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How Egypt's protest law brought down the revolution

An in-depth look at how Egypt's government is jailing the revolutionaries who helped bring the current regime to power.
Egyptian protesters use flare lights at Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo on November 26, 2013 during a clash with police after the security forces dispersed protesters from a demonstration organized by human rights group "No Military Trials for Civilians" in the first unauthorised protest staged in the capital since the adoption of a law that regulates demonstrations. Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour passed a law that allows security forces to gradually step up force while dispersing protestors. A

CAIRO — Some of the country's most prominent revolutionary activists will continue their retrial Sept. 10 after being sentenced to 15 years in jail for breaking the controversial protest law. They weren't terrorists or armed protesters, yet the current regime, which they helped seize power and topple the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, decided to include them in a nationwide crackdown aimed at eliminating dissent.

I have covered the avalanche of military trials that kicked off in the aftermath of Egypt's revolution in January 2011, visited the families of victims killed during the 18 days of protests and met with others who suffered severe injuries, but researching the Shura Council trial was different. It hit me as one of the most vivid examples of the regime's war on everything and everyone deemed revolutionary. Blacked out by the media loyal to the regime and ignored by a population told that the revolution was a conspiracy, some of Egypt's most honorable citizens could be thrown in jail over trumped-up charges and forgotten along with those they will join behind bars.

Notwithstanding the consequences of reporting on such issues in Egypt, the third most dangerous country for journalists in 2013, I decided to write the story told by some of the 25 fearlessly standing retrial for the crime of adhering to the revolution's most basic demands.

On Nov. 26, 2013, a few hundred protesters gathered in front of Egypt's Shura Council, the upper house of the parliament on the edge of Tahrir Square, the icon of the revolution smeared by years of injustice. The state-owned pro-regime media described them as violators of the protest law, but the truth is they were protesting the regime's plan to take the military trials for civilians from being an exceptional procedure under exceptional conditions to a military privilege granted full immunity by the new constitution.

The story of military trials for civilians goes back to Jan. 28, 2011, the “Friday of Anger.” It was the fourth and deadliest day of the Egyptian revolution, the day on which former President Hosni Mubarak's police suffered an unprecedented defeat at the hands of peaceful protesters. The events pushed the Egyptian armed forces, for the first time in two decades, to fly its F-16s and roll rumbling machinery down the streets of Cairo and other major cities to seize control the country and begin a campaign of military tribunals for the masses. 

From that day until the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi was elected president on June 28, 2012, more than 12,000 civilians were sentenced to prison and sometimes death after military tribunals under the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It was a shocking number, a number that beat 30 Mubarak years, during which some 2,000 people were tried in military tribunals. 

No Military Trials for Civilians (NMTC), an independent initiative established after the 2011 revolution, fought to end what became an epidemic of exceptional military privileges that replaced Mubarak's emergency law, and in both cases, the defendants were stripped of their most basic legal and human rights.

Not so surprisingly, after June 30 and Morsi’s ouster  a transition dubbed by the current regime and their loyalists as the "revolution that followed the January 2011 conspiracy"  the 50-member panel charged with amending the Muslim Brotherhood's 2012 constitution headed by the Mubarak-era Foreign Minister Amr Moussa began discussing an article allowing what they called "conditional military trials for civilians."

"When the Constituent Assembly discussed the military-trials article and showed its intention to pass it, the revolutionary powers were put in the middle of the battle of the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime that toppled them," Nazly Hussein, a leading member of the NMTC, told Al-Monitor.

The first call to protest in front of the Shura Council was made by the movement on Nov. 9; about two weeks later, Mosaad Abu Fajr, a prominent activist jailed by the emergency law under Mubarak, stormed out of the assembly's session in protest of the overwhelming agreement to what Egypt's opposition and revolutionary activists consider a main element of the military's crackdown on dissent. 

"This is a crooked article and will remain crooked even if voted on by the whole world," said Abu Fajr.

Yet, the article  described by Abu Fajr as "an article unfit for a constitution drafted after a revolution in the 21st century"  was approved on Nov. 21.

Despite providing constitutional immunity to military trials for civilians, the Egyptian regime decided this was not enough. It insisted on seizing greater powers to crack down on dissent in case the conditions of the now-constitutional military trials weren't fulfilled. 

On Nov. 24, coinciding with the second call to protest in front of the Shura Council, interim President Adly Mansour passed the protest law that Morsi and the Military Council failed to pass during their stint in power. The law banned any protest unless permitted by the security authorities, and even then, the authorities enjoyed a set of other justifications to detain, prosecute and jail any protester across the country.

The law was published in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper and put into effect Nov. 25.

Nov. 26: a taste of the protest law

Mahmoud Yehia, a 28-year-old activist known for riding his bicycle carrying political banners throughout Cairo, arrived in front of the Shura Council at 4 p.m. Back then, a concrete barricade blocked Kasr El-Eini Street, the major artery flowing into Tahrir Square, steps away from where the protest was held. 

Yehia noticed that the security troops were positioned on the main street, instead of behind the metal barriers on a side street as usual.

"They were clearly sealing off the area to sandwich the protesters," said Yehia, the first of three protesters who agreed to speak with Al-Monitor without concealing their identities. (Others who spoke refused to be named, fearing reprisals.)

By 4:15, the number of protesters had grown to around 400. Traffic was flowing slowly as the protesters remained on the pavement across from the Shura Council. The majority of banners and slogans chanted were condemnation of the military trials for civilians and the day-old protest law. The crowd included at least six leading female NMTC officials along with several prominent activists from various political and youth movements. 

Within 10 minutes, a fire truck opened its water cannon against the protesters, while the riot police commander, flanked by his personnel and armored vehicles, shouted over a loudspeaker to demand that protesters disperse. 

"I remember him saying that we have to disperse within four minutes, which is not enough time for the more than 400 protesters, but we didn't even get those four minutes," said Mohamed Samy, another 28-year-old protester and the cousin of Gaber Salah Gika, who was killed at a protest held during Morsi's reign. 

Yehia, who sat beside Samy during Al-Monitor's interview, was standing in a different part of the crowd and corroborated what Samy said, while a video taken by local reporters showed what they described. He stood with his back to the wall to avoid the stampede that he expected when the water cannon was fired before the four minutes were up. His father Yehia Abdel Shafi was somewhere in the crowd, while Samy and Mamdouh Gamal, 19, a third protester who talked to Al-Monitor, ran into the open street. 

Video of the Nov. 26, 2013, Shura Council protests shot by al-Badil newspaper

One masked officer crossed the street to Yehia. "I said, 'Don't hit me, I am not going to run, I am not a coward like you,' so he hit me in the face and gave me a bruise that remained for days."

Samy, who started running as the water cannon was fired, returned to defend Nazly Hussein and another female protester. "I saw plainclothed men dragging and beating the girls so I tried to defend them," he said. He was detained along with the female protesters he tried to defend.

Neama Seoudi, 20, was detained as well for yelling at the police when they dragged and beat Samy. 

At 4:40 p.m., more than 50 protesters were already detained in the yard of Egypt's Upper Parliament, where the new constitution was being drafted.

A few members of the Constituent Assembly ran out to protest what the police were doing and stood in defense of the protesters, among them Mossad Abu Fajr, who boycotted the vote on the military trials article. Amr Moussa, the head of the Constituent Assembly and the highest authority on the parliament premises which at the time was turning it into a temporary detention facility, looked at the protesters as they were told to kneel. 

"We didn’t kneel, and Moussa didn't even come down the stairs to investigate what is happening," said Samy. 


"At some point the police started dragging the men one after the other to put them in the police transport truck waiting outside," said Seoudi, "so we [the female detainees] formed a line in front of the males to keep the police away."

The protesters-turned-detainees insisted on being transported together in the same vehicle. 

Hussein of NMTC told Al-Monitor, "It wasn't a matter of heroism as much as it was fear of what is going to happen if they separated the female and male detainees in different trucks."

"Some of the females were groped while being arrested, the threats and insults were terrifying and the men were already beaten — the safest decision then was to stick together in order to defend each other and witness what will happen to one another," added Hussein, who has documented dozens of cases of violations and police brutality, including her own, throughout her time as a human rights activist.

Among the detainees were lawyers, journalists, young politicians and one Egyptian-American. The avalanche of tweets, emails and calls during those minutes of detention and the appearance of several Constituent Assembly members at the scene forced the police commanders to agree to release the women. But their attempts to diffuse the explosive situation were meaningless; they had just detained a combination of Egypt's fiercest human rights and political activists.

A timeline of the protest law

"We refused to leave, we insisted on being held together, which angered the police force further," said Hussein. 

About 5:50 p.m. everyone insisting on being held was dragged out. Samy had persuaded Seoudi to leave, and she did along with a few others. A total of 46 people, 13 women and 33 men, were crammed into the metal cage of a medium-sized police transport truck built for transporting a maximum of 20 people. The decision to force all detainees into this truck was made a few months after 37 alleged Muslim Brotherhood protesters were tear-gassed to death inside a similar truck, in an atrocity case that was named after the spot where they were killed, Abu Zaabal.

Hussein said people were standing on each other's feet, falling on each other and trying to move those fainting closer to the end of the cage that had air. "The only thing I thought of was the Abu Zabaal victims," she said.

Everyone’s phones were confiscated except for two, which were hidden. While the vehicle started moving toward an unknown location, Mona Seif, the founder of NMTC, called on everyone to give their names so she could publish the list over social media. 

"The vehicle stopped in front of Sayyeda Zeinab police station for a half an hour but we weren't let out, then it started moving again," said Samy, who stood the whole time inside the transport vehicle. 

Every protester interviewed by Al-Monitor confirmed that the driver intentionally sped up then hit the breaks hard to make everyone fall. Hussein said the driver "was driving over speed bumps like a maniac to hurt us. And he did."

The vehicle finally arrived at the New Cairo police station some 20 km away at about 7:15 p.m. As the prisoners were allowed out of the vehicle, Rasha Azab, another prominent activist and NMTC member, decided to take the lead and warn the police not to violate any of the detainees. 

"If it wasn’t for Azab's words and our big number, the police would have thrown a 'reception' [a common Egyptian phrase referring to beating detainees as they walk into a police station or prison facility] for us as we were led inside." said Samy.

A timeline of the Shura protest

Get rid of the women

Inside the police station, the male detainees were locked in the open-air yard leading to the lockup cells, while the women were ordered to sit on the stairs leading to the second floor. 

"This was the last time we saw the female protesters," Samy said. "A while later we started hearing chants coming from the outside. We knew the activists, lawyers and other protesters had arrived to help us and that the protest ground might be moved to the police station."

The personal information of each of the male protesters was collected by two policemen, and on the other side, the police continued to try to persuade the female prisoners to leave voluntarily. "They talked to a few of us and tried to convince us," said Hussein. But the answer was as unanimous there as it was at the Shura Council: "We won't leave without the rest. Either we all leave or we all stay in detention."

The men received some food, cigarettes and a few messages from several human rights lawyers who had arrived at the station. The messages were soothing and implied that everyone would be released within a few hours. 

Sometime after 10 p.m. the male detainees heard the women scream. "We banged on the walls, shouted and cursed, but we didn't know what happened and the screams shortly stopped," said Samy.

The screams had come from the 13 female prisoners after the police decided to brutalize them and force them into another transport vehicle in the police station’s backyard. 

"I came back from the restroom and the beating began. Every girl sitting on the stairs was beaten by two policemen, slapped, punched, kicked and dragged to the door of the transport truck," said Hussein. But at the door of that truck, the police had decided that Azab, who had screamed the rights of detainees and saved them from a proper 'reception,' would get a special round of beating. 

Another miserable trip departed for an unknown location. This time, the cargo was 13 bruised, crying women wondering what would be next.

"Each one broke down in her own way," said Hussein. “The thoughts were horrible. Anything could happen from torture to rape to being killed. And if we thought the first transport vehicle hurt us, it didn’t. This one really hurt," Hussein said.

Only one cell phone remained hidden among 13 women. "We noticed that the vehicle was driving on the ring road, but at some point it got off the main highway and it felt like we were driving on a dirt road," said Hussein. 

"Throughout the trip we were sending our coordinates from the smartphone. We passed behind Tora Prison, then Helwan ... we knew we were far out in southern Cairo. ... They finally stopped and beat us out of the truck."

The 13 women were left in a remote area about midnight, close to a dirt road leading to more darkness in one direction and to a dim light in the other. "We followed the light, which turned out to be a storage room. We finally found our friends, who followed us and realized this area was at the beginning of the highway to upper Egypt.

"Our friends picked us up at 12:30 a.m." 

Coinciding with the police's plan to get rid of the 13 female detainees, who were a main reason why the case had garnered so much attention in a few hours, the prosecution had released nine of the male detainees, bringing the number of would become be the Shura Council Case defendants to 24 down from the original 46.

Still, despite their misery, this wasn’t even close to the end for the female protesters. 

"Six of the leading members of the NMTC, who called for the protest in the first place, visited the Cairo prosecutor's office the next morning, Nov. 27, and reported in an official complaint what happened to us the previous night, and we admitted that this protest was called for, planned, scheduled and organized by us," Hussein told Al-Monitor. 

"The prosecutor looked at my mother, who sat beside me during the questioning, and asked her: Do you know that she is admitting that she committed a crime? My mom didn't answer. I did, and confirmed every word I said," she said.

Each of the six officially demanded to be taken into custody with the rest of the detainees. But such calls were in vain and were described later on by the prosecution as "unserious complaints aiming for media fame." 

The No. 1 suspect

Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of Egypt's most prominent activists and brother of Mona Seif, the founder of the No Military Trials for Civilians movement who was among the female detainees left in the desert, was at the protest alongside his sister and fellow revolutionary youth. Some 10 videos (seven of which Al-Monitor displays in the graphic timeline) show the arrest of many of the activists and protesters, but miraculously, Abdel Fattah neither appeared in the footage nor was he detained at the protest site. 

When news spread over social media that the detainees had been transported to the New Cairo police station, Abdel Fattah was among the first to arrive there and remained for hours chanting, making calls and like many others helping however they could. Two of the lawyers that attended the initial procedures inside the police station told Al-Monitor that his name was slotted in the case file as a main suspect while he stood meters away, yet he was not arrested. 

On Nov. 28, police raided Abdel Fattah's house, broke down his door, physically attacked him and his wife in front of their infant, confiscated their phones and computers and dragged him away as he bled. They had an arrest warrant but no search warrant and legal authority to enter and confiscate anything from his house.

Abdel Fattah, the last person to be arrested from his house two days after the incident, was added to the case as the prime suspect, and faced the majority of the charges announced later in the first session of the trial. As he was taken to an unknown location, the 24 other defendants had arrived in Cairo's infamous Tora prison compound. 

"We had already realized that all the messages we received inside the police station saying that we would be released were just to contain our anger and keep us from rioting," said Yehia. 

The initial questioning was run by the prosecution in two different rooms inside the police station. The majority of the 24 protesters admitted to participating and gave the details of their arrest. Yehia had a bruised eye from a head butt from a masked officer during his arrest, yet, that was never mentioned in the case file. 

"We weren't heroes, but we didn't commit a crime and we had nothing to deny. I was going to disperse and like others, I returned only when plainclothed men attacked the women. Anyone would do what I did," Samy said. "But the arrival at Tora prison was shocking to every single one of us. Instead of a 'reception,' we were received by the deputy interior minister and head of the Prisons Authority, Gen. Mohamed Rateb. In full uniform and a wide smile, he walked in to introduce us to the ward emptied a day earlier for us. The mattresses were brand new, the blankets were still in their cases and the ward was freshly cleaned."

Yehia said that Rateb told everyone, "They are being hosted at Tora prison until the court releases them in a few days. He told us, 'My son and daughter were with you in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution. We have nothing against you; it is just a routine procedure.'"

All 24 defendants remained in the prison for eight days, during which they discussed going on a hunger strike or calling for bigger movements on the street. Swayed by the exceptionally good treatment, the soothing news coming from some of their lawyers and some threats by jail officials of solitary confinement, they decided to wait for the positive developments they anticipated. 

"We finally realized that we had been tricked into not escalating by everyone who met us, from the nice officers who talked to us in the police station to the deputy interior minister who received us in jail. We lost our chance to gain more momentum for the case," said Yehia. 

On the ninth day, the defendants, now 25 with the addition of Abdel Fattah, stood in court. Everyone was released pending trial except for Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Abdelrahman, was accused of carrying a weapon. He had had a dining knife in his backpack along with a spoon, fork, shampoo and clothes for his job as a security officer at a private company. 

Framing Abdel Fattah

The Shura Council case was officially filed with the Cairo Criminal Court on March 3, 2014, bearing the signature of Wael Shebl, the Central Cairo general prosecutor. The first page carried the date of the opening session of the Shura Council Case: March 23, 2014.

The first six pages of the case file carried the names of all 25 defendants and the charges from the prosecution. A part of page 6 was dedicated to the first defendant, Abdel Fattah, reading, "The first defendant: a) has organized a gathering of more than five people with the intention of committing the crime of attacking people, private and public possessions and influencing the public authority employees while attending to their duties by using force and violence in the way explained in the investigations. b) Has organized a protest without a written notification to the police station of the district where the protest was held."

Five police personnel testified that the police force in the location was able to "arrest 24 defendants" out the 25 mentioned in the first pages of the case file. The one missing name here was the center of every testimony or accusation: Abdel Fattah. 

The sixth witness was Lt. Col. Emad Tahoun who claimed that Alaa Abdel Fattah and others assaulted him and stole his wireless communication device, he added, "I identified Alaa Abdel Fattah because of his prominence and appearing on television several times. [The attackers] all fled but the police were able to arrest some of them."

Yet another witness, Capt. Karim Mansour, corroborated the the testimony of the previous witnesses and added that he saw Abdel Fattah beating and stealing the wireless device of Lt. Col. Emad Tahoun. But looking deeper into the case file, it becomes clear that the prosecution shortened the actual testimony given at the police station from two pages to just one line. The original testimony had contradicted that of the alleged victim, Tahoun.

The 13-page "investigation" written and signed by Shebl failed to offer anything other than the testimonies of police officers. It failed to offer one minute of footage showing an assault that 11 police officers claimed to witness, despite this particular area being under full coverage by the security cameras of several government buildings including the Shura Council, where the detainees were held, the Parliament House adjacent to it and two banks on the other side of the street. 

15 years

The first and most vivid problem that marred the trial is a longstanding Egyptian judicial issue that has afflicted thousands of other trials over the years: The state prosecutor is both the accusing authority and the investigative authority.

In Egypt, pressing charges and investigating those charges are two parallel operations running under the immunity umbrella of one state institution: the prosecution, whose only goal is winning the case and sending the defendant behind bars or to the noose.

When both authorities are in the hands of one state institution with the goal of proving the authenticity and accuracy of its work, then the case files can be misinterpreted, abbreviated or shortened from two pages to two lines, and the accusations can tailored to fit the investigation. The investigation, testimonies and evidence are tailored and fabricated to prove the accusation.

Karim Abdel Radi, one of the defense lawyers of the Shura Case Trial and member of the independent Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told Al-Monitor, "Separating the authorities of pressing charges and investigation has been a top demand for the human rights advocates and hundreds of judges across the country since 2005."

A protester shouts slogans at Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo Nov. 28, 2013, during a demonstration against the new protest law. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images/Mohamed el-Shahed)

In 2005, hundreds of Egyptian judges held a famous protest in downtown Cairo to oppose Mubarak's continuous politicization of the judiciary to serve his rule. That protest was punished as much as any other, but in its own way. Some of them were fired, some were forced into retirement, and their demands were never met.

But besides the prosecution's unchallenged monopoly over the accusation and the required investigation, Abdel Radi assured Al-Monitor that the investigation so far is based on nothing but the testimony of some policemen. "In various cases, Egypt's Cassation Court has considered testimonies to be insufficient proof, and in the majority of cases viewed by the Criminal Court like this one. The defendant is acquitted due to lack of evidence.

"Despite this apparent lack of evidence, two defendants were jailed pending trial, following the regime's policy of punishing political activists within the boundaries of the new laws that replaced the emergency law," said Abdel Radi.

"After the suspension of the emergency law in 2011, the regime lost the privilege of arbitrary detention without trial, but now they have replaced it, in 90% of political cases, with imprisonment pending trial. When the prosecution and judiciary know that the case file isn't powerful enough to guarantee a jail sentence, they keep the defendant in jail pending the trial, which they decide how long is going to take."

When a trial can run for six sessions with two months between, an innocent defendant could be legally jailed for 12 months before any decision is made. Generally, the Justice Ministry is the only and unchallenged entity responsible for scheduling trials, and Abdel Fattah and Abdelrahman remained in custody for four months as the case was referred to the Criminal Court by the Central Cairo prosecutor on Dec. 9, 2013 and until the Justice Ministry assigned a judge to the case and scheduled an opening session for March 23, 2014.

In the opening session, commonly referred to by Egyptian lawyers as the Requests Session, the defense lawyers demanded the testimony of several individuals, including the well-known members of the Constituent Assembly that witnessed the events in front of the Shura Council. They also demanded the admission of the footage of surveillance cameras of both parliament houses to the case file. 

The physical evidence filed by the prosecution on that day was also investigated: a 30-cm metal object, a cellular phone, a compact disc and a report filed by the General Authority for Technical Assistance, a department of the Interior Ministry.

The only court decision made during the opening session was the fortunate release of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the only two jailed defendants out of the 25, on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pound ($1,500) each. The second session was scheduled on April 6, 2014. 

The second session opened to shocking details. Alaa Abdel Fattah's lawyers filed to recuse the leading judge, Mohamed Mostafa Al-Fikky, a common procedure in Egyptian courts that means reassigning a different judge to the case and which is normally heeded if there is acceptable justification. In fact, some of Egypt's top judges assigned to major cases have demanded self-recusal over possible disputes between them and the defendants. Abdel Fattah's justification was more than logical. 

"The defendant I represent [Alaa Abdel Fattah] justified his request to recuse the leading judge due to the dispute that erupted between them after publishing the details of rigging the parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010, which included a polling station headed by the same judge," defense lawyer Taher Abulnasr told local media after the session. He added that Alaa Abdel Fattah had "personally filed legal action to Egypt's prosecutor general in 2013" requesting an investigation into the rigging of the last two parliamentary elections under Mubarak.

Both the judge and the Justice Ministry turned a blind eye to the request. 

"In addition to the prosecution's control over what is considered serious participation or complaints and what is not, the Justice Ministry neglecting the recusal request and the broader judicial issues that hundreds of cases suffer, there were no hearing sessions, no witnesses and even the lawyers weren't given a chance to speak," said Naiera Al-Sayyed, another defense lawyer from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information representing several of the defendants. 

On May 5, the session was adjourned to June 11, and on this fourth session Alaa Abdel Fattah and two other defendants were held outside at the Police Sergeants Institute and refused entrance back into the courthouse without a permit. Their lawyers watched as the judge considered all 25 defendants "absent" and hammered his verdict in absentia: 15 years in prison. 

Minutes after the sentence, Abdel Fattah was arrested along with the two other defendants. 

"When the defendant is absent, they lose the privilege of defense," said Al-Sayyed. "We couldn't defend them because they were held by the security of the non-judicial facility where the trial was held."

The judge announced his verdict at 9:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the court usually opens.

The majority of the remaining 22 defendants arrived to the police institute within the hour following the sentence. None of them were arrested. Two days later, everyone was granted a retrial and released from the prosecutor's office except for Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Abdel Rahman and Wael El-Semary, who remained in custody. 

Activist Alaa Abdel Fattah stands behind bars as he is tried in Cairo, Aug. 6, 2014. (photo by AFP/Getty Images Mohamed el-Shahed)

Ten days later, on June 21, Abdel Fattah's youngest sister, Sanaa Seif, a human rights activist like much of her family, was detained for staging a protest demanding the release of the Shura Council Trial defendants and transferred to a Cairo prison, where she remains today. 

During Al-Monitor's meeting with the defense lawyers at the ANHRI's office in downtown Cairo in late August, reports confirmed that Alaa Abdel Fattah's father and prominent human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif Al-Islam had died at a Cairo hospital after a weeklong coma. The devastating news sent the meeting into tearful silence.

Alaa and Sanaa were allowed to attend their father's burial, flanked by prison guards and wearing their white prison uniforms. 

"Our father died a martyr and you know who killed him," Alaa yelled to hundreds of people.

Legalizing the crackdown

Over a few weeks of reporting, reading through the case file and writing this article, I asked everyone who agreed to talk to Al-Monitor if they were worried about the consequences of their comments. Each one of them said that they expect the worst from talking to the media, going on a hunger strike or calling for more protests. But since they have no control over what will happen before or during the coming court session scheduled for Sept. 10, 2014, they have decided to go ahead with the escalation. 

"My mother once told me that if the regime wants to imprison you and you're innocent they will, and if they want to free you even if you are a criminal they also will," said Hussein. "What she said turned out to be an accurate description of my experience with this case. I went to the prosecution and took responsibility for calling and organizing the protest, yet Alaa Abdel Fattah is in jail for what I admitted to. This is a war on the revolutionary youth and selectively targets prominent figures to terrify everyone thinking of joining the dissent."

Hussein says that the difference this time is that "The prosecutors, who were theoretically neutral, contrary to the politicized police, judiciary and media, have decided this time to join the war against us. And when Abdel Fattah was held outside of the courtroom while the judge handed everyone a sentence in absentia, the regime declared it was taking this war personally. The prosecution completed the axis of injustice along with the police and the judiciary."

Mohamed Samy believes that this is a "targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures who mobilize the dissent. And if it isn’t, then why are we free despite taking the same legal procedure as Abdel Fattah?"

He believes that this regime, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former defense minister, could have opened a new page with the revolutionary youth despite the oppression and ongoing opposition, but instead, "It arrived with imprisonment and a harsher crackdowns. It is clear that they want to crush the dissent for the coming years by destroying the lives and futures of 25 people, most of whom are in their twenties."

Yehia, who is enduring this ordeal alongside his 56-year-old father, Yehia Abdel Shafi, said, "This is the time for escalation to shame this regime and its figureheads."

He said that they were deceived into remaining silent at the beginning, saying, "During our eight days in prison, they treated us nicely, told us that we will be released, threatened that they will separate us in solitary confinement if we went on hunger strike, and we aborted the escalation. But since we're sentenced to 15 years and waiting while our friends are sent to jail one after the other, then there are no other options but escalating against this oppressive regime."

The escalation has already started from behind bars. Alaa Abdel Fattah and his sister have already gone on hunger strike along with other imprisoned activists. Abdel Fattah wrote a heart-wrenching letter from his prison cell, published a day before his father's death.


On Aug. 30, I went to the memorial for Ahmed Seif Al-Islam at Omar Makram Mosque on the edge of Tahrir Square, the same mosque that housed the field hospital during the deadly days of the January 25 Revolution. Hundreds of people attended, from all walks of Egypt's political and social life. Policemen perched outside waiting for Alaa and Sanaa, who stood beside their sister Mona, the founder of No Military Trials for Civilians Movement, and their mother, Laila Soueif, who fought no less fiercely than their father in defense of human rights. 

Seif Al-Islam, who in the 1980s was jailed for five years and endured torture, had sent a message to his imprisoned only son before falling ill. His message was recorded in a news conference Jan. 4, 2014, one week after his son's first arrest. It speaks to all Egyptians who participated in the 2011 revolution.

“Is your generation going to pass on to my grandchildren, your children, a better society than that we passed on to you? I hope so; I hope you succeed in what we failed to accomplish. And again, I am sorry. We couldn't accomplish for you what we had hoped.”

For Alaa Abdel Fattah’s generation, too, the better society promised by the 2011 revolution remains elusive.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication

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