Not for Amateurs: My friend Karim Ennarah

Exactly one year ago, after dinner at our most regular restaurant, Karim Ennarah ended the night by blowing out the candles for his 36th birthday, placed on konafa and basbousa instead of cake. Everyone, including the waiters, had a piece too many because no one says no to Karim, especially when it comes to dessert. 

A little less than two weeks ago, Karim was at his favorite restaurant in Dahab, about to dig into an egg paratha he had ordered before his dip in the sea when the waiter told him that two men would like to speak to him. Still wearing his wetsuit, Karim calmly approached the plain-clothed men, shook their hands and introduced himself. A few minutes later, when the officers told his friends that they were taking him to the police station, Karim corrected them: “We are going to state security premises.” 

Karim is a passionate and meticulous criminal justice researcher, with a huge appetite for knowledge as well as dessert. He reads obsessively and widely, from legal philosophy to history, medicine, food, politics and urban planning, although he disgracefully lacks a single book on the arts. He is constantly seeking knowledge and concerned with producing it. 

Although he is also a sore loser — a person who does not give up easily at all — he is under no illusion that we live in 2011, or even 2010. Karim is not a “rebel”: he is a reformist in the very technical sense of the word. Some of his colleagues tease him about his obsession with the intricacies of governance, and poke fun at what they see as his conservative approach by jokingly assigning him governmental titles. Too sarcastic to preach, but too positive and youthfully energetic to be apathetic, this “laser-sharp” researcher found a match at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

EIPR has been in the headlines these past couple of weeks, as the authorities have arrested three staffers, including Karim and, a day later, its executive director, Gasser Abdel Razek. The arrests were accompanied with a smear campaign, attempting to frame the organization as anti-state, or even terroristic. 

EIPR is a human rights organization that has taken a clear decision to engage with reality beyond pointing fingers or naming and shaming. It has taken the responsibility of providing policy recommendations to the Egyptian authorities based on in-depth research and concrete technical and legal analysis. Although it has collaborated with the government on issues like public health and budget transparency, in the current context, EIPR sometimes does its work with the uncertain hope that it will reach its intended readers. 

The organization’s policy recommendations consist of a bundle of pragmatic steps with minimum starting points and maximum ceilings of what can be done in the short and long term, and, most importantly, within the current Egyptian legal framework. They propose to the Egyptian state a way of guaranteeing rights and freedoms of Egyptians while ensuring the rational and transparent use of its resources, with the firm belief that political and economic stability are only real and sustainable when they do not come at the expense of the people.

Among the very little information we’ve received about Karim since his arrest is that he was questioned on his work on the death penalty, as the director of EIPR’s criminal justice unit. EIPR has been documenting an alarming surge in issuing and executing death penalties in regular criminal cases. Because the criminal justice system’s functioning and infrastructure is Karim’s primary focus, what concerned him the most was the normalization of these executions after a period of over 10 years in which the state had been very conservative in carrying them out, even when death sentences were issued. 

With his feet on the ground and in touch with the bleak reality we live in, Karim intervenes from a technical perspective on the World Day Against the Death Penalty and understands that abolishing the death penalty is not a winnable fight today. Instead, and even though EIPR’s position remains strongly against the death penalty, he proposes that if death penalties will be issued anyway, let us guarantee that decisions are not erroneous, because executions are irreversible. EIPR’s publication on the World Day Against the Death Penalty focuses solely on guarantees of communication between lawyers and defendants, to ensure that defendants have proper legal representation.

The main demand in EIPR’s death penalty reports for the past three years, which can all be accessed here, remains as follows: Put a halt on the execution of death penalties, until a societal dialogue takes place. 

Karim’s wife and long-term partner, Jessica Kelly, describes him as “the fullest spirit”. Among the things I both most admire and find most annoying about him is that he feels strongly about everything. He pours himself into and engages with all his heart and mind everything that comes his way. I have yet to meet another human being whose passion and dedication to his work can be equally found in his ice cream preferences.

The factors that culminate to produce his final choice of ice cream are many and engage all disciplines. We need to run a survey on the ingredients used, comparing prices and then taking into account the level of generosity of the pieces of pistachio in the ice cream itself, in addition to the history of the ice cream shop, local versus international, old versus new. The type of cream used is a chapter in our lives, the socio-economic history of the shop owner is another. At the end (spoiler alert) Mandarine Koueider is the place to buy ice cream — a conclusion anyone could have reached on the basis of the ice cream simply tasting good. 

But that’s the deal with him. His passion is not specific or limited to a topic, it’s a way of living, a stream that flows into everything he touches or is touched by. And so, while a friendship with him can be demanding and loaded, it is the most genuine and invested you can come across, not one for amateurs — a friendship in the truest sense of the word.









The only reason arguing with him can be frustrating is that most of us have limited energy, and wouldn’t want to spare a lot of it on heated discussions over ice cream. But the massive amount of energy Karim has from his expensive and ever-increasing sugar intake must go somewhere, and what remains of it will go into flawless and detailed research, and into finding one possible recommendation that can be practically and legally applied. It’s a way for him to be honest with himself, and to sleep with a happy conscience. In short, Karim is a geek, and his work shows it. 

The thought that on his birthday tonight, Karim might be in solitary confinement, is chilling. He is one of the most social beings one might come across. He does not spend much time on his own, and when he does, one should worry.

This is why the first COVID-19 wave hit Karim hard. To isolate himself from others, from the small and bigger circles, came at an exceptionally high emotional cost for him. After a while, he figured a way to deal with the corona isolation, by reaching deep into his geekiness. Within a few weeks, Karim knew the details of every single clinical trial taking place all over the world, every vaccine and the level of testing it had reached, as well as detailed updates of strategies different governments adopted in curbing infection rates or increasing testing resources.

All this poured into his work. Another EIPR statement the prosecutor questioned him about is one in which the organization asks Egyptian authorities not to exempt detention facilities and prisons from measures taken to reduce crowding and limit the spread of the virus. “When enforcing these legal measures, the authorities should always consider their primary objective — protecting lives and minimizing gatherings and density,” the statement reads. It proposes that decision-makers consider exceptional measures to contain the spread of the virus. It suggests reducing the number of prisoners over the age of 60 or at high risk healthwise and it addresses the president, urging him to “consider issuing an exceptional presidential amnesty … to cover every prisoner who has served at least half of their sentence for less serious and low-risk offenses, which would include, for example, people given light sentences for civil debt.”

Karim’s civic engagement, his sense of ownership over public affairs and interest in issues of governance are integral to who he is as a person. And even though places like EIPR fight hard to maintain a citizen’s right to engage with public affairs, Karim’s connection to public issues far exceeds him believing that it is his right (for it is his right). His interest and passion for public policy and a sense of community in the broader sense is integral to his understanding of himself and how he relates to the world, and it surpasses geographical and socio-political boundaries. 

“His grip on Indian politics, the Indian governing systems and their functioning is unnatural for someone who has never lived or worked in the country. He would have a very good sense of not only current affairs in Indian politics but also the historical context and political nuances. I have always been intrigued at his ability to grasp things which are so far from his own context,” says journalist Kunal Purohit and a friend of Karim’s from SOAS, where he completed his master’s degree in law, culture and society in 2017.

On short trips to Cape Town, he made it a point to visit a different public swimming pool every day to try to understand the mechanism used by the local government to provide and maintain these pools. On a recent visit to London, which coincided with the last parliamentary elections, Karim spent his holiday knocking on doors campaigning, not because he expected to live there or become a politician one day, but because he engaged in a calculated assessment that this small victory in the UK would mean a slightly better world. 

Karim is a firm believer in small changes and their interconnectedness, and in the idea that, together, tiny, dull grains of sand are what produce his most favorite and picturesque shore on Egypt’s north coast. It is simply not within his capabilities to be a passive citizen, as we might think is required in a time when the word “collective” has almost become a charge on its own.

At the end of one of last week’s horrible days, I drove home, my body on autopilot, and my mind drifted, replaying flashbacks from the past eight years of my friendship with Karim. It dawned on me that this was such an absurd yet revealing situation.

Karim has dedicated a decade of his youth to working on reforming and bettering the Egyptian criminal justice system. He has produced, alone or within a team, dozens of studies. He has continuously sought and engaged any individual or institution that is a part of that system and has never stopped looking for better alternatives within the ever-deteriorating circumstances we endure.

And since Wednesday, November 18, this person finds himself facing that very same criminal justice system, the one whose laws, practices, politics and spoken and unspoken rules he knows so well. And there in front of him sits a prosecutor waving a report on the death penalty, holding it up to Karim’s face as though it were incriminating evidence, not realizing that the propositions in this report are actually addressed at him.

I imagine a twist in which the prosecutor in charge of Karim’s questioning is one of the many prosecutors and judges who sought out and attended technical workshops over the past five years at the American University in Cairo, which were designed, led and taught by Karim. I know that in the midst of all this what will be frustrating him the most is that 10 years into it, his point is still not coming across.

Turanga Leela 

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