Ibrahim Halawa rots in prison while Europe prioritises trade with Egypt

Ibrahim Halawa rots in prison while Europe prioritises trade with Egypt
Comment: Ibrahim Halawa was imprisoned in Cairo on sham charges and his trial was postponed 37 times, yet Dublin and Brussels still won't act, writes Sam Hamad.
8 min read
07 Sep, 2017
Ibrahim Halawa has been in prison for more than 4 years [Source: Facebook]
It has now been over four years since the Irish citizen Ibrahim Halawa was imprisoned by Egyptian security forces in Cairo.

That chaotic day, August 14th, 2013, was the day the Egyptian military overthrew Egypt's first ever democratically elected president. 

The dreaded security forces, with revitalised counter-revolutionary ferocity, had already murdered perhaps over 1000 peaceful anti-coup protestors. 

Ibrahim could have been one of the dead – he was only 17 and on his school holidays when the security forces stormed the peaceful protest he had joined before shooting him. He survived, but his life, and the lives of his family, have from that moment been an enduring nightmare.

When not in solitary confinement, he exists in a daylight-free dungeon, half the size of most living rooms, shared with fifteen other prisoners.  He sleeps not on a bed, but on a little mat.  This is how his sister Somaia describes it.

The cell itself is akin to a death trap – an exposed fuse box threatens ignition or electrocution at any moment. There are no basic amenities and the unsanitary conditions serve as a breeding ground for infections. 

As with most Egyptian prisoners, Ibrahim has been tortured and his mental and physical health are deteriorating.  Egyptian authorities refuse him any treatment and have permitted a doctor from Ireland to give him only a brief examination, which, as inadequate as it was, showed that he has possible heart problems that have led to breathing difficulties.

The price so far has been, as Somaia puts it, 'most of his teenage years'

'No matter what we do, it's not enough, the only thing that can help him is freedom', his sister Somaia says - unwavering in her conviction that Ibrahim will come home. And it's only through the impressive determination and perseverance of Ibrahim's family that his story is known to the world.

Arrested on the same day as Ibrahim, Ibrahim's three sisters were transported to Egypt's notorious Scorpion prison, where they were detained for three months. Four Irish citizens imprisoned abroad, yet, as Lynn Boylan, a Sinn Fein MEP who was one of the first Irish political figures to take up Ibrahim's cause, said: "no one in Ireland had the faintest idea". 

The story was brought to public attention by his sisters after they were released – but while they could return to Ireland, they were forced to do so without their brother.

Ibrahim, a minor at the time, had been charged in one of Egypt's infamous 'mass trials', during which he was accused of entirely fatuous charges of violent criminality.  Amnesty International, who have rightfully called him a Prisoner of Conscience, consider Ibrahim innocent beyond doubt – yet he still faces the death penalty.

The story since then has been one of impressive struggle and of dismal, craven inaction. 

On one hand, Ibrahim's family and the campaign they created have never ceased to raise awareness of his case, and are continuing to do whatever is necessary to ensure his release. On the other, the Irish government and the European Union have - to again quote Boylan - done everything "not to rock the boat" with an important trading partner such as Egypt. 

In this sense, Ibrahim's case is an example for what has been happening since the 2013 destruction of democracy in Egypt.  The international community's rhetorical condemnation over human rights violations by the Sisi regime, ranging from systematic torture and mass imprisonment to massacres and enforced disappearances, has been entirely contrary to their actions.

The Sisi regime has steadily been normalised geopolitically.  While the US was superficially hesitant to continue to fund it under Obama, it should never be forgotten that after Sisi's election 'victory', John Kerry characterised the brutal eradication of all opposition as 'moving in the right direction'. He then quietly authorised the release of $572 million in 'aid' to the regime. 

Since then, Egypt has been ingratiated into the global order of trade and 'security'.  This is precisely why in the years of Ibrahim's detention, the former Taoiseach of Ireland Enda Kenny did nothing concrete to secure the release of Ibrahim.  Even in official statements, as highlighted by Boylan, Kenny never once publicly referred to Ibrahim by name, referring to him only as 'the individual in question'. 

As Somaia told me, 'Kenny never once acknowledged that what's happening to Ibrahim is an injustice - so it was difficult to imagine he cared'.

Read more: Irish delegation to visit Ibrahim Halawa in Egyptian jail

Somaia also recalls that in the few times she met with Kenny to discuss Ibrahim, he never enquired about Ibrahim's condition or asked how the family were holding up. 

While his approach to the family was stand-offish, the official line was downright abysmal.  Boylan remembers that Kenny's stance was typified by the idea that 'speaking about it can only make it worse'.  Indeed, Somaia recalls one government minister implying that attempts to publicise Ibrahim's case and push for action were 'causing trouble'. 

The Irish government's official line has been one of support of the Halawa family's actions to ensure Ibrahim's release – claiming that they'll back them up by bringing it up directly with Sisi.  However, the 'difficulty lies', to quote Kenny, in the fact that Sisi won't budge until there's a conclusion to the trial. 

One might think this is a perfectly reasonable line, but, as ever in Egypt's state of mass injustice, the 'conclusion' to the trial is elusive. The trial itself has been postponed 37 times over the past four years, and while this might sound astonishing, it's par for the course in Egypt where this tactic is used to ensure indefinite detention without a conviction.  It's especially the case when the reason for detention is not because the person has committed a crime, but is, like Ibrahim, a prisoner of conscience. 

While the Irish government is compromised by a necessity not to rock the boat with Egypt due to material interests – such as the fact that Egypt is the third biggest destination for Irish agri-food in Africa (they recently negotiated a very lucrative beef deal) - the EU is a different story.  Brussels has wide-ranging economic agreements with Egypt, with trade between the two generating billions.

Moreover, despite an official embargo, the inflow of arms to Egypt remains unhindered, ensuring that its brutality remains high-tech and lucrative – in 2014 alone, $6.77 billion worth of military equipment was sold to Egypt by EU member states. 

It's these cold, cruel relations that comprise a large part of what is known as 'Fortress Europe' – the term for the collective racist policies of the EU to push back refugees and immigrants, often under the rubric of 'counter-terrorism' and 'security.  

One can see the way these convoluted geopolitical relations have conspired against Ibrahim when in July of this year the EU-Egypt Association Council was scheduled to meet in Brussels. It was a unique opportunity for the EU to bring up Egypt's various human rights abuses and for Ireland to bring up Ibrahim's case specifically. 

But when the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was asked in the Irish parliament to bring up Ibrahim's case, he refused, claiming that it wasn't appropriate to raise the case of 'the individual mentioned' (Ibrahim) at the meeting.

Ibrahim is a victim of Sisi's authoritarianism as much as he is a victim of the global system that normalises and materially aids such authoritarianism.

In 2014 alone, $6.77 billion worth of military equipment was sold to Egypt by EU member states.

Boylan and Somaia agree that Irish society would probably be more outraged if Ibrahim was a white Irishman. They also both take heart in the way the campaign has grown over the years.  Far from petering out, the campaign continues to expand. 

However, much of the hopes of the Halawa family rest in the hands of the new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and his approach to the case.  While Varadkar has what Boylan calls a more 'smooth' approach than Kenny, the real test for him comes on the 18th of September - the date of Ibrahim's next trial. 

If the trial should be postponed for the 38th time, Somaia and Boylan agree that the Irish government must be forced to take concrete action, such as by taking a legal case against the Egyptian government and vastly increasing pressure through the EU. 

While the Irish government and the EU would have us believe that constantly pressuring the Sisi regime isn't going to work, Boylan believes, following the cases of Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, that the opposite is true. 

Read more: Ibrahim Halawa's condition 'serious' after collapsing in Egyptian jail

As she said, if Egypt continues to unlawfully imprison Ibrahim after September 18th, 'enough is enough and it has to pay a price … this is the only thing the regime understands'.  

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that 'violence appears where power is in jeopardy', and while the Sisi regime might project itself as a bastion of power, its power is comprised of violent acts of self-preservation that betray its insecurities.  The only reason it needs this constant violence is because it faces so much opposition. 

This is exactly why it's an imperative that the Irish government and the EU be forced to take firm and concrete action against Sisi's Egypt if Ibrahim Halawa is not freed. 

Hope lies with the victims.  Boylan, who has visited Ibrahim, says 'it's hard not to advocate on behalf of him, as he's so likeable'.

'Despite everything', she continues, 'Ibrahim was laughing and joking'.  And the direct human aspect of this ought never to be forgot – this is 'not about a political maverick', as Boylan says, but 'a young Irish lad paying an expensive price'.

The price so far has been, as Somaia puts it, 'most of his teenage years'.

'It's up to the Irish government to ensure that his adulthood is spent at home free'.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.