Ibrahim's two-year detention says much about Egypt today
On the night of August 17 two years ago I received a call from a panicked friend of Ibrahim Halawa and his three sisters.
The friend had just heard the siblings give anguished phone interviews to an Arab TV channel from inside a Cairo mosque which was being besieged by Egyptian security forces. I called the Irish ambassador to Egypt, Isolde Moylan, and informed her four Irish citizens were stuck inside the mosque. I also passed on their mobile phone number so she could make contact with Ibrahim, then 17 years old, and his older sisters Soumaia, Fatima and Omaima.
Sheikh Hussein Halawa, father of the siblings and imam at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) in Clonskeagh, Dublin, says he advised his children to seek shelter in the mosque after fatal clashes broke out at nearby Ramses Square, where the Halawas had joined a thousands-strong protest against the army's overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Security forces surrounded the mosque, where hundreds of people had barricaded themselves. Automatic gunfire and screaming could be heard in the background as the Halawas gave interviews to TV channels from inside the mosque.
"They want to kill us," said Ibrahim in a clip shared by his friends on social media. "We just want things to be like they are in Ireland. Everyone is willing to give themselves to the last bullet."
While the Egyptian authorities claimed to Irish diplomats that the Halawas would be given safe passage to leave the mosque, the siblings told Al Jazeera they were too frightened to leave because they had witnessed others being set upon by baying anti-Morsi vigilantes, some armed with sticks, as they tried to get out. Reporters I knew at the scene told me some in the mob outside threatened to target women who had been giving TV interviews, likely a reference to the Halawa sisters. When security forces eventually overran the complex, the Halawas were among scores of people, including several reporters, who were rounded up and taken to Cairo's notorious Tora prison. The three Halawa sisters were released that November but Ibrahim remains in another Egyptian jail, his case now taken up by Amnesty International which considers him a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly. Ibrahim is on trial along with 493 other people for their alleged role in violence during the protests that took place in the Ramses Square area of the Egyptian capital on August 16 and 17, 2013.
At least 97 people died in the demonstrations, most as a result of what Amnesty calls the "reckless use of force by the security forces". The trial of all defendants has been postponed several times, the last adjournment marked the next hearing for August 2. If convicted, Ibrahim could face the death penalty. The story of how this Irish citizen ended up spending almost two years being shuttled around Egyptian prisons - at one point sharing a cell with Al Jazeera journalist and Australian national Peter Greste, who was released in February - says much about Egypt today.
The military coup of 2013 has ushered in a regime that is dramatically more repressive than that of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator forced to step down in the face of mass protests in the heady days of 2011. Hundreds of people have been swept up and detained for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as the regime of president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appears determined to snuff out the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and oldest opposition movement in Egypt.
Navigating the contours of Sisi's Egypt can be a challenge as many Western officials have discovered but there are some indications that the Irish authorities were a little naive about how the Halawas' predicament might unfold. Just weeks into their detention, then Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore told me he believed the siblings' release was imminent. In those early stages, Irish officials appeared too trusting of their Egyptian interlocutors' assurances, even though the information they gave was at times contradictory. The Halawa family and many of their supporters have argued that the Irish government could and should have done more, comparing its efforts with those of the Australian government when it came to pressing the case for the release of Peter Greste.
Ibrahim's legal team is due to meet officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin next week and it is finalising a submission on his case to the UN working group on arbitrary detention. The team has provided a detailed legal opinion to Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, outlining concerns over Ibrahim's detention, his access to a fair trial, and his treatment while in prison - he says he has been tortured. It has also proposed a number of actions the Government could take. Flanagan has said the Government had supported applications by the legal team for both release on bail and release under presidential decree, but he said it appeared unlikely there would be any decision to release Ibrahim until after the trial process concludes.
Ibrahim's case is perhaps complicated by the fact his father is the secretary of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a group of scholars that issues religious opinions on practical matters specific to Muslims in Europe. It is an offshoot of the Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE), an umbrella group of various branches and affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. In the paranoia of Sisi's Egypt - where a freelance Dutch journalist who merely had coffee with Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleague days before they were arrested was herself sentenced in absentia to 10 years - the slightest hint of a Brotherhood connection, real or imagined, can have serious consequences.