Saving Ibrahim Halawa: The fight for one boy's freedom

Saving Ibrahim Halawa: The fight for one boy's freedom
Comment: The 17-year-old Irish citizen was jailed for protesting in Egypt, but Irish leaders have been largely silent about his ongoing detention.
6 min read
12 Jun, 2015
The Rabaa massacre sparked a wave of protests and further crackdowns [AFP]

Fatima, Omaima and Somaia Halawa were visiting Egypt from Ireland, as the sisters did each summer.

It was August 17, 2013, three days after the Egyptian regime murdered as many as 1,000 people in Rabaa and Nadha squares.

The three girls had hit the streets of Cairo with their 17-year-old brother, Ibrahim, to protest against the overthrow of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and the widespread repression that followed.

Things turned violent after the security forces and associated thugs attacked the protesters, forcing them, along with many other protesters, to seek refuge in the nearby al-Fatah mosque.

After a 17-hour siege, during which the protesters were bombarded with tear gas, the security forces stormed the mosque, shooting Ibrahim in the hand.

After being denied medical treatment, Ibrahim and his sisters were transferred to Egypt's notorious Tora prison.

Three months later, his sisters were freed and able to return to Ireland, but Ibrahim remained imprisoned.

Upon their return to Ireland, his sisters immediately sought help from the Irish government to secure Ibrahim's release. Ibrahim, as an Irish citizen, born and raised in Ireland, has a good case to make that he should be afforded the full assistance of the Irish government.

But, much to the consternation of Ibrahim's sisters, Dublin officials advised them that, in the words of Ibrahim's elder sister, Somaia, "it was better to stay quiet".

Fearing that Ibrahim was, like many other political prisoners in Egypt, being subject to torture and ill treatment, with him already being denied necessary treatment for his injuries, the Halawa sisters decided to ignore the government's advice - and make as much noise as possible about his case.

     Barrett sees similarities between Ibrahim's unjust detention and the treatment of Irish Catholics by the British government

They began by seeking help from potentially sympathetic politicians to raise awareness and apply pressure on the Irish government to do more to secure Ibrahim's release.

One of the activists who became involved in the campaign was socialist Teachta Dála (member of the Irish parliament) Richard Boyd Barrett.

He had been aware of the Egyptian regime's mass repression of political opponents following the counter-revolutionary coup of July 3, and sees similarities between Ibrahim's unjust detention by the Sisi regime and the treatment of Irish Catholics by the British government during the Troubles in the north of Ireland.

He points to such notable cases of wrongful imprisonment as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, in which innocent Irish people were unjustly charged and imprisoned as "terrorists" by the British state on account of little more than being the wrong ethnicity in London during a brutal and prolonged bombing campaign carried out by the IRA.

Just as these injustices arose out of anti-Irish racism, Barrett sees similarities in the way Islamophobia and racism makes Ibrahim's detention more palatable to the Irish government and elements of Irish society.

Indeed, this is something that Ibrahim himself has clearly pondered. In a letter addressed to the Irish government asking why more wasn't being done on his behalf, he says that "it never crossed my mind that the Irish government would not work hard because I am not white, or with me not having an Irish name, or even because my religion".

The Sisi regime has certainly attempted to appeal to the Islamophobia and racism of much of the Western world to justify the necessity of its brutal rule, declaring that it can help police the walls of Fortress Europe, and appealing to the "war on terror" logic of human rights being necessarily subordinated to the security of the West.

Along with these aspects, Barrett points to the Irish people's history of resisting the injustices of British imperialism as a means to highlight that the response of the Irish government and its Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, to Ibrahim's imprisonment has been grossly inadequate.

Kenny said that "any inappropriate escalation of political intervention could well be counter-productive... to Mr Halawa's best interests".

But Barrett says that this is merely an excuse for the unwillingness of the Irish government to wield adequate pressure on the Egyptian regime on Ibrahim's behalf.

Barrett argues that the main motivation behind this inactivity lies in Egypt and Ireland's longstanding business relationship, particularly relating to the extremely lucrative cattle trade between the two countries.

Beef is one of Ireland's biggest exports, while Egypt imports a large percentage of its food produce. If the Irish government pressures the Egyptian regime for Ibrahim's release directly, the volatile Cairo administration might threaten to terminate such trade.

This is the cynical realpolitik, practiced by the West with cold regularity, which sees the human rights they so often champion completely discarded when it comes to the preservation of business and strategic relations with regimes that are consistently brutal.

Nowhere has this been more evident than with Sisi's Egypt, which, despite being one of the worst violators of human rights in the world, has been welcomed by the international community with open arms, with the US continuing to provide billions in aid to Cairo's ruling armed forces.

     Those who support progressive politics around the world must form the resistance to these injustices.

Barrett argues that this is precisely why those who support progressive politics around the world must form the resistance to these injustices.

One aspect of the Egyptian counter-revolution that Barrett can't quite fathom is the silence that there has been around the repression.

While he concedes that domestic issues tend to keep people occupied, he says that one of his goals is to point out the link between the repression in Egypt with the economic condition of Ireland - and how it provides the basis for the government to allow one of its citizens to languish in a foreign dungeon as a prisoner of conscience.

Ibrahim is one of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, but the campaign to free him can be used to raise awareness and build solidarity with all victims of Cairo's repression.

Given the extent to which the West tacitly or explicitly supports the Egyptian regime, it is the duty of progressives within these countries to work to expose the dimensions of these cruel power relations.

The alternative is to do nothing and make it easy for the Egyptian regime to unjustly imprison Ibrahim and the thousands of others who languish in Egyptian prisons.

There are some good precedents, namely the case of Australian journalist Peter Greste, who shared a cell with Ibrahim. Greste was wrongfully imprisoned by the Egyptian regime for more than 400 days, but released on bail after a worldwide campaign by his family, the international journalism community and strong lobbying by the Australian government.

And this is all Ibrahim, his sisters and those campaigning for him want from the Irish government - a more concerted effort to secure his release.

As Ibrahim himself put it: "How can any Irish foreign minister sleep at night knowing one of his people is innocent?"

In the coming weeks and months, this is a question that Ibrahim's sisters and those campaigning to bring him home will be trying to make impossible for the Irish government to avoid.

Opinions stated in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.