Egyptian opposition supporters shout slogans as they gather outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo on 11 December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The myth of the Islamist winter

Egypt and Tunisia aren’t sliding into chaos – they are simply learning how to be democracies.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

The Islamists are obliged to search for allies, as they control neither the army nor the religious sphere. And if they are able to find allies among the Salafists – the religious conservatives – and the military, these two groups are nevertheless not prepared to allow them to become dominant. The Islamists have to negotiate. There is a classical logic of power at work here: the dominant political group finds it hard to accept that power could change hands and so seeks to preserve its position by any means necessary. Moreover, there is no revolutionary dynamic among the populace that would allow it to prevail by appealing to sentiment in the street.

It is interesting to consider the precise nature of this authoritarian turn because it bears little resemblance to the “Islamic revolution” often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda, the Renaissance Party, in Tunisia. It is, on the contrary, a conservative and paradoxically pro-western “counter-revolution”. Consider Egypt. If the president, Mohamed Morsi, is denounced in Tahrir Square as the new Mubarak (and not the new Khomeini), it is because his opponents have grasped that his aim is to establish an authoritarian regime using classical means (appealing to the army and controlling the apparatus of the state).

The electoral and social base of the Egyptian regime is not revolutionary. Instead of trying to reach a compromise with the principal actors of the Arab spring, Morsi is attempting to get all the supporters of the new order on his side. The coalition he is building is based on business, the army, the Salafists and those elements of the “people” that are supposedly tired of anarchy.

Morsi’s economic model is neoliberal: he is surrounded by “Chicago boys” who swear by the free market. He is in favour of deregulation, the end of subsidies and an opening to the global market. His government has just signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund that includes a loan with interest and which it has justified on grounds of necessity. Morsi has accepted the outlook of the IMF, not because he has been forced to do so, but because it is an approach he shares. This will bring further privatisation and competition. And because the price paid by swaths of the population will be severe, the government will need a functioning apparatus of repression and to break the trade unions. It will also have to gain the acquiescence of the army, in exchange for immunity and the right to regulate its own affairs, particularly in the economic sphere.

Meanwhile, to get the Salafists on its side, a cosmetic Islamicisation of society, on the Saudi model rather than the Iranian, ought to suffice: enforced wearing of the veil, continued discrimination against Coptic Christians, a requirement to respect religious norms in public and restrictions on non-orthodox religious practices (specifically, Sufi ceremonies, carried out by followers of Islamic mysticism).

Wider stage

In order to have their hands free domestically, the Islamists must make themselves indispensable to the west – which explains the mediating role that Egypt played in the recent crisis in Gaza. Morsi has performed brilliantly on the international stage, gaining the approval of the Americans in the process. He has fought the radical Islamists in the Sinai and has distanced himself from Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. He has been able to restore the prestige and influence of Egyptian foreign policy without lapsing into an aggressive Nasserstyle pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. Although there were irregularities in the elections that brought him to power last year, and which led to a legal challenge from the judiciary, no one seriously doubts that they were won handily by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse. Demonstrations by a cross-section of society that were much larger than expected have undermined confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood. And voices have been raised inside the Brotherhood against this sudden burst of authoritarianism.

Time is against Morsi, because the economic measures that he wants to introduce will make the government increasingly unpopular. And, on the other hand, continued popular protest will require him to call on the army, which will support him, but at a price – the political and economic autonomy that the military is asking for runs counter to the Brotherhood’s programme of economic liberalisation. In short, the new regime is politically isolated.

Besides the street and the political stage, the other battleground for the Muslim Brotherhood is control of the religious sphere. Like al- Nahda in Tunisia, it has discovered that this is considerably more diverse than it had thought. Moreover, figures who had previously been relatively docile where the state was concerned, such as Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, have reasserted the autonomy that they were granted by the Arab spring. This means that the only way for the government to wrest back control of the religious sphere is to place it under the authority of the state (specifically, to submit the mosques to the diktat of the ministry of religious affairs).

State control of religion would in fact go beyond institutions and extend to religious orthodoxy, leading to limitations being placed on Sufi practices and theological discussions. Even if the Muslim Brothers succeed in the first part of the operation – nationalising faith institutions – the price they will have to pay for it will be high, because the imams won’t appreciate being turned into civil servants. They also run the risk of destroying the religious dynamic of their movement: if the state controls religion, what use is a religious “brotherhood”? And if religion is identified with the state, there is a grave risk that the unpopularity of the government will affect faith institutions in turn, as has happened in Iran.

The Brotherhood will come to be identified with its political wing alone. As in Iran, the nationalisation of religion risks giving rise either to a resurgence of non-orthodox practices or to the secularisation of society. The Brotherhood will lose its soul. And, in the process, it will have lost the Coptic Christians, the liberals and many women, all of whom are apprehensive at the prospect of state-enforced Islamicisation.

The Muslim Brotherhood has taken an enormous risk in trying to prevail by force. The first victim of the way it has exercised power has been its ideology. Islam is not the solution but at best a discourse designed to rally the Salafists, one that disguises a politics more redolent of Pinochet in Chile than of Khomeini in Iran.

If the so-called liberal opposition (which also contains some less-than-democratic elements) sees that it can’t afford a direct confrontation with the government and instead presents itself as a credible political alternative, the Muslim Brothers will pay dearly for a flirtation with authoritarianism that is serving to “secularise” politics in Egypt. Religion is becoming just one instrument of control among others – rather than a social, economic and ideological alternative. This is, in short, the failure of political Islam.

Playing the same game

In Tunisia, the same game is unfolding. Al- Nahda is neither as strong nor as deeply rooted as the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement is more diverse, with a branch that is, if not more liberal, then at least more realistic. And because of their commitment to violence, the Tunisian Salafists are not credible allies. What is more, society has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency, though it is often difficult to discern the motives and strategy of these local actors (criminal and clan activity plays a role that ought not to be underestimated). Tunisia also has the most powerful trade union movement in the Arab world. The UGTT (the Tunisian General Workers’ Union) has a national network of highly organised activists capable of channelling popular protest. Al-Nahda is coming into conflict with the unions, either for the same reasons as in Egypt (a fascination with the free market) or for reasons more specific to Tunisia (it wants allies on its left but cannot bear to compete with a truly popular movement of grass-roots activists).

Additionally, al-Nahda does not control the security forces. The army certainly wants to preserve order, but it will not take the risk of identifying itself with repression against the Tunisian people. Finally, al-Nahda has not succeeded in controlling the religious sphere and has fewer means at its disposal to try to do so than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In October, a petition was circulated, signed by hundreds of imams who had voted or would vote for al-Nahda but who opposed all attempts to bring the mosques and other faith institutions into the orbit of the state. As in Egypt, al-Nahda proposes to use its own ministry of religious affairs to control the religious sphere, although this statism could rebound against the movement.

Missed popularity

The difficulties encountered by the Islamists have led to a marked decline in popularity in both countries, exposing them to the risk of defeat should elections be called. But the most pressing question is that of the political alternative to the Islamists. The leaders of new political parties have a credibility problem: they are only tenuously connected to the protesters in the streets, they are often associated with the old regimes and they retain an elitist conception of political life. The opposition, in short, is a long way from being able to assemble a credible coalition. The Tunisian opposition in particular suffers from its identification with the secular elite in the capital, Tunis, who are implacably opposed to any re-Islamicisation of society. It also suffers from a democratic deficit, as it has always supported a policy of repression against religious militants. Finally, it finds it easier to campaign in Paris than in the streets of Tunisia. Yet if there were a credible and unified opposition, it could beat al-Nahda in the elections. Consequently, Tunisia’s chances of staying democratic are better than Egypt’s.

In both countries, however, the Arab spring has changed things irrevocably. Beyond the aspects that I emphasised in my first article for the New Statesman nearly two years ago (a new political culture linked to the emergence of a new generation; the diversifying of the religious sphere; a change in geostrategic context that has resulted in the Islamists no longer finding themselves automatically in the anti-western camp; the “embourgeoisement” of the Islamists; the reorientation of a revolutionary movements towards conservative parties), a new factor is contributing to the normalisation of the Islamists – the exercising of power. The Islamists are succeeding neither in delivering the goods in economic and social terms nor in giving the impression that they are architects of an authentic social project that goes beyond the stamping of “Islamic markers” on a society over which they have increasingly little control.

The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account. To get through the period of austerity and the economic difficulties that go with it, they should have done more to secure a “historic compromise” with the liberals. The alternative to such an alliance is not “Islamic revolution”, however. What is taking shape instead is a coalition that is con - servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics, and thus open to the west. In this respect, the model is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which has learned to work with existing institutions and civil society. This has allowed it to reconcile a strong state with a liberal economy, a conservative Islamic party with an open society.

In contrast, if the Muslim Brotherhood wishes to reinforce the state apparatus for its own benefit, it will lose across the board. The Brothers will lose support among the “faithful” to the Salafists (who are less compromised), and in the business community they will lose out to the liberals – or to the army, now that the old guard of marshals and generals has been eliminated. As for the spirit of protest, that is not about to be extinguished.

Translated from the French by Jonathan Derbyshire.

Olivier Roy is head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of “Holy Ignorance” (C Hurst & Co, £20)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

STF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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