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What does the trial of Hissene Habré mean for Egyptians?

From 1982 until 1990, he ruled his sub-Saharan desert country with an iron fist. Twenty-five years after he was overthrown, the ex-president of Chad, Hissene Habré, is being tried before the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. His trial undoubtedly marks a watershed moment for justice on the African continent.

What does it mean for Egyptians? It should certainly be of great interest, for despite the unavoidable differences, there are uncanny similarities between the Chadian case and that of Egypt under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

Habre's government, like that of Al-Sisi, has been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings of political opponents, systematic torture and thousands of arbitrary arrests. Indeed a 1992 Chadian Truth Commission identified 40,000 political murders and systematic torture.

Similarly, in Egypt, Human Rights Watch cites "credible independent researchers" in reporting that over 41,000 people have been detained since Al-Sisi toppled the country's elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. That number is still rising. Although it now seems that the country is headed for another prolonged period of being able to act with impunity, there may yet be a glimmer of hope for justice for those wronged, albeit through the African Union (AU).

According to the terms of Articles 3 (h), 4 (h) and 4 (o) of the Constitutive Act of the AU, the crimes of which Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is accused fall within its competence. Article 4 (o), specifically, allows the African Union to function in accordance with the principle of respect for the sanctity of human life, condemnation and rejection of impunity and political assassination, acts of terrorism and subversive activities.

Given the level of mistrust that exists in Africa towards the Europe-based International Criminal Court (ICC) because of its perceived selectivity and anti-African bias, it is understandable that lawyers acting on behalf of Egyptian victims of the Sisi regime are turning to the AU for legal redress.

In spite of its notorious human rights record, Sisi's Egypt, like that of Chad under Habre', still enjoys the benefits of a special relationship with Washington and Europe. In the 1980s, both the US and France courted the Habre' regime with which they collaborated to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's expansionist designs in the sub-Sahara region. Not only did they help Habre' come to power but they also lavished him with military hardware, which he used mercilessly against his own people.

In March 2015, the White House announced that it was sending 12 F-16 fighter jets, replacement kits for 125 Abrams tanks, 20 Harpoon missiles and $1.3bn in annual military funding to the Sisi regime in Cairo. Similarly, in early July France delivered three Rafale fighter jets to Egypt, the first of 24 warplanes sold in a €5.2 billion ($5.6 billion) deal. There were other assets included in the French arms package, including contracts for missiles and a state of the art multipurpose frigate.

This is a classic case of a government trying to live above its means. A CIA report for December 2014 estimated Egypt's revenues at $65.48 billion while its expenditure was $99.14 billion. At the same time, it had an external debt of $55.86 billion.

In March 2015 the European Economic and Social Committee released a progress report on Egypt's implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2014. It described the fiscal deficit as "unsustainably high", reaching 13.6 per cent of GDP, and said that without grants from the Gulf countries the figure for the 2013-14 fiscal year would have been 17.4 per cent. The same report noted an increase in poverty, with 25.2 per cent of Egyptians living below the national poverty line, and 23.7 per cent just above it.

Having an incompetent government with misplaced priorities is bad enough, but having one that disregards the sanctity of human life is even worse. Egyptians are experiencing this misfortune. With western governments pouring lethal weapons into the country at an alarming rate, the military grip on the levers of power has been bolstered significantly.

Like Chad, however, there is always the prospect of dissent, rivalry and betrayal from within the ranks of the ruling regime. After all, Hissene Habre' was overthrown by his chief military advisor and former commander-in-chief of the army, Idriss Déby.

In Egypt, rumours of infighting within the military junta are rife. They point in particular to mounting tensions between the general and the military intelligence agencies.

By authorising the Extraordinary African Chambers to try Habre' in Senegal the African Union has set a commendable precedent for justice and the rule of law. It has underscored the enduring truths that crimes against humanity are never nullified with the passage of time and that even the most brutal tyrants can be prosecuted. In Chad's long-running saga for justice there are many lessons for the people of Egypt.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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