CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian revolutionaries piled pressure on new President Mohamed Mursi on Wednesday to free protesters jailed by military courts, as he tried to forge a government strong enough to make a difference to a frustrated population.
The popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year delivered Egypt’s first free leadership vote but sparked an economic crisis and a chaotic spell of army rule that saw thousands of civilians given military trials and thrown in jail.
The generals handed the presidency to Mursi on Saturday but are likely to keep swathes of the state under their control, limiting the Islamist president’s influence over the army, the police and the judiciary.
During his election campaign, Mursi pledged to uphold the cause of those who died trying to topple Mubarak, whose regime was protected by an unaccountable, heavy-handed security apparatus.
“We need a clear answer from Dr. Mohamed Mursi,” activist Ahmed Domma told reporters in a street facing the presidential palace on Wednesday.
“Is he a president with full powers and the right to free the detained, or is the matter in the hands of the military council, just as it was before?”
Around 16,000 civilians, including children, were tried by military courts behind closed doors last year - more than in Mubarak’s entire rule, according to rights groups.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 are still being held, according to an estimate from the campaign group “No to Military Trials”.
In response to the calls, Mursi has formed a panel headed by a judge to investigate the cases of all the detainees against whom military convictions had been handed down since the January 25, 2011 uprising, the state news agency reported on Wednesday.
The panel, which must report back to him within two weeks, will also study the cases of activists tried and convicted in the civil courts. The panel includes officials from the justice and defense ministries as well as representatives of civil society and the activist movement.
Mursi’s decree gave the panel the power to visit all places of detention to interview detainees and ordered that it give “its opinion on each separate case”.
It fell short of the demands of activists seeking a quicker solution.
“We’ve got questions about what happens next. If the intention was to resolve this once and for all, he would say this is a committee whose job it is to move everyone tried and convicted in military trials to a civilian court,” said Shahira Abouellail, co-founder of No to Military Trials.
“(Mursi) has the authority to transfer everyone to civil courts,” she said, adding that two weeks would not be enough time for the committee to complete its work.
“He needs to find a way to show where his loyalty is ... these people are innocent.”
Earlier, more than 20 revolutionary groups issued a statement giving Mursi five days to answer a question: “Is he a president for the Egyptian people and will he release the detainees as he promised?”
Many Egyptians are tired of political upheaval since the uprising and hope a Mursi presidency will first bring stability. But the youthful activists who led the revolt against Mubarak believe their revolution is far from over.
They believe a deep-rooted establishment has tightened its grip while nominally handing power to Mursi, a suspicion reinforced by a decree issued before a presidential run-off vote that restored the military’s right to arrest civilians.
They are dismayed that no senior police officer has been jailed for the killing of around 850 protesters during the uprising. Mubarak and his former Interior Minister Habib el-Adli were both given life sentences for their roles in the deaths.
Protesters previously jailed by military courts gathered in front of the presidential palace to recount their experiences on Wednesday, joined by the parents of civilians still held in military jails.
Tarek al-Wadeea’s son, an army officer, was arrested in April last year after joining a demonstration demanding that Mubarak and his close associates face trial.
“Since March 11 my son has, even more sadly, been put in solitary confinement in Alexandria to damage his mind,” said Wadeea, who carried a large poster bearing an image of his son.
As Mursi strives to form a cabinet to replace the unpopular outgoing army-backed administration, his presidential palace in an upmarket Cairo neighborhood has begun to rival Tahrir Square as the chosen theatre for popular protests.
Ordinary Egyptians were never allowed near the palace under Mubarak, who gradually fell out of touch with the population during three decades in power.
Mursi, keen to show a break with his autocratic predecessor, has relaxed security to allow citizens to air their grievances at the palace gates and occasionally enter the grounds.
Near the group demanding the release of civilians jailed by the military, hundreds of unemployed graduates and factory workers were demanding that Mursi find them jobs.
“Where is the justice, Minister of Justice?” they shouted.
Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Roche