Time Out with Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen meets Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology.

When an old friend heard I would be seeing Simon Baron-Cohen, she asked if I could describe her family to him and then ask a question. I did my best. My friend is a wife and mother of two, I told him when we met at his Cambridge college. She is a highly numerate and purposeful woman who has had a successful career in the City. Her husband is also good at maths and a successful City analyst. He is a quiet, handsome and loyal man. People who have known him for years consider themselves lucky to count him as a friend. But he's not at his best when making small talk with strangers.

Their son is on the autistic spectrum. He's a clever boy, but his life is cursed because he can't handle the confusion of everyday life: the echoes of the swimming pool and the screams of the playground are torments; the relationships others manage instinctively are like trips into a wilderness without a map. Their daughter is almost a teenager and is the spit of her mother. She, too, prefers numbers to losing herself in fiction, and, although it is hard to predict the woman from the girl, I can see her repeating her parents' success.

"She wants to know what to tell her daughter about men," I relayed. "Should she advise her to look for someone who is the opposite of her - the life and soul of the party, who can read a stranger's emotions in a glance and share their joys and woes? Should she warn her about strong, silent types, in case she ends up with an autistic boy of her own?"

"Ah, assortative mating," said the Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology, "the research on that is just beginning and it's very early days. This idea that certain types of women should think about who they marry if they want to minimise the risk hasn't been tested. But . . ." And he went off into a long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality.

As I listened, I thought about the intellectual revolution being brought by the full acceptance that the brain is a product of evolution. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, our conversation would have been impossible. Baron-Cohen would have been wary of speaking his mind for fear that demonstrators would churn up the grass of the quad at Trinity College and that his right-thinking colleagues in the social sciences departments would denounce him as some kind of fascist.

The consensus after the Second World War was that the mind was a blank slate. It evolved at some point, obviously, but now environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature. The ideological reason for believing that human beings were solely the product of their cultures was a generally well-meant reaction against social Darwinism and "scientific" racism. But it had the consequence of turning apparently liberal men and women into deniers of the legacies of evolution who were just as fanatical in their way as the most boneheaded southern Baptist. In 1975, when Edward O Wilson wrote about the biological bases for human behaviour in his ground-breaking Sociobiology: the new synthesis, the American Anthropological Association debated a motion that condemned him for "attempting to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society", an anathema Time magazine likened to the Catholic Church's assault on Galileo.

"Female" compassion

If anything, Baron-Cohen is a greater heretic because he appears to be saying that men and women have different kinds of intelligence. Men are more likely than women to "systemise" the outside world, his argument runs. They are quicker to see patterns, create organisations and make predictions. Women are better at empathising with others, feeling their emotions and producing a sympathetic response. Autism, in his view, is an extreme "male brain", which allows autistics to pick apart systems while showing little or no understanding of the people around them. He hastily adds that when he talks about "male" and "female" brains, he is talking about averages. Women, like my friend, can have "male" brains and be brilliant financial analysts. Men can have "female" brains and be compassionate social workers. Gender isn't destiny.

But then, who reads the caveats when the urge to join a righteous frenzy breaks? In 2005, all hell broke loose when Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested that along with sexist hiring practices and career breaks for childbirth, the relatively small number of exceptional women mathematicians and physicists may also have a biological explanation. He resigned shortly afterwards.

Baron-Cohen's account of how the "male" brain may have evolved is even more of an offence to conventional pieties. In The Essential Difference, he speculates that the men who fathered the most children in early human societies may have collected and kept harems of wives because they were exceptionally aggressive. A violent man is almost by definition good at systemising when he plans his attacks, but hopeless at empathising with his victims' suffering. In support of his hypothesis, he quoted a study by James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon of the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela. Whereas, in industrial societies, murderers lose their social status, Baron-Cohen wrote, "among the Yanomamö, men who kill other men end up with higher social status".

He didn't seem to know it, but the punishment Chagnon and Neel received for questioning the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage was a scandalous campaign of vilification. Their accusers falsely claimed that they had deliberately unleashed a lethal measles epidemic on the Yanomamö and been the dupes of loggers who wanted to steal Indian land. As Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom say of the affair in their fine polemic Why Truth Matters, their enemies didn't care whether what Chagnon and Neel reported was right or wrong. "From the perspective of postmodernism, social science, as a science, is just another mechanism for objectifying and oppressing people, and it is, therefore, to be resisted."

Baron-Cohen didn't want trouble, but couldn't escape uncomfortable evidence. He began working with autistic children as a young man. He saw the sadness of their parents, who gave much but got little back, but was also fascinated by the problem of why so many of the children were boys. "Amazingly, although lots of research had gone into autism, no one was looking at that stark fact, even though nature was giving us a big clue about causality."

He studied test results from the general population and found that, in tests where women did well, autistic children did badly, and in tests where men did well, autistic children did well, too. Further experiments emphasised the "masculinity" of autism. He found that newborn boys, untouched by culture, were more likely than girls to look at a mobile than a human face, and a connection between the testosterone levels that three-month-old foetuses experienced in pregnancy and their ability to learn language when they were toddlers.

Autism may be a strength

Like Darwin with The Origin of Species, Baron-Cohen was careful and delayed the publication of his full findings. His first step was to test the water with a tentative lecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "I expected to be attacked either by feminists or by Americans in general, because in the States there's much more of a climate of 'you can become everything that you want'. The idea that biology might be more deterministic than we previously thought, well, I was worried it might be unfashionable there."

But he experienced none of the almost Maoist levels of denunciation that greeted his predecessors. Baron-Cohen explains the protests that never came by saying: "There is now a more open-minded climate and you can talk about sex differences in the mind without fear of the accusation of either sexism or essentialism." To that, I would add that the extreme male brain is not something many feminists would wish for their daughters, even if it does on occasion produce brilliant thinkers.

In contrast to his less interesting cousin, Sacha, Simon Baron-Cohen is a wonderfully humane man. The most compelling instance is his attitude to the "anti-cure" wing of the fractious "autism community". I expected a hard-headed scientist who has dismissed so many of the comforting assumptions of the late 20th century to have little time for politically correct radicals who insist that they are "autistics" rather than "people with autism" because their autism isn't an add-on, but the defining feature of their personality. Not a bit of it.

Baron-Cohen refuses to call autism a disorder, and is dubious about researchers in America who are trying to produce drugs to improve the social skills of autistics. "What will the costs be?" he asks. "What will we lose? Autism involves disability, but it also involves areas of strength - fantastic attention to detail and a good memory. There are aspects of autism to be proud of that can lead to gifts and talents."

Inclusion not the answer

He was less angry about the nonsensical MMR mania than I imagined he would be, because it at least forced the government to think about autism as it tried to combat the mass hysteria. His ambition now is to use that interest to make ministers realise their superficially benign doctrine of "inclusiveness" is bringing unnecessary suffering. Their "inclusive" national curriculum is hopeless for children on the autistic spectrum because autistics find "the lack of precision in discussing a novel frightening compared to the precision involved in getting an answer to a mathematical problem. That's not necessarily a disability; it just means they should be channelled off in one direction." Meanwhile, the closure of special schools and the dumping of autistic children in the "inclusive" mainstream can sound sweet and may help some, but it has left many others exposed to horrible bullying.

My guess is that the Ruth Kelly affair will help his cause. The true hypocrisy of her behaviour lay not so much in a Labour minister going private, as in a former education secretary whose government had closed state special schools sending her dyslexic son to an excellent private special school, which protects children while it turns them round. Baron-Cohen believes there are many more who need protecting. "We see a lot of people in adulthood who dropped out of education because, by secondary school, if you are not good at socialising then you are not tolerated. If only they could skip teenage and go straight to adulthood, they could find jobs in technology or science."

My friend's eight-year-old son knows he has autism. "My brain is scribbled," he says. "But that's good because it makes me clever. When I grow up I will find a cure, but I will keep my brain scribbled because I want to stay clever."

The last time I phoned his mother, she had the prospectus for the school chosen by Ruth Kelly on her knees, so maybe the boy will find a cure that he can himself refuse to take. In any event, his parents have the money to make sure he will have the chance of staying clever, a chance that should be available to all of his contemporaries.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

Show Hide image

Where are all the people going?

In a new wave of repression under the Sisi regime, Egyptians are being forcibly disappeared.

On Monday 1 June, Esraa el-Taweel, a 23-year-old sociology student, went out for dinner with two of her friends to Chili’s, a branch of a Tex-Mex chain that is popular among middle-class Egyptians. The restaurant is on a large ship permanently moored on the Nile in the Zamalek district, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in central Cairo. Esraa often hung out with Souhaib Sa’ad, an economics and politics undergraduate, and Omar Ali, who, when he wasn’t lounging around the city’s many cafés, could be found at an architecture college. Both men are slim with curly hair and Esraa is short, wears colourful hijabs and sometimes uses a cane to walk. Less than 18 months earlier, she had been shot in the spine by security forces at a demonstration. Despite months of physiotherapy, the feeling had not fully returned to her legs.

Earlier that afternoon, Omar had picked Esraa up from her home, as he had often done since her injury, and they went horse riding near the Pyramids. Souhaib joined them later at Chili’s. They liked to try a new restaurant every week and Omar, who initiated the tradition, had never been there before. When they finished their meal, they goofed around taking selfies. At about 8.30pm, after Souhaib had completed his evening prayers, they stepped out on to the corniche, the uneven, tree-lined pavement that runs between the river and a quiet, two-lane road. Shortly afterwards, the three friends disappeared.

By 11pm, Esraa’s younger sister Duaa, with whom she shares an apartment in Cairo, started to worry. Duaa tried calling several times but Esraa’s mobile was switched off, as were Souhaib’s and Omar’s. She tried to reassure herself that Esraa might be staying with a friend, but the next morning she learned that Souhaib and Omar were also missing. The families of the three students decided to wait until 3pm, when Souhaib was due to report to a police station as part of his bail conditions. He had been detained in January 2014 after police found footage of anti-government protests on his phone and he was one of the less-publicised defendants in the trial against the al-Jazeera journalists accused of spreading false news and supporting the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood. After more than 400 days in jail, Souhaib was freed in February pending a retrial, but had to report to the
police daily. If he didn’t show up, the families would know for certain that something was seriously wrong.

Souhaib missed the bail appointment. Relatives of the trio began to look for them frantically in hospitals and police stations across the city but found nothing. Esraa’s parents and three of her younger siblings live in Saudi Arabia, where her father works as a translator, and though her mother boarded the first available flight to Cairo, Duaa, who is 22, and her younger sister Alaa had to manage alone for the three days.

On Wednesday 3 June, 48 hours after Esraa was last seen, Duaa filed a missing person report with the prosecutor general, the standard first step when anyone goes missing in Egypt. She and a few friends set up a Facebook page and launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #Where_is_Esraa. They produced a video of her and posted it online. The film opens with footage of Esraa on her bicycle: she waves at the photographer and cycles into the distance. It shows a series of still photos of her with her arms wide open, a camera flung around her neck and a floppy sun hat over her headscarf, and she grins, wearing pink Mickey Mouse ears. Even in the final shot, taken while she was in a wheelchair, with a blanket over her legs and a laptop on her knees, she is smiling.

The video doesn’t show how Esraa struggled with her six-month confinement in a wheelchair – the countless times she tried to lift herself out of it, only to fall on the floor and cry with frustration – but Duaa thinks that it captures her elder sister’s personality. “She’s childlike. She just loves going out and playing and hanging out with her friends,” she said, when we first met at a Zamalek café in mid-July.

Duaa, an art student, is tiny and dresses trendily, her wavy hair piled high on her head, her iPod headphones dangling out of her handbag. She answered my questions carefully, almost robotically, and each time she finished speaking she slumped into her  chair as though she had been pushed. Esraa disappeared during Duaa’s end-of-year exams and, although some friends rallied around her, helping her to submit her coursework so that she wouldn’t fail, others were told by their parents to stay away from the el-Taweel family to avoid getting caught up in the case.

The two sisters are very close. Duaa moved to Cairo from Saudi Arabia for her studies in July 2011, a year after Esraa, and her elder sister seemed to have grown streetwise in the time they had spent apart. Two days after Duaa arrived in the city, Esraa took her to her first demonstration. When the crowd was attacked by beltagiya (“thugs”), the sisters were so scared for one another that they decided they would never protest together again, though they often went separately. I once suggested to Duaa that the way she handled her sister’s disappearance was brave but she just shrugged. She told me that she often wished that their roles were reversed: Esraa would have known what to do.

In the weeks after the disappearances, the photographs of the missing trio circulated online and the questions of their friends, relatives and young people – “Where is Esraa?” “Where is Souhaib?” “Where is Omar?” – echoed unanswered on Twitter and Facebook. Yet the families were starting to build up a picture of what had happened. They approached contacts in the security forces, who reported that all three had been arrested and were being detained. Former inmates at Egypt’s national security headquarters also reported seeing the trio there. Yet, without official acknowledgement, there was little that anyone could do. Esraa’s lawyer, Halim Hanish, told me that he had presented the families’ evidence to the prosecutor general’s office but received no response.

The three students had joined the swelling ranks of Egypt’s forcibly disappeared. The Freedom for the Brave group, a loose network of activists, lawyers and detainees’ families that monitors such cases, recorded that 163 people had been secretly detained by Egyptian security forces between April and June this year. Hanish, a member of the group, said that the figure could be higher, as some families are too afraid to speak out. Another local NGO, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, announced in August that it had recorded 1,250 cases since January. Sometimes, the disappeared are eventually located in a jail or at a police station. Often, new arrivals at a prison will find an inmate who is expecting a visit and ask them to pass on their name, family contact details and a short message. Families can be left waiting for days, weeks or months for news of missing relatives. Discovering that they are in prison is one of the better possible outcomes: occasionally, the disappeared resurface dead.


In 2011, many Egyptians believed that revolution was a way to end such police abuses. One of those who inspired the uprising did not live to see tens of thousands of people across the country take to the streets to chant their demands for “bread, freedom and social justice”. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old man who was beaten to death by security forces after being arrested at an internet café in 2010. A Facebook group created in his honour declared “We are all Khaled Said” and gathered hundreds of thousands of online supporters in the months leading up to the 2011 protests.

Wandering around Cairo today, you might still catch a glimpse of Said’s youthful likeness memorialised in graffiti: a clean-cut, wide-eyed kid in a hoodie. It is a symbol of defiance or, perhaps, of disappointment. In February 2011, when Egypt’s then president, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown after almost 30 years in power, the interim authorities were quick to abolish the much feared State Security Investigations Service, which was responsible for crushing dissent, replacing it with the Homeland Security agency. But in the past two years, following the popularly backed military overthrow in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Homeland Security has become ever more powerful.

Following years of unrest, Egypt’s military leadership promised peace and stability – after the bloodshed. In its first few months in power, it sought to regain control over the country’s streets by launching a brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing more than 1,000 protesters and arresting many more. In July 2014, an official from the interior ministry told the Associated Press that 22,000 people had been detained in the year since Morsi was ousted, most of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a local group monitoring political arrests, believes that the figure is closer to 41,000. Several prominent secular activists have also been arrested.

An armed insurgency in Sinai, where jihadists have declared loyalty to the so-called Islamic State, and a steady series of terrorist attacks in the rest of the country have convinced many Egyptians that their country needs the new marque of authoritarianism offered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s imperious leader. Al-Sisi, who led the 2013 takeover and was elected the following year with an eyebrow-raising 96 per cent of the vote, had served as head of military intelligence under Mubarak. His new interior minister, appointed in March, shares a similar pedigree: Magdy Abdel Ghaffar is a former chief of Homeland Security. “It’s like the security services are controlling everything in Egypt now,” Nada Saad, a human rights lawyer, told me.

It might seem that Egypt’s security state is simply returning to its old ways but that is not quite accurate. The feeling, often expressed by activists and lawyers here, is that this new wave of repression seems to sweep up citizens indiscriminately. Mohamed Elmessiry, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told me that he had spoken to someone who had spent 11 years in detention under Mubarak and then been detained by Homeland Security. “[He] said at least under the Mubarak government, national security knew what they were doing and who they wanted. National security [operatives] now are completely random: they arrest people randomly; they charge and investigate and torture people randomly.”


On 17 June, the first day of Ramadan and 16 days after Esraa went missing, Duaa finally saw her sister. A stranger had called Duaa to say that she had spotted Esraa in al-Qanater women’s prison in Cairo. When Duaa arrived at the gate of al-Qanater, the guard on duty remembered the young woman who had arrived alone and been unable to walk, and advised Duaa to wait with him rather than go inside the prison. Though neither the family nor her lawyers had been informed, Esraa was due to be transferred to court for a hearing. A few minutes later, Duaa saw her sister being escorted into a police van. She called out her name and Esraa, fearing for Duaa’s safety, burst into tears and asked her to leave. Duaa called Halim Hanish, the lawyer acting for her sister.

Hanish and Esraa are good friends. They met during the 2011 street protests and when, on 25 January 2014, Esraa was shot at a peaceful demonstration outside the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, he carried her to hospital. He says that they were protesting in favour of a “third way” that rejects both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. It’s not uncommon now for Hanish to represent old friends. “You have to comfort them, even while you know for sure that nothing good is happening any time soon,” he said. “You have to comfort the families, as well. You have to lie to their faces, look them in the eye and tell them how it seems bright, insha’Allah they will be fine, even though you know [they won’t be]. It gets to you eventually.”

After the call from Duaa on 17 June, Hanish rushed to the prosecution office but was repeatedly told that Esraa was not there. Then he saw her from a distance. He shouted out to Esraa, to tell her that she was no longer alone and he was here for her now. As a result, he says, her hearing was cancelled because the prosecution lawyer wanted to speak to her privately. According to Amnesty International’s Elmessiry, this fits a common pattern for forced disappearances: often the first, second and sometimes third court investigations are conducted while the families are still unaware of their missing relative’s location and while the defendant does not have legal representation. This allows Homeland Security more freedom to conduct the initial investigation and usually extract a confession, which will form the basis of the case against the detainee.

It was not until 27 June that Hanish was able to attend a hearing. The judge said that he needed more time to consider the case against her and postponed her session until 29 June, but that day the prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, was killed in Cairo in a bomb attack. Esraa did not appear in court until 11 July and since then her pre-trial detention has been renewed every 15 days.

Hanish understands that Esraa has been charged with belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading false news and disturbing the public by showing footage of police brutality but he knows this only informally: his requests to see the report against her, which details the reasons for her arrest, have been refused. So, too, was a request for her to be moved closer to hospital so that she can receive treatment for her back problems. The ministry of interior did not respond to my requests for an interview, though previously officials have insisted that her detention was legal and have issued denials that forced disappearances take place. Esraa’s family and friends deny all charges against her.

The only available account of Esraa’s ­two-week disappearance is an open letter that her family smuggled out of prison, which was published on local news websites. She wrote that shortly after she and her friends left Chili’s, three men stopped them to ask for their ID cards and mobiles and then forced them into a minibus similar to those that operate as shared taxis in Cairo. Souhaib and Omar were blindfolded and one of the men – who identified himself as an “officer” – asked Esraa to use her hijab to cover her eyes. When her headscarf proved too short, Souhaib took off his T-shirt and she used that instead.

They were driven to Homeland Security headquarters, where she stayed for 15 days. Her blindfold was removed only at night, when often Esraa would ask for one light to be kept on so at least she would see something. “Day-long investigations, hearing voices and screams of tortured victims, men crying out loudly. Souhaib and Omar were taken away and I was alone. I was the only girl
there,” she wrote. On her final day at Homeland Security, before she was moved to al-Qanater, she was interrogated for 18 hours.

Esraa wrote another letter on 28 July. At times, it makes her she come across like a giddy teenager, joking that it is terrible to be stuck in an all-women’s prison as: “Everyone who knows me well knows that most of my close friends are guys. Do you know how tragic this is? J” She describes a cosy companionship with her cell mates (they eat crisps and drink chocolate milk together) but also the hardships: the cockroaches, the heat, the rationed bottled water and the tap water that smells like sewage and gives her skin infections, her worsening mobility, the boredom, the harassment from the “criminal” inmates. She seems to oscillate between dejection (“Sometimes I think, ‘Why do I eat? Why should I still survive?’”) and defiance, quoting the Egyptian activist Mahinour El-Masry: “We don’t like prisons but we’re not afraid of them.”


On 16 June – the day before Duaa caught sight of Esraa – Omar and Souhaib were spotted in Tora, a sprawling prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo. It wasn’t until 10 July, however, that their lawyer, Mohamed Elbaker, learned of the charges against them in a ministry of defence video that named Souhaib and Omar as part of “one of the most dangerous terrorist cells” of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged that they had been arrested at their organisation’s headquarters.

Souhaib is shown confessing to purchasing a pistol later used to kill a police officer, and to giving protesters fireworks to throw at security forces. You could easily fail to recognise him. His nose and lips are swollen, he is pale and he seems confused. Elbaker says that his client was tortured for ten days before filming.

I met Elbaker in the discreet, unmarked office of Adalah, an organisation he helped set up to represent victims of torture and students in detention. It moves every few months to avoid police raids. Elbaker wore a striped polo shirt and had a long, square beard; at the top of his forehead he had a zabeeba, or “raisin”, a patch of darkened skin that is worn down by Islamic prayer. He reeled off a list of his affiliations – a group called the Costa Salafis, which holds interfaith discussions at branches of Costa Coffee, and the Strong Egypt political party, which was founded by a reformist former leader of the Brotherhood – but said that his greatest political commitment was to human rights. It was 1 August and Elbaker told me that he was trying to record officially the torture used against Souhaib and Omar. Souhaib still had marks on his body but Omar, who did not appear in the ministry of defence film, was in a worse condition. He still could not lift up one of his arms and he was suffering from urinary problems as a result of being repeatedly electrocuted.

The use of torture by national security forces in Egypt has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and local rights groups (the Egyptian government periodically refutes their findings). New arrivals at a prison or police centre can expect what is commonly referred to as a haflat al-tashreefa (“welcoming party”), in which guards beat them up. My discussions with lawyers and rights groups suggest that the torture taking place in state security or military intelligence buildings is more systematic: detainees are often blindfolded and may be beaten, suspended from the ceiling, electrocuted, burned with cigarettes or raped to extract a recorded confession.

To be transferred from national security detention to prison is like “going to heaven”, Elbaker says, because it brings with it an end to this torture. Still, Omar’s and Souhaib’s struggle is not over. Unlike Esraa, they are facing a military trial. Their case now falls under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defence, not the justice ministry, and their judge (though fully trained) will be a military official.

A presidential decree of late 2014 has facilitated an increase in the use of military courts against civilians in Egypt. Halim Hanish, who is also representing Omar, described working on a military case as “a hundred times more difficult” than working on a national security case. Lawyers can’t bring their phones into court, so they can spend hours waiting around, unable to contact their colleagues or other clients, and are searched on their way in. Sometimes, they can’t take pens or papers inside. He ­remembers that once a lawyer was forced to take off his shoes and socks in case he was hiding paper in them.

Other than Souhaib’s filmed confession, the Egyptian ministry of defence has not made public any evidence in support of its accusations. The men’s lawyers say that they have not been allowed to see the prosecution reports. Both Souhaib’s and Omar’s fathers had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood – Omar’s was killed by security forces at a Brotherhood protest in August 2013 – but their lawyers and families insist that they do not share their fathers’ views and are not members of the group. Everyone I spoke to about Omar described him as fundamentally uninterested in politics – as Hanish, who knows him well, put it: “If you meet Omar for an hour, he will spend 45 minutes talking about food.”

Souhaib was different; he took to the streets to protest in 2011 and frequently after that. But his brother, Osama, told me that Souhaib worked on the presidential campaign of Strong Egypt’s leader, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh. This suggests that Souhaib is critical of al-Sisi’s government but unlikely to be a member of the Brotherhood. The problem that Omar and Souhaib now face, however, is that the military video will now form the basis of the case against them. They are, in effect, guilty unless proven innocent.

When those who were forcibly disappeared emerge again, they must navigate a legal system that is already mobilised against them. The terms of their detention violate international as well as Egypt’s domestic laws. Egyptian law contains specific provisions banning the use of torture, requiring that detainees receive adequate medical attention and specifying that individuals may not be held in police custody for longer than 24 hours without charge.

Souhaib’s detention has caused him the additional complication that he ended up missing sessions of the Jazeera trial. When he finally did appear in court on 29 June, he tried to tell the judge why he had been absent, explaining that he had been held in secret detention for 15 days and tortured. The judge cut Souhaib off, saying that he could register a separate complaint if he wished but the information was irrelevant. On 29 August, Souhaib was sentenced to three years in jail in the Jazeera case – but the other charges against him are so serious that this news barely mattered to him.

Ezzat Ghoneim and Mohamed Sadek, lawyers with the Egyptian Co-ordination for Rights and Freedoms, told me that they tried to file a case at Egypt’s highest court, the court of cassation, to force the prosecutor general to investigate the disappearances. Their case has been rejected several times and they are currently appealing the decision. Neither is feeling optimistic. Those who defend the disappeared do so at great personal risk. In February, a lawyer died at a police station after being tortured. “We face harassment all the time. We always work in fear,” Halim Hanish told me. But last year, Souhaib’s bewildered and devastated father, Sa’ad, who had worked for many years as a metalworker, decided to enrol in law school. He has completed his first year of studies now and spends his evenings hunched over his books. If it’s too late to help his son, he reasons, he might yet be able to offer counsel to others.


The last time that I met Duaa el-Taweel was on 1 September, three months after Esraa’s disappearance. We chatted in Esraa’s bedroom, sitting on her floral bedspread, surrounded by her bright-coloured cuddly toys. A month earlier, Esraa’s beloved cat, Woody, had three kittens and Duaa had named them Esraa, Souhaib and Omar.

Duaa’s and her mother’s routine now revolves around their weekly visits to al-Qanater prison. They always bring her favourite foods, such as kofte and pizza – and deliver messages from Omar and Souhaib. It can take two weeks for the notes to arrive but they have helped the three friends keep up their old banter. Esraa jokes about how she, unlike the boys, has a bed. Omar writes that he can’t imagine Esraa in jail as she’s so pernickety about food and she replies that he’s not exactly tough, either.

Every week, Esraa tells her sister that this might be her last visit: perhaps next week she’ll be free. Then another seven days pass and Duaa makes the trip again.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left