Omar Robert Hamilton, London Review of Books
On Saturday, the court case known in Egypt as the Shura Council trial was in session. Judge Hassan Farid entered the courtroom, flanked by the two other judges on the panel and a couple of morose security guards. The defence were to continue their closing arguments, the prosecution having wrapped up a month ago. But before the defence could begin, the judge leaned in to his microphone and asked if the prosecution had anything they wanted to say. The courtroom fell into a stunned silence – and then erupted in protest.
The defendants had been arrested in November 2013 at a protest outside the Shura Council (Egypt’s now abolished upper house), opposing a clause in the draft constitution that allowed civilians to be tried in military courts. The small, polite demonstration was violently dispersed, protesters were arrested and a political show trial began, its primary target the imprisonment and silencing of the prominent dissident Alaa Abd El Fattah. I wrote about the case last September, when a wave of hunger strikes was sweeping through Egypt’s prisons. Soon afterwards, the judge was forced to recuse himself when the prosecution, in a miscalculated act of bullying, submitted videos lifted from Alaa’s computer of his wife dancing at home. There was an unexpectedly shrill public outcry (patriarchy is one red line in Egypt no one can cross); the judge removed himself from the equation and released the defendants on bail.
The trial began again on 27 October with a new panel of judges, Hassan Farid presiding. Twenty of the 25 defendants brought themselves to court (when I say court, I mean a sound-proofed glass cage in a hurriedly converted lecture hall inside a police academy attached to a prison complex guarded by tanks) but the judge ordered their detention. They are still in jail today. Alaa is on the 80th day of his second hunger strike and has been transferred to the prison hospital.
His co-defendants are 19 men from varied backgrounds who have been dispersed across the Torah prison complex. Hani, 39, married, runs a small bookshop; he’s teaching his cellmates to read. Mamdouh, 18, asked the judge to let the students out on bail so they could sit their exams; the request was denied. Hosny, 36, is a photographer from Alexandria who came to Cairo to cover the protest. Yassin, 19, has already been sentenced to two years in another case for protesting for prisoners’ freedom. Nouby, 37, is part of the informal network of people who provide support to prisoners. Taymour lost his right eye during the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011. He turned 28 on 15 January; his friends lit candles on a cake for him during that day’s court session.
The only defendant to have done as much jail time as Alaa is Ahmed Abdelrahman, a student who earned a living as a security guard. His shifts would sometimes last longer than two days. He was on his way to catch a bus to work when he saw a group of men beating and grabbing at two women. One of the women, Mai Saad, a friend of mine, was suffocating as her scarf was yanked tight around her neck. Suddenly surrounded by the chaos of a protest being attacked by police in balaclavas, a water truck and gangs of plainclothes men grabbing everyone they could get their hands on, Ahmed stepped towards the man choking the young woman, raising his hands as if to say ‘take it easy.’ Someone grabbed him from behind and he was dragged off to jail with everyone else. In his bag he had soap, a towel and a small kitchen knife. Because of the knife, he spent most of 2014 in jail. And it may end up meaning time for everyone else too. We’ll come back to that.
Alaa wasn’t arrested at the protest but taken from his home two days later. Since then he has spent more than 300 days in prison. Lieutenant Colonel Emad Tahoun, a plainclothes cop who was the first to attack Mai Saad, claims that Alaa assaulted him and stole his walkie-talkie at 6 p.m. The prosecution called a series of contradictory witnesses, all of whom were policemen and none of whom saw the assault. The defence called several witnesses who all saw Alaa at 6 p.m. (he was outside the police station where his sister and other protesters were being held). The defence then presented mobile phone records that showed Alaa and Tahoun were nowhere near each other at 6 p.m. and that Tahoun was talking on the phone at the time. The defence also got hold of police files that showed Alaa’s name was added to Tahoun’s statement at a later date and in different handwriting. Police testimony that contradicted Tahoun’s had been removed from the file. And so the prosecution’s inept case against Alaa was dismantled.
The defence also pointed out that the knife mentioned so often by the prosecution, which Ahmed Abdelrahman was jailed for being in possession of, was never entered as evidence. Which brings us to Saturday, 17 January, and the judge’s opening question: ‘Does the prosecution have anything they want to say today?’ Yes they did. They wanted to submit a knife as evidence.
There is a delicate chemistry to an Egyptian show trial. The judges will give the state the guilty verdicts it needs, but they need something to work with. So laws are invented, constitutions ratified and evidence forged, to be used as props in the theatre of the courtroom. And so there has to be a knife. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t the same shape or size as the one described in the case file. The new charge has been added to the referral order, the knife has been presented and the judge has accepted it. The case now combines elements from Egypt’s new, highly repressive anti-protest law and the British 1914 Assembly Law which states that if one person at an assembly is found in possession of a weapon, everyone there can be collectively punished.
And so the prosecutor’s knife takes centre stage as the prop the authorities need to send Alaa and 19 other young men away for a serious amount of time. In this case, we know the details and we know the defendants. But there are thousands more young men and women being slowly and invisibly ground through the system.