The Verdict

Omar Robert Hamilton

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.


  • 24 February 2015 at 11:02am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    With friends like these, who needs enemies? Egypt and Saudi Arabia are dear friends to the USA and Western Europe. After all they buy a lot of weaponry from us. The blogger in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 1000 lashes - is there any way that such treatment can be justified? 'Western' leaders express outrage over the punishments doled out by IS assassins but it's OK to treat people this way is it? As long as we keep the refugees out of Europe we can sleep soundly. Something rotten in the state of Denmark.

  • 2 March 2015 at 10:24pm
    Anonymus says:
    But wasn’t this all predictable? I remember reading the work of Hamilton and like-minded activists during the coup/ revolution of 30 June. (The very fact that we cannot agree on what to call this popular uprising/ revolution/ coup, in which a much larger segment of Egyptian society participated than in the 25 January coup/ revolution, says something.) Did they not think that Egypt would have to pay a steep price to the army for having “saved” the country from “collapse” under the Muslim Brotherhood? Idealists like Hamilton and other Egyptian activists praised the 30 June uprising but weeks later changed their minds. This is the gist of the problem: a lack of consistency and political acumen. Examine the roots of the crises that have defined Egyptian society for the past century, and you will realize that slogans and ideals aren’t enough to reform Egyptian society. The pendulum will always swing between different forms of oppression. Indeed, oppression defines the mentality of Egyptian political life, just as it defines the politics of many other parts of the world with traumatic histories. One must ask not “what is the best form of the government” but “what is the least harmful form of government” for the Egyptian people. Egypt has been ruled by soldiers since the days of the Mamelukes. As for the more recent past, it will not take one generation but many generations to erase the damage done in the last century of Egyptian and Middle Eastern history. Revisiting the role of Nasser is key here. He is the bete noire from whom the other betes noires dictators took their cue. The great tragedy of the 2011 and 2013 revolution is that no leading figure emerged other than Gen. Sisi. There was a vacuum, but after the coup/ revolution of 30 June, Sisi was by far the most popular politician in Egypt. A "liberal" like Baradai didn't stand a chance. (Anyone living in Cairo at that time will remember the creepy posters with Gen. Sisi with sunglasses and epaulettes. This image alone says so much.) This is not propaganda or exaggeration. Nobody from Hamilton’s “constituency” could ever achieve such popularity. This is not to disparage Sisi’s popularity as a “character flaw” of the Egyptian people; it is merely the result of deep fear at the possibility of civil war and state collapse and the consequent belief that a “strong man” was the only one who could save the country from ruin. Indeed, the appeal of the ideas of Hamilton and like-minded activists do not extend beyond the one mile radius of Downtown Cairo and several cafes and bars that lie within this narrow perimeter, narrow both physically and intellectually. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, the activists were mere shills in an ugly game between the army and other forces in Egyptian society. Perhaps one can speak of la trahison des clercs. That would be a worthy subject for an article, i.e. the failure of the Egyptian intellectual class to form an adequate response to the current crisis. The average Egyptian is far too intelligent to fall for such naive fantasies and knows, much like many Ukrainians now do, that a corrupt and oppressive state is still preferable to a failed state, even if the forces of oppression define this choice. This rationale is the consequence of decades of oppression. The absurdism of the "vanguard" is a welcome alternative on an aesthetic level, but it cannot be a substitute for real politics. (After all, how many Egyptian novels and films deal with the recurrent trope of the disillusioned idealist intellectual?) Justice and injustice are relative categories in the last several centuries of Middle Eastern history. Slogans about “freedom” and “justice” sound nice to the ears of LRB readers who never set foot in Egypt. The reality on the ground is much different though. I do not like Sisi, but, if I were an Egyptian, I would probably support him, just as I would support Bashar al-Assad if I were a Syrian Alawite, Christian or Sunni from Damascus. Despite knowing that Assad killed tens of thousands of his “own people,” I would still rather live under his brutal regime than have my head cut off by Isis. Whatever Hamilton and like-minded idealists like Peter Pomerantsev write in the pages of the LRB, the cruel reality of life is that one dictator, one center of oppression, is far better than a hundred petty warlords brutally ruling their little fiefdoms. These are the unfortunate facts of life, and the sooner one comes to terms with them, the better. There is nothing more dangerous than political idealism. There is a joke. An Englishman and an Eastern European are neighbors. They compare their lawns. The Eastern European asks: “Why is your lawn so green and lush, and why is my lawn yellow and dry?” The Englishman responds: “I have been watering my lawn for seven hundred years.” Perhaps the correct thing for a citizen of the United Kingdom would be to examine how the policies of British colonialism resulted in irreparable damage to so many parts of the world, from the poisoned blankets they gave to the Iroquois to the divisions of Palestine, Ireland, India and Cyprus, to their dalliance with American imperialism in the 21st century. Why so much evil? This is the question we should be asking. Why did the British ensure that so many parts of the world would be hellholes as a consequence of their policies? Was it on purpose? Will their government ever apologize and pay the reparations that are due? At lest the Germans apologized. I could not imagine anything more twisted, perverse or evil than British policy in Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the past hundred and fifty years. What Hitler failed to do in a decade, the British succeeded in doing over a much longer period of time.

  • 10 April 2015 at 2:42pm
    Omar Robert Hamilton says:
    I only just saw this comment now and will only point out that I certainly did not cheer on the coup. You can see the pieces I wrote at the time here:

    • 1 March 2016 at 10:30pm
      Egyptwatcher says: @ Omar Robert Hamilton
      Omar, in your post 'Totalitarian Democracy' of 19 July 2013, you wrote that: "after a year [of Morsi's rule], people felt that their lives were continuing to worsen, Egyptians took to the streets in the millions—a revolutionary act that also, since it keeps coming up, happened to be profoundly democratic. The Tamarod (Rebel) movement was, in essence, a recall vote — something that might have been worked into the new constitution if Egyptians had been truly involved in the writing of it."

      I accept that you did not stand in the streets on 30 June waving a little flag and talking about how dishy Sisi is. But what you did in this article was, in many ways, more damaging. You use your gravitas as a serious activist to criticise a journalist for, essentially, calling a coup a coup, and like a lot of activists did at that time, you pushed the idea that Egypt's revolution was special and unique, and this coup was part of it; maybe not an ideal part, but part none the less. The people took to the streets and "the revolution continues," you said.

      This was a grave misreading. A general removing an elected president generally leads in one direction only, and that's Pinochet's Chile. By criticising and attacking those who pointed out this dark path, you provided an apologia for a brutal military takeover. I don't have space here to point out how effectively the regime has deployed this message, over and over again and with different audiences. I don't doubt your failure to call a spade a spade was unwitting and that it is hard for you to reflect on now. But it did happen and it is something that should be acknowledged and reckoned with.