Amr al Beheiry, seen in a photo from a family vacation in Marseilles, France,… (Family handout )
Reporting from Cairo — Mohamed al Beheiry was reading the newspaper Feb. 28 when he spotted a photograph of his younger brother, Amr, who had disappeared two days earlier while attending an antigovernment protest.
The newspaper report on "arrested thugs" helped Mohamed find Amr, 33, in a Cairo jail. A guard there said he would stand trial before a military court in 15 days on charges of breaking curfew and assaulting a public official, under the emergency law dating from ousted President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
But when Beheiry returned the next day, officials said his brother had already been tried and given a five-year sentence.
"It's like we got rid of one tyrant and now we have another," said Beheiry, 37, who runs a shipping company.
Egyptian activists infuriated over the arrests of protesters since Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11 are planning to take over Tahrir Square on Friday in a massive demonstration dubbed the "Second Revolution." One of their aims is to force the transitional military government to uphold principles of the pro-democracy movement and end the three-decade-old emergency law that has allowed officials to imprison protesters through military trials.
Government officials have taken some steps to address grievances in recent days, including releasing about 250 prisoners and charging Mubarak this week in connection with the shooting deaths of protesters during the uprising.
In an address on state television this week, interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf pleaded with protesters to give the government more time to improve.
"It is difficult, even impossible, for us to deal with and realize all factional demands … on an individual basis," Sharaf said. "A lot of [the problems] depend on institutional and administrative reform. I hope that you cooperate with us and give us time to meet these demands in a way that is fair for all."
Activists say the government's recent moves fail to address the need for overhauling Egypt's justice system.
Tarek Shalaby, 26, a social media consultant, was among those released last week. He had been arrested during a demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this month and charged with participating in an illegal gathering. He was tried by a military court and released after four days with a suspended three-year sentence.
Still, Shalaby was at a meeting this week at the lawyers association in Cairo in support of those still detained. He and others said they planned to head to Tahrir Square on Friday, even though they could be arrested again and face jail time because of their suspended sentences.
"We're taking to the streets to get rid of the military dictatorship," Shalaby said.
At least 7,000 people have been sentenced by military courts, including several hundred protesters, since late January, according to Mona Seif, an activist with the Cairo-based No to Military Trials of Civilians. It was not clear how many were still in prison this week. Seif said several members of her group were arrested Thursday while distributing leaflets about Friday's protest.
Egyptians voted in a constitutional referendum in March to cancel the president's right to use military courts, but the emergency law supersedes it in the interim, according to Ahmed Ragheb, a lawyer and executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which has represented many of the protesters.
In many cases, Ragheb said, protesters have been arrested, tried and sentenced within 48 hours.
"They don't always tell us when they have a person, and they don't always let us know about the dates and locations of the trial," he said. "Sometimes they start interrogations late at night without notifying lawyers."
Some Egyptian political leaders have also called for military courts to be phased out and prisoners released and compensated.
Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League and a leading presidential contender, said in an interview Wednesday that the next president should end the emergency law and that in the interim, the military government should try both former members of the regime and protesters in civilian, not military, courts.
"There should be no discrimination in this," Moussa said.
The Defense Ministry did not respond to questions this week.
Amr al Beheiry's family, including relatives in the United States, are impatient for him to be freed. Since his Feb. 26 arrest while marching around the People's Assembly with a group calling for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, he has been fired from his job at a fruit company, they said.
Amnesty International has also called for Amr al Beheiry's release. Beheiry is appealing his sentence and requested that the military government overturn it. As of Thursday, he had received no response.
"The army keeps promising, they have been promising that they are going to free all the political protesters, but nothing ever happens," said another brother, Adel Elbehiry, 42, who runs a karate school on Long Island in New York. "He has to spend five years just to make his voice heard."