1 a.m. In six hours the sun will rise on another grey morning and I will dress in the cold and drive to Torah prison. I’ll park my car by an old train track that’s now a garbage dump and home to a pack of dogs and walk past a tank with a soldier staring at me and head towards the courtroom at the centre of Egypt’s contemporary justice system. I will flash an expired press card and talk in English to get through a crowd of young men and women arguing with policemen in sunglasses in the hope that they will be allowed inside to wave through layers of opaque glass and metal wiring at the shadows of their friends in the defendants’ cage.
I don’t want to go. I learned over the long empty months of 2014 to make myself numb, to close out the news and the world and the noise and the people, to look after myself. But this is the end of a long and petty story that we have been tied up in for fifteen months. A tiny protest outside the Shoura Council and a beating from the police and then a saga of farcical injustice. It doesn’t matter what happened, what the facts are, what the video evidence shows. They want Alaa. Want to shut him up. If it hadn’t been that protest it would have been another. The rumour is that Sisi personally wants Alaa away. And all that matters for the judges is the rumour.
The story has been written a hundred times. Egyptians are too battered or blinded or bereaved or brittle to care like they used to. Death no longer gets a reaction. Why should a prison sentence?
The world offers us its sympathies, emails of support arrive from Italy, from South Africa. And then? There is nothing more to say, what’s coming is coming.
8.30 a.m. After the dust-storm last week the sloppily mopped floor of the court-room was slick with water. Journalists and lawyers tried to clean their dirt-smeared pews before sitting down. The families of the defendants stood outside trying to talk their way in. Birds flew across the upper vaults of the room. The CCTV camera stood ever watchful directly above the judge’s bench where the stenographer writes up the proceedings by hand. The only thing that had changed since the trial’s beginning was the defendants’ cage. The metal grating had grown thicker, soundproof glass had been added, the jailed were being pushed out of sight. But you could see rough outlines, shadows. Alaa always stood at the front. I couldn’t make him out, but Manal, his wife, spotted him instantly. Sometimes the microphone stopped working and the cage fell silent and then one word was shouted from inside: ‘Mic!’
I sat behind an international journalist last time. He was there for the al-Jazeera case and sat writing an overdue story about fundamentalists in Libya, complaining on his email that he couldn’t control his days’ schedule, and paid about as much attention to the defence’s arguments as the judge did.
We’re driving south now, towards the prison, towards the court. The air is opaque with fog, the world hangs quiet in the first hours of the day. We sit in silence in the car. It feels like we are driving to an execution.
9.15 a.m. We’re outside the gates of the police academy. A new officer is shouting at the crowd. He chooses who will be let in, who will wait. Some journalists walk through; the rest of us are told to stand to one side. A grizzled old cop with an attack dog shouts at us to get to the side. Dozens of police trucks rumble past. A helicopter circles low overhead. The sky is a dull grey.
A horn blares from far away and keeps sounding. People turn. A police truck is racing towards us, it’s not slowing down, people scramble to the side and start calling out their names: ‘Kalousha! Yassin! Alaa!’ Our friends and family are in the van but we can’t hear them over the screaming horn and in seconds it has ploughed through and disappeared into the fortress.
We go back to waiting.
Manal stands to one side, smiling, patient as always. She is writing Alaa a letter. We read on Twitter that the defendants arrive, that Alaa is in the cage. He will be scanning the crowd for a sight of her.
10.55 a.m. The news comes. Five years for Alaa, five years for Ahmed. Three years for everyone else and 100,000 pounds fine for each.
The crowd outside the gate falls silent. Then there’s the sound of someone’s mother crying. Some people start chanting the old battle cry of ‘Down, down with military rule!’ Others try to hurry them away from the police and their dogs and their untrained trigger fingers.
I feel flat. This was expected. This is how this state works. This is why there was a revolution. It failed and here we are.
Friends that had got into the courtroom start coming out. They say the boys are OK. That they clapped when they heard the sentence, that they stood up straight, that they clapped at their injustice until they were led out of the cage and back to their prison cells.