Immersed in death: on a packed commuter train in New York on the day JFK got shot, there is only one headline. (Photo: Getty Images)
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The assassin’s creed

The killings of Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy all seemed world-changing events. But is assassination anything other than an act of petty vanity?

It was a grey January day in St Petersburg in 1878 when Vera Zasulich, a young nihilist, made the short journey to the office of the city’s governor, General Fyodor Trepov. Here the general listened to petitions and examined complaints. A crowd of people had gathered in the cold. Zasulich waited in line for her turn to approach the great man. At last they spoke, and just as Trepov was turning from her to deal with the next supplicant, she pulled a gun from under her cloak and fired at him at point-blank range. The bullet burst into his pelvis, wounding but not killing him. Zasulich threw down the gun, stood quite still, and waited to be arrested. They beat her, of course, and then bundled her into a room, and then wondered a little feebly what to do with her next.

As they deliberated in the immediate aftermath of her deed, Zasulich moved from moments of dissociation and strangeness to an honest desire to offer advice to her baffled captors. Her words are quoted in a collection of revolutionary-era Russian memoirs, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, edited by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N Rosenthal:

My foresight, and consequently my precise plan of action, did not extend beyond the moment of attack. But every minute my joy increased – not because I was in full control of myself . . . but rather because I found myself in an extraordinary state of the most complete invulnerability, such as I had never before experienced. Nothing at all could confuse me, annoy me, or tire me. Whatever was being thought up by those men, at that time conversing animatedly in another corner of the room, I would regard them calmly, from a distance they could not cross.

This mingled feeling of elation and satisfaction appears often in the personal accounts of assassins; the work has been done and, in the process, their own lives thrown away. A sudden liberation from the burden of self fills them; they ascend to a height above life. They have realised themselves in the perfection of a deed.

Zasulich’s act succeeded by virtue of its comparative failure. Her shooting of Trepov was an act of revenge, after he had ordered an innocent man to be badly whipped in the house of detention on account of a small act of insubordination. Put on trial for her retaliation, she found herself acquitted unexpectedly; indignation against Trepov and sympathy for Zasulich’s courage meant only one possible end to the trial, despite the weight of evidence against her. That she had only wounded her man no doubt also facilitated her acquittal.

At the end of the trial, there were wild scenes of jubilation in court. Almost everyone was elated; only the judge and Zasulich were suitably sober. The result depressed the judge, who knew that it made a nonsense of the law, and disheartened Zasulich, who had been deprived of her death. She was confronted by the terrible responsibility of living on; freedom had been returned to her.

Zasulich’s state of mind following her attempt at murder is symptomatic of the “archetypal assassin” from the French Revolution onwards, that is, the assassin who struck at a prominent political figure for idealistic and ideological reasons. It illustrates how the results of assassination were perhaps always less vital to the perpetrators than the sheer exhilaration and abandonment central to the deed. There is no question that they also looked for a kind of political “success” in such murders, but in fact such triumphs were always more limited and less vital than the psychological rewards: the desire, in a righteous deed, to justify the self and in the same instant to escape its trammels.

It is doubtful how far assassinations have worked as an instrument of political or revolutionary change. In most cases, such murders have made only a negligible impression on events; the chaos and instability they carry with them have nearly always meant more than the change brought about by the deed.

One of the Great Courses, those DVD lecture series advertised in the New York Review of Books or the LRB, is on Events That Changed History. Two of its 36 defining moments are assassinations – the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the killing of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Both events look world-changing, but were they?

The assassination on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo is a textbook example of contingency in historical matters. Along the Appel Quay, where the visiting Austrian archduke, his wife and their entourage were scheduled to drive past, waited seven adolescent assassins, some of them still schoolboys, all determined to kill their man and spark a situation that might lead to Bosnia joining a Greater Serbia. The car swept by, passing the first assassin, who could not act, as a policeman was standing by him in the crowd. The second assassin was more fortunate, and lobbed a nail bomb that landed on the opened bonnet of the car. The archduke swiftly scooped it up and threw it back on to the road, where it exploded as it hit the ground. One soldier was injured by the blast; 70 holes punctured the car. The bomb-thrower bit into a cyanide capsule but the poison was old and its potency was gone. He pushed past the bystanders and leapt over the wall to drown himself. But the summer’s heat had shrunk the river, and it was too shallow to drown. Vomiting from the unstable pill, he was pulled down by a throng of people and bundled into the custody of the police. When they asked him if he was a Serb, he replied, “Yes, I am a Serb hero.”

Meanwhile the car drove on. The next assassin it passed was moved by pity for the royal pair and failed to fire his gun. The fourth assassin’s nerve failed him and he ran off home. The others watched as the car sped past too fast, and the moment was gone. Disappointed, one of the would-be killers, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, feeling hungry now, crossed the Quay and ambled on to the entrance of Franz Joseph Street; there, at Moritz Schiller’s food store, he stepped in and bought a sandwich. He was still sitting and eating it when the archduke and duchess pulled up in their car, right outside the store. They were coming back from the city hall and the driver had taken a wrong turning. They tried to reverse, but there was too little room to manoeuvre in the narrow street. Princip stood up, strode over to the right hand of the vehicle and, from a distance of four or five paces, fired two shots directly into the car. The first one killed the archduke; the second, intended for Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fatally wounded the duchess.

Some still believe that this product of accident and misadventure sparked a world war that killed millions. It is the case that some schoolboys playing the role of doomed heroes helped topple a civilisation; yet, on a grander political scale, the murder was very largely only a pretext for action. There had been brutal assassinations before. Such murders usually occurred within the body politic of a sovereign state, as an element in a coup or an outcome of insanity. By their transnational nature, the numerous anarchist murders from the 1880s to the 1900s offered no foreign country as a suitable target for retaliation; like the pirate, the anarchist was equally an enemy everywhere. As the assassins operated outside the boundaries of the nation state, the vengeance of armed retribution was meaningless in relation to the horrors of their actions. The murders in Sarajevo were entirely different. They occurred on Hapsburg soil but could easily be said to have their origin in the very existence of the Serbian state. The response to the killings potentially involved war – yet such a confrontation was always avoidable as long as everyone wanted peace.

However, far from aspiring to avert a war, the Austrians did all they could to invite it. The Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wrongly believed, or chose to believe, that the murders in Sarajevo had been carried out with the connivance of the Serbian government. With German backing, the Austrians were disposed to pick a fight. They thought they could bully the Serbs with impunity and quickly crush an upstart neighbour. They pressed for war, but even so meant only to settle scores with Serbia, a smaller enemy whose certain defeat would bolster the empire; they never intended the European conflagration that would burn down their power.

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the youth who threw the nail bomb at the car, lamented that “if I had foreseen what was to happen I should myself have sat down on the bombs so as to blow myself to bits”. Though he toughed it out in court, in private Princip was devastated by reports of the war. Yet, later, he could hardly believe that a world war could have followed on from their choices; he couldn’t really feel guilty for that bit of bad luck. They had aimed at a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility.

The “world-changing” consequences of the events in Sarajevo depended on the context in which the murders happened. The world was poised for war, and so the killings led to carnage. The deed resonated within the desires of others, and just then what others wanted was what they imagined would be the speedy resolution of questions of European dominance and prestige. If it had not been Sarajevo that pulled the trigger, it would have been something else, but war would have come in any case.

If assassination’s potency to alter history is questionable in Sarajevo, there must be even greater doubts in the case of the killing of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. Kennedy had mastered the new politics, offering charisma to the electorate. His final place in the national consciousness was as a symbol of all that was most desirable in the American myth. In terms of tangible achievement or foreign policy gains, however, he left almost nothing for posterity; at best, he founded the Peace Corps. The great legislative triumphs of the period, in civil rights, Medicaid, environmental law and social welfare, are all attributable to the much-disparaged and untelegenic Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In the cruellest interpretation, the single most important impact of Kennedy’s career is that his death handed Johnson, as his successor, the moral force to pass these necessary reforms – laws that Kennedy would have been unlikely to get through undamaged on his own. In foreign policy terms, it was almost certainly Kennedy’s weakness with Khrushchev that prompted the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution of which was his only victory. Even that success was not quite what the public perceived it to be, involving as it did the hushed-up quid pro quo removal of US missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile, Kennedy had already sparked an arms race with the Russians, and his policy on Vietnam helped to create the conditions for the disastrous war that followed. There were hints that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam if he had been re-elected; and later there were other hints that he had been murdered precisely because of this private intention.

To imagine that Kennedy could have ended the Vietnam war presupposes a strength of purpose in him of which there was little evidence in the first years of his presidency, other than the brinkmanship of the missile crisis and (on a much smaller scale) his confrontation with George Wallace over racial integration. In any case, Kennedy had fatally undermined the Diem regime in South Vietnam, with consequences that would have precluded such a sudden withdrawal. Otherwise, he inspired and launched the space programme – and that was about all.

Despite this paltry legacy, Kennedy still stands in the eyes of many as a “great president”, even one of the greatest. This owes more to marketing than delivery. Knowing that his Catholicism would prevent a straightforward coronation by the Democratic Party, he was forced to fight the 1960 election campaign on the basis of his national popularity. He had to win primaries and show his power. It was a new kind of strategy, and it hinged on the retailing of Kennedy. They were going to “sell Jack like soap flakes”.

On 26 September 1960, Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, on television; radio listeners were more evenly divided on who they believed had won the debate. On the screen, JFK had looked like a superstar, and the sweating, stubbly Nixon, as one journalist put it, “a real middle-class uneducated swindler with all the virtues of a seller of fountain pens in Naples”. The smear on the Democratic posters – “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” – stuck. The Kennedys’ relationship with the press and with television, their youth, their attractiveness, placed them in a position of mediated confidence with the electorate. However, it was the faux-intimacy of the television image, the allure of cinema. In 1960, in an article for Esquire, Norman Mailer put it like this:

Since the First World War Americans have been living a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull . . . and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation . . . if elected he would not only be the youngest president ever to be chosen by the voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife – some would claim it – might be the most beautiful first lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favourite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller.

The Kennedys were stars, and John F Ken - nedy died on-screen. The assassination was an experience broadcast on television; two days later Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was shown live by NBC across homes in America. Within half an hour of the JFK shooting, 68 per cent of Americans had heard the news, carried to them by the media. The television set that brought the outside world into the domestic space displayed the pathos to a nation. All could feel involved; the deed became an image.

Yet it was an image that could not be assimilated or understood. In one sense, apart from the tragedy of a young man’s murder, it was precisely its lack of historical significance that rendered it so potent. The plethora of conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s murder responded to genuine mysteries and unresolved problems in the story; the theories were also a way to inscribe meaning into the event, as though an unseen betrayal underwrote it, and they might produce the simulacra of significance. For, just as the assassinations of the 1960s were often assumed to be manifestations of a vague “climate of violence”, so it was that their significance lay chiefly in their effect on American mentalities – even, as Mailer suggests, on the dream life of the nation. It was not the political consequences of Kennedy’s murder, nor indeed all the various assassinations of that decade, that truly mattered, but rather the way they sustained and exemplified an atmosphere of panic, or of social disintegration. They worried Americans with a sense of things falling apart, of a polis under strain.

In the eyes of many, political violence, random killings and unrest seemed a constant factor in American life from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. As the journalist Jack Newfield wrote: “We felt, by the time we reached 30, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated.” The folk singer Dick Holler’s 1968 song “Abraham, Martin and John” links the deaths of Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It presents the four men as simple embodiments of goodness who were not allowed to live out their potential.

In America losing those individuals, irreparable damage was done to the possibilities of national political life. Other people failed to do what the man who was killed might have done. Similarly the history of assassination depends in two senses on the centrality of the individual: in the idea of the “indispensable person” who is assassination’s chosen victim, and in the fantasy that such murders gift their perpetrators with an undying, if ignoble fame.

Though there is a great deal of force to Newfield’s lament, the idea of the “indispensable person” runs counter to the strengths and resilience of democratic life. The American mood in the late 1960s was one of intense unease; and yet the fabric of social and political life held good. The anarchists who struck at presidents, monarchs or high-ranking officials were sometimes engaged in personal attacks, their killings a move in an ongoing vendetta between the government and revolutionaries. More usually they were simply aiming at the office itself: in their own judgement, murdering a symbol and not a person. Yet, seen as such, the deed was meaningless. The president was killed and another president took his place. The structures of power were always designed to take into account the fact of mortality, to maintain continuity; that death should be caused by an assassin’s gun altered little.

Even in the case of the many assassination attempts directed against Adolf Hitler, it is doubtful whether striking their target would have altered events significantly. Hitler’s would be assassins were as much involved in making a gesture, an indication of the survival of an internal opposition, as attempting to decapitate the Third Reich. Success would probably have led to succession by another, equally wicked Nazi. Where assassins did succeed in killing a leading Nazi – with the murder of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 – the murder, for all its justice, merely prompted horrible reprisals, notably the massacres in the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Meanwhile, the “architect of the Holocaust” may have been killed, but the Final Solution continued apace.

In modern times, with very few exceptions (such as the killing of Abraham Lincoln in 1865), assassination has been a sideshow – although, I would argue, a highly significant one. Assassination has often been linked to a kind of “secret history”, contained in the romance of conspiracy theories. It seems instead that assassination belongs to another kind of concealed history – the history, in Norman Mailer’s terms, of the dream life of the west.

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead. Killing was sufficient, even without the understanding of its consequences. Indeed, practical results were the last thing sought for by any assassin. For assassination long ago broke free of any idea of efficacy or political influence, and instead became the central expression of the extremists’ taste for action as such – a pure deed that annihilates both the victim and the perpetrator, even as it depends on the target’s fame and the fame and attention that it grants to the killer. It is an act of self-assertion that is simultaneously a self-negation.

In one respect, the historical importance of Zasulich’s action was limited: Trepov survived and the autocracy continued. However, as a muse of murder she proved a vital figure, her deed provoking attempts against the kaiser in Germany and arousing a broad campaign of assassinations in Russia which led to the murder of the tsar himself. Zasulich’s example was crucial in this swing towards the practice of terror. She was an inspiration to crime. A police official was murdered in Kiev in the spirit of emulation, and when in August 1878 a young man called Sergei Kravchinskii executed General Nikolai Mezentsev on the streets of St Petersburg, he was consciously following the line set by the courageous Zasulich.

For most within the movement, the heightening of stakes seemed inevitable and just. And yet, for Zasulich herself, there was no such easy acceptance of the killings. Soloviev’s infamous attempt to assassinate the tsar with a bomb at the Winter Palace in 1879 merely depressed her. As years went by, Zasulich’s position grew clearer. The assassin’s deed was without revolutionary merit. It led not to great social changes, but only to an ineffectual puff of violence. It exhilarated other revolutionaries, who sensed vicariously and inappropriately the retort of power. Conversely, it dismayed and sickened potential supporters among the masses, or rendered them passive spectators of outrage. The people were not roused to rebel by such deeds, but became mere witnesses to others’ glorious,  or infamous, violence. Worst of all was terror’s dependence upon a sickly illusion in the mind of the assassin herself.

Zasulich knew this at first hand. The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all. Zasulich’s act of terror had sought to publicise another’s brutality; the danger was that such acts would only advertise their own horror. The injustice that prompted them would be forgotten in the impact of the assassin’s bullet. It was, she might have realised, only her own incompetence, in merely hitting Trepov in the hip, that had permitted her deed to appear noble.

Michael Newton is the author of “Age of Assassins” (Faber & Faber, £25)

Photo: Getty Images
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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.

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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