, of killing protesters. The former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, was sentenced in May on corruption charges, but his trial over protester deaths was postponed. The former president, Hosni Mubarak, has also been charged in the deaths of protesters and is scheduled to have his first day in court Aug. 3.
“People, especially families of martyrs, have had enough,” said Sarah Abdelrahman, an activist, referring to those killed in the uprising. “The more people continue to stall, the angrier people are getting.”
Tuesday’s acquittals involved a former finance minister, Yousef Boutros-Ghali, and a former information minister, Anas el-Feqy, over charges of misusing about $6 million in public funds on parliamentary and political campaigns. Mr. Boutros-Ghali, a nephew of the former United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been abroad since February and was earlier sentenced to 30 years in absentia for misuse of office equipment. Mr. Feqy remained in prison on other charges.
The third official, Ahmed el-Maghraby, was found not guilty of profiteering from an improper sale of state-owned land when he was housing minister. He maintained throughout the trial that it happened before he took office.
In a fourth, separate case, the court convicted a former minister of trade and industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, of profiteering and the misuse of public funds totaling more than $2 million. He was also tried in absentia. Mr. Rachid, who was visiting Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, when the revolution began and has stayed there since, insisted on his innocence.
During President Mubarak’s last years in power, he appointed a government that had the unpopular task of redesigning the economy, and often was the focus of public ire. Mr. Rachid championed Egypt’s economic liberalization, which was marked by high growth rates but also a yawning gap between rich and poor. Mr. Boutros-Ghali, the former finance minister, also promoted that effort. Mr. Feqy, the chief propagandist and a friend of the Mubarak family, aggressively defended the regime on state-run media during the uprising.
“There is no doubt in the minds of most people in Egypt that these guys are guilty of something,” said Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.
Mr. Maghraby’s acquittal has been met with some surprise. The Housing Ministry was long seen as a clearinghouse for the illicit sale of publicly owned land through sweetheart deals, and Mr. Maghraby, already convicted in May over a separate land deal, is the subject of seven corruption investigations, said his lawyer, Hussein Abdelsalam el-Feki.
“Anyone who knows anything about Egyptian politics knows that the Housing Ministry is the center of corruption in Egyptian politics,” said Mr. Shehata, who called illicit land sales under the Mubarak government “the rule, not the exception.”
Mr. Feki said he expected the government to appeal the acquittals and accused prosecutors of “trying to appease sentiments in Tahrir.”
“It is typical that the general prosecutor’s office is trying to appease the feelings on the street,” he said. “It is difficult for them to deal with the acquittal, even if the men are innocent, because they are on a witch hunt.”
Dina Salah Amer and Lara el-Gibaly contributed reporting.