The military says that the courts are essential to keeping order in the turbulent aftermath of the 2011 toppling of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. Its critics say the tribunals are used to suppress dissent, and human rights groups say they are a violation of international law.
On Sunday, activists, journalists and others gathered at the Journalists Union in Cairo to show support for more than 300 detained in a sweeping roundup by the military following a violent protest earlier this month outside the Ministry of Defense in which one soldier was killed. The mass arrest and referral to military prosecution was the largest since Mubarak's overthrow.
The day before, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the detainees were beaten and tortured. "Military officers have no sense of limits on what they can do," the group said.
An estimated 11,000 civilians have been sent before military tribunals since Mubarak's fall. The issue has become a major point of conflict between the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak and the youth revolutionary groups who led the uprising against him.
So far, 141 detainees started to hunger strike on Sunday, said Salma Abdel-Gelil, an activist organizing the solidarity protest.
She said another detainee had refused food since a day after his May 4 arrest, and that activists were worried about his health.
"The detainees will continue their hunger strike until their demands are met," said Abdel-Gelil.
The detainees want to be released and not be referred to military trials.Khaled Ali, 40, a presidential candidate who represents to many the face of the youth movement, said he is joining the 24-hour strike.
Ali is the youngest of 13 candidates making a bid for Egypt's top job. The race begins May 23-24 and Sunday is last day of campaigning.