At 9 am, activists, lawyers and families start coming to the Heliopolis courthouse for the first hearing of 24 people accused of protesting and vandalizing public property.
Erase the year, and it could have easily been a 2000 or a 2005 convention of left leaning anti-Mubarak activists. There is the Seif/Soueif family, with Laila Soueif, the academic and Ahmed Seif al-Islam, the lawyer. There is the painter Rawyah Sadek and her ex-husband the writer, Refaat Sallam. Both families have a daughter behind bars in this case. The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim comes in and greets Sallam. He asks him jokingly, “Is it that little Yara in prison? You’ve really passed on the flag.” The historian Khaled Fahmy eventually walks in, accompanied by the filmmaker Nadia Kamel. The doctor and health rights advocate Mona Mina has also arrived and so has Basma al-Husseiny, the well-known culture activist.
The younger ones are also here: Mona Seif, Salma Said, Hossam Bahgat, Samia Jaheen, and a few others. We’re back to greeting and checking on each other on the margins of a political event or a friend’s court hearing. Three years ago, we had become too many to know each other and to fit in a courtroom. But that is no longer the case.
The Heliopolis court is one of some convenience. For one, it’s a real courtroom, fitting for a court hearing. It is also situated in the friendly suburb of Heliopolis.
It isn’t long before even this convenience is snatched away from us. Although lawyers and families of the detainees were told the hearing would be held at the Heliopolis courthouse, now we learn the judge and the defendants will only appear at the Police Institute in Tora: ominous news.
The institute is not a courtroom. It is a security fortress, managed by the Ministry of Interior. It means not everyone can get in, despite some imaginary right to a public trial. The institute also borders the Tora compound, which houses a series of prisons and thousands of prisoners, amongst them activists we know. Here the balance tips toward more punishment and less justice. Here what is banned supasses what is allowed.
We drive to Tora in a convoy of lawyers and families. The institute is set amidst two main highways. After parking, we attempt to cross one of them, with an aging Seif al-Islam, who is now walking with the aid of a stick. The man whose son, Alaa, and daughter, Sanaa, are behind bars today, crosses laughingly. “I crossed the highway and that’s an achievement today.”
At the gates of Tora, there is another gathering of activists in solidarity. Here, I find the younger ones and the ones I only knew after the 2011 revolution. There is Nazly Hussein, Ahmad Zahra, Mai Saad, Hossam Shukrallah and many others.
We leave them behind and walk in, the lawyers and the journalists. The lawyers have become acquainted with this makeshift courtroom, for many have ended up behind bars over the last year on Protest Law charges. The usual lawyers are around: Khaled Ali, Mahmoud Belal, Marwa Farouk, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, Osama al-Mahdy, Ahmad Ragheb, Ragia Omran, and others.
We are still walking behind Seif al-Islam, who keeps his high spirits. “I am here for the girl this time, not the boy,” he laughs with the security personnel checking us on entry. They know him from his recurrent appearances in defense of his son Alaa. “I am left with my wife and my daughter but I have filed cases against the two of them.” Both women have claimed responsibility for organizing the protest on June 21, over which the 23 detainees are charged today.
We get inside the courtroom. It is a police lecture hall turned into a house of justice. Paradox abounds. There is one sleeping policeman stationed on each bench.
A scuffle breaks out between lawyers and a couple of awakened policemen, with the former accusing the latter of disrespect. The veteran Khaled Ali calms everyone down and asks colleagues to focus on the case and ignore the rest.
Everyone calms down and takes a seat, in a temporary state of formality that is normally associated with a courtroom.
But then we hear the detainees have arrived. The girls among them make their presence known to the outside world from the opaque police truck in which they have been transferred from their cells by singing, “We have told the oppressor before, freedom is coming for sure.”
They finally become visible. They walk into the court dock, one by one, in their white prison wear. We applaud. They chant. We chant along. We cede our places and stand on the benches. The courtroom becomes no house of justice and no police lecture hall, but a temporary room for dissent.
I roll kisses in the air to both Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif and they throw some back my way. Seif al-Islam shows us we can do more. He stands up and shouts to his daughter behind bars. “Everyone at home is fine, Sanaa. Alaa’s court hearing is set for July 22. Mona is fine. Mom is fine.” “Brazil has qualified for the World Cup ya Sanaa!” another lawyer shouts. “Rawya, Dina, Reem, Bahaa and Ramy are out and sending you love,” shouts another to Yara. “I will make you cream kunafa for the next visit,” a lawyer promises her. We keep waving at each other.
I have known Yara, as a student, as a researcher, as an activist, as a bride and as a fellow vacationer. Sanaa, I have known as Alaa’s baby sister, a youth leader in a summer camp, a multimedia intern and a negotiator with policemen in prison over her detained brothers’ right to receive letters and books. Today, alongside the others, I meet them as prisoners. Sanaa is jumping around the tiny dock. Yara is holding her prison veil graciously, as if she is in outing attire. I continue to wave to her.
We are silenced by the solemn call, “mahkama,” the sign for the judge’s appearance and the beginning of the hearing. We return to formality.
The few minutes to come are uneventful save for two anecdotes. As the judge invites lawyers to present their requests, the first one asks for the release of the detainees pending the court case, for the case can be pursued without their pre-trial detention. But the judge tells him that the detainees are not locked up on a pre-trial detention, which leaves their incarceration undefined. The bedazzled lawyer asks him what kind of incarceration they are in. The judge isn’t sure. He doesn’t answer.
“Boshret kheir (good omen),” laughs Seif al-Islam.
Seif al-Islam takes the floor and wishes the judge a happy Ramadan. He also reminds him that it is within his authority to issue a release order for the detainees, just in case he is not sure what his authorities are.
The judge stops the hearing. We are back to standing on the benches, waving and trading news with the prisoners. This time, they jump inside their dock, bang on its wires and sing ardently, “We have told the oppressor before, freedom is coming for sure, they say mischief is in our blood, for how we demand our right, but when will you understand? Freedom, freedom, freedom.”
Then they leave us. And the judge comes back. He cold-bloodedly hands a five-year sentence to another group of detainees also charged under the Protest Law. He releases three defendants, but doesn’t call them by names. He only says the fourth, the six and the seventh defendants are innocent. Defendants in the dock wonder who of them is free and who is convicted. The hearing ends and they still don’t know, for no one has an answer for them. One of the policemen wakes up to the news. “Five years for a one-hour march?” he says, yawningly. He sleeps again.
Then we learn that the judge adjourned the 23 detainees case to September 13. The lawyers, in wishful thinking, say it may be a miscommunication and that July 13 is the next hearing not September 13. They are wrong.
I leave with the thought that Sanaa Seif, Yara Sallam, Salwa Mehrez, Nahed Sherif, Hanan Mostafa, Samar Ibrahim, Rania al-Sheikh, Ibrahim al-Saeed, Ahmad Samir, Mohamed Miza, Islam Givara, Ahmad Oraby, Islam Oraby, Moataz Mansour, Karam Mostafa, Mohamed al-Beyali, Mostafa Ibrahim, Yasser al-Qott, Mohamed Moftah, Mohamed al-Araby, Mahmoud Hesham, Moamen Radwan, Islam Abdel Hamid will all be in jail for two more months.