Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a semi-unknown general of the Egyptian army, overturned the revolution of Tahrir Square five years ago. As the Minister of Defence of the first democratically elected president in Egypt, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, el-Sisi took advantage of the street protests against the new government and on July 3, 2013, led the coup d’etat. One month later he oversaw one of the worst massacres in the history of Egypt. In Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, the army killed about 1,000 people, starting an era of institutionalized repression.
“In Rabaa there was a great diversity of people: young people, women with and without headscarves, journalists, Europeans. El-Sisi said that the demonstrators were armed and terrorists. It wasn’t like that,” said Ibrahim Halawa, who was 17 years old at the time. Born and raised in Ireland, every summer he visited his family in Egypt. He also went in the 2013 summer.
“I was there not for political reasons,” he told us. “On the contrary, my friends always talked about what was happening in Egypt. It was strange: before 2011 the Egyptians did not discuss politics, they did not express themselves freely. Then, that day in Rabaa, the army killed my friends. And for me, coming from a democratic background, it was a shock: a violation of human rights, regardless to their opinions.”
So Halawa went to the square with his sisters and ended up barricaded in the al-Fath mosque in Ramses Square. It was Aug. 17, 2013, three days after the massacre. “They attacked the mosque with tear gas and bullets. A woman died suffocating. I was hit in the hand. I was arrested with 500 people and my three sisters.”
One of them, Somaia, is sitting next to him at Amnesty International’s Rome office where we spoke. “I was a prisoner for three months,” she said. “The first four days we were with Ibrahim in a military camp, without water, blankets, beds. Then they divided us and brought to a women’s prison: they took us up in a car without telling us where we were going. They treated us with cruelty: criminals were treated better than political prisoners. After three months, the court gave us 45 days extra imprisonment, but a few days later we were released. I don’t know the reason.”
“The trials in Egypt represent a systematic violation of human rights,” Halawa said. “My sisters were arrested in the same place and released on bail, even though the accusations were identical to mine. I was 17 years old, hence a minor. Hearings have been continuously postponed for years, and it took six months to see a judge. In court we were 500 in enormous cages, without air conditioning, behind windows. We could not communicate with the judge or with the lawyers. Throughout the world, you are innocent until they prove you’re guilty. In Egypt it is the opposite. The sentence came only after four years: I was acquitted together with about 50 people out of almost 500. I was released in October 2017.”
Mass trials, accusations of terrorism for political acts and hearings postponed dozens of times are normal life in Egypt today. “It’s no coincidence: it’s a form of psychological torture,” he said. “El-Sisi uses the criminal courts as a political instrument, with judges loyal to him and the continuous postponements together with the sentences, even of death, have a political function. I personally have spoken to my lawyer only once, after three years. And I hadn’t chosen him. While we were talking, an officer recorded everything and prevented us from dealing with certain topics.”
Daily life in the prison cell was a hell that repeated its cycle every day: “With me in prison there was every kind of person: professors, journalists, activists, students, peasants. Also an Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste. He was with me in Tora prison, and when he left he participated in the campaign for my release.
“Hell is inside there: burn and die every day. You wake up and start over: burn and die. Torture is the norm: it is the jailers who torture, not the officers, because they want to show loyalty to the high commanders. Suffering is constant, perennial. There is a lack of food, medicines, clean water and showers. You sleep on the ground, in cells of 3.5 by 5.5 meters with 30-50 people. You have 30 cm of sleeping space; no matter if you’re fat or thin, that’s your space. If they open the cell doors it’s not a good sign: it means they want to beat you or move you to another prison without warning or telling you where you’re going. There are people who disappeared like this, for months, years, without anyone knowing where they have been. I was transferred to nine different prisons.”
He was released after a long campaign by his family and Amnesty. “As soon as I was released,” Somaia said, “I mobilized. I knew Ibrahim was having a lot of troubles. I contacted politicians and organizations. Amnesty responded and acted as an umbrella: it was fundamental; it gave legitimacy and credibility to our case. The campaign has grown thanks to media coverage: keeping Ibrahim’s story alive has made a difference.”
“My case was solved thanks to that campaign,” Halawa said. “They showed who I was, a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty arrived at the European Parliament, which voted for a resolution calling for my release. Initially, my government did little due to economic interests with Egypt. But the more the case grew, the more the government was involved. My case has shown that the mobilization of the base can work and gave hope to the battle for truth for Giulio Regeni. It is not just a matter of seeking justice for Regeni, it is a battle for all the Egyptian people. Every family has its pain, cries over someone killed, arrested or disappeared. However, unlike before, people have learned to speak, to criticize. They have lost so much every day, but not hope.”