On Hunger Strike
Omar Robert Hamilton
London Review of Books
Vol. 36 No 19 · 9 October 2014
page 30 | 1717 words
After the shock and awe tactics of the Rabaa massacre last summer, when Egypt’s military regime murdered around a thousand supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, the rolling counter-revolution has played out mostly within the justice system, between police stations, prisons and courtrooms. The system is self-contained and unaccountable: graduates of the Police Academy are automatically granted a law degree and can move fluidly from police station to prosecutor’s office to judge’s bench. It is inconsistent and unpredictable: judges hand down idiosyncratic sentences, or drag cases out for paralysing periods of time. It is bound to the executive: judges routinely wait for ‘the phone call’ before ruling.
This set the legal framework for the present assault on the traditional incubators of dissent: universities, independent media, the internet, NGOs, legal aid organisations, cafés, football matches, unions, street protests. One by one these spaces are being shut down. The streets of central Cairo are lined with APCs and riot police 24 hours a day. The internet is to be monitored by a new ‘electronic grip’, as the Interior Ministry has been calling it in leaked internal memos. NGOs are being told to choose between close oversight or closing down. Students have been expelled for criticising the government and killed for protesting. The last reliable figures, released in May, put the number of arrests since the coup at 41,000, of which 36,000 were at or following ‘political events’.
Some activists have been quickly tried and sentenced. Others are being kept in limbo. My cousin Alaa Abd El-Fattah is one of the best known. He has been imprisoned or charged under every Egyptian regime to rule in his lifetime (he was born in November 1981, a month after Sadat’s assassination); most recently he’s been accused of organising a protest on 26 November 2013. Three hundred people gathered outside the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house, to protest against a provision in the draft constitution that would allow civilians to be tried in military courts. Police in plainclothes and balaclavas attacked them with tear gas and water cannon: 46 people were arrested, of whom 24 were held in custody. Two nights later, a squadron of armed and masked police raided Alaa’s home, beat him and his wife while their child slept in the next room, and dragged Alaa off, blindfolded and barefoot, his hands tied behind his back.
Since then he has spent more than two hundred days in prison (he was released on bail between 23 March and 11 June) and appeared in court seven times. Because Alaa had formally accused the judge of election fraud in 2005 and 2010, the defence asked him to recuse himself. He would not. At the fourth hearing, on 11 June, he barred the defendants from court, found them guilty in absentia, handed down a 15-year sentence, and ordered that they be arrested outside the court as fugitives. When the automatic retrial began, as the law says it must for verdicts in absentia, the same judge was presiding. And then, on 15 September, he surprised everyone and recused himself. Alaa was released on bail.
He had been on hunger strike since 18 August. He announced it in a public letter and soon other prisoners were following suit. As I write there are 79 prisoners on full hunger strike and 295 solidarity strikers outside, including Alaa’s mother and sister. Day-long solidarity strikes have been held by political parties, NGOs, journalists and sympathisers worldwide. Was the judge’s decision to release him designed to sap some of the momentum from the campaign? ‘There are no courts, neither is there justice,’ Alaa said on his release. ‘There are only plots.’
The case isn’t over. And there is little room for celebration. In one of those five thousand hours lost to jail Alaa’s father died.
Ahmed Seif al-Islam was a human rights lawyer with a history of defending the most marginalised members of society. Jailed and tortured as a communist activist in the 1980s, he studied law in prison. In 1999 he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, one of the key incubators of dissent among all the independent radical institutions that fostered the revolution. Seif was arrested for the last time on 3 February 2011, the tenth of the 18 days that unseated Mubarak. An army unit stormed the HMLC office, arrested everyone inside and forced them into the unmarked microbuses of the deep state. After two days of interrogation, Seif was questioned by the head of Military Intelligence, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. ‘This time,’ the future president told him, ‘you’re not getting out.’
But he did get out and his decades of work flowered in those revolutionary months.
On 27 August he died of complications following heart surgery. He’d repeatedly postponed the operation because of what was being done to his family, for whom he was the leading lawyer. Two of his three children were in prison when he died.
Alaa’s 20-year-old sister, Sanaa, has spent most of the last two years providing support – food, clothing, laundry, beds – to detainees and their families. She is also a film editor. She was one of the team that won an Emmy in August for the film The Square. She couldn’t go to the ceremony because she was in jail.
The protest that Alaa is accused of organising was in fact organised by his other sister, Mona Seif, and her colleagues in the No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign. Six of them, all young women, were arrested at the protest. But the media uproar was so loud that they were all released. When they refused to leave the police station without their male co-protesters, they were beaten, dragged into a truck and dumped an hour south of Cairo in the desert. One way or another they got back to Cairo and the next day went to the Prosecutor’s Office to hand themselves in: they were the organisers, they said. They were the ones who had broken the new law, not the men in prison. They have been ignored.
Alaa received his 15-year sentence for assaulting a police officer as well as organising the protest. Lieutenant-Colonel Emad Tahoun claims that Alaa beat him and stole his walkie-talkie. On the day of the protest Tahoun was dressed in plainclothes, in jeans and a blue checked shirt, but he was clearly in charge. I was filming that day. Struck by his physical resemblance to the minister of the interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, I zoomed in and stayed focused on him. As uniformed officers arrived on the scene they shook hands, lit cigarettes and swapped jokes. The officers positioned their men where he told them to. He gave the order to turn on the water cannon. As a hundred police in body armour charged the protesters, Tahoun headed straight for two activists, Nazly Hussein and Mai Saad and threw both women to the ground. They were then dragged off into detention, Saad choking as her scarf was wrenched around her throat.
Tahoun moved on to the next group. Videos show him grabbing and beating anyone he could get his hands on. His shirt was ripped open and his belly exposed, but he didn’t stop scrambling for people to arrest. At some point, he lost his walkie-talkie. By 4.45 p.m. the protest was over: everyone had either run away or been arrested. Tahoun claims Alaa assaulted and robbed him at 6 p.m. When police testimony contradicted Tahoun’s, the prosecution removed the testimony from the file: two pages became one line.
The case is embarrassingly inelegant. In a court session in September the prosecution presented a home video taken illegally from Alaa’s wife’s computer, as well as video footage of the wrong protest. When they showed the right footage none of the defendants was visible. They had had ten months to prepare. The case continues.
When all the institutions of justice have shown themselves to be acting at all times in the service of the regime, few options are left. At the time of writing, Mohamad Soltan has been on hunger strike for 242 days. It is not clear how he is still alive. What is clear is that he is being kept in his cell when he should be in hospital. He cannot stand up on his own and is suffering from blood clots in his lungs. Every time he faints he is taken to hospital, treated briefly, and returned to his cell. But because of his perceived affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood he gets little public sympathy.
Alaa suspended his hunger strike when he was released on bail on 15 September. He is preparing to begin again in solidarity with his sister Sanaa. She has been on strike since 28 August. She states clearly in her case file that she organised the protest at which she was arrested. She has been held since 21 June. In these three months she has appeared in court only twice. The judge recently set the next trial date for 11 October. Sanaa weighed 55 kg before the hunger strike started. By 11 October she would be on her 44th day of hunger strike. Martin Hurson, one of the Irish republican strikers, died on his 45th.