Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

First Published on Vice January 16th 2014 

Inside one of Egypt’s polling stations. Photos by Amanda Mustard

For the past two days, Egyptians have been taking to the polls to officially pass judgment on thelatest iteration of the country’s constitution. As with most “yes” or “no” questions, there are only two outcomes. A “yes” majority would force interim President Adly Mansour to call for elections (either parliamentary or presidential) within a period of 30 to 90 days from the new constitution coming into effect. But, incredibly, there are no guiding procedures in the event of a “no” majority.

That might seem presumptuous, but, thankfully for the interim government, they have history on their side—there’s never been a “no” majority for any constitutional referendum in Egypt’s modern history.

The new constitution is widely perceived as an improvement on the 2012 version, which was drafted under ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But it’s not really all that different from its predecessor. Instead of starting from scratch, as was originally expected, amendments were made to contentious provisions in a long, drawn out process that finally ended with Mansour’s declaration of the referendum on December 12 of last year.

Despite the increased clarity about discrimination and violence against women, as well as a lengthened list of socio-economic rights, the draft still contains a number of articles that have worried analysts—like the one that could potentially weaken labor rights and freedoms—and maintains provisions that protect the continued use of military tribunals for civilians. Nevertheless, some are absolutely certain that the contents of the constitution are exactly what Egypt needs.

“I’ve read the entire constitution!” one man exclaimed proudly outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Shubra. “This is the constitution for Egypt. God bless Egypt and God bless [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi! I’ve written my favorite bits from the constitution here,” he smiled, showing off a piece of paper covered in writing.

The bomb-damaged front of the courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood

The opposition Anti Coup Alliance immediately declared their intentions to boycott the vote, worried that pushing for a “no” would somehow legitimize the incumbent powers and their new draft constitution. However, nothing resembling a boycott movement managed to work its way into the public consciousness. Instead, the “Vote Yes” campaign snapped up all the attention and advertising space.

By the first day of the vote, almost every lamppost along Cairo’s major bridges was adorned with a “Yes to the constitution!” poster. And giant billboards tenuously connect a “yes” vote to the 2011 revolution and the June 30 uprising that led to the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The message was clear: this isn’t just a vote for a constitution, this is a vote for the revolution and the martyrs.

The first day got off to a bad start, when an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, some two hours before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning.  Although no one was killed in the blast, it prompted an increased security presence—the worry being that there were similar acts planned for throughout this referendum period.

Despite the violent start, voter turnout for the first day was relatively high, with Egypt’s minister of administrative development claiming that 28 percent of the country’s registered voters had cast their ballot that day alone. However, scattered fighting in various governorates turned deadly for some—the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 12 at the close of the first day’s voting, and 250 were arrested.

Crowds outside a Cairo polling station with a poster of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

On state TV, multiple feeds from polling stations all over Egypt showed long lines, with everyone smiling or waiting patiently.

Outside a school in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, a mother and her two teenagers strolled out of the polling station. Their fingers still wet with the voting ink, they responded to a question about how they had cast their votes. “Of course we all voted yes!” exclaimed the mother, Dina, apparently taken aback that there was even a possibility someone might vote no.

“This constitution is better than the one before. I didn’t vote in the referendum last year, but I knew it was my duty this time. It really is much, much better,” explained her son, Abdel Aziz, before she interjected: “There is justice here,” she said. “There is a future!” Her daughter Noor nodded in approval to what her brother and mother were saying. “We want everything to get better and this is the first step to that. No more fighting, a better economy, some stability,” she said.

“Stability” is a promise that seems to come back around during every voting period, and after three years of turmoil, death, coups and changing governments, the offer is more tantalizing now than ever. “The most important thing for Egypt right now is stability,” explained off-duty officer Mohamed Abdelmaher outside an Imbaba polling station. “Political stability, economic stability, social stability. Stability is absolutely the cure for all of Egypt’s problems.”

He held his young daughter’s hand tightly as he talked about the future of his country, repeatedly bringing up the need for stability and security. “I just voted ‘yes’ in the hope that there’s no more of that,” he said, pointing to the damaged facade of the courthouse. “God willing this is what the country needs.”

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Human Trafficking in the Sinai – One Man’s Journey

First Published in the Christian Science Monitor on December 30th

In October a boat attempting to carry refugees, mostly Eritreans, from Africa to Europe sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 people in one of the worst marine disasters in European waters in many years. It put an international spotlight on the plight of immigrants seeking a better life and unmasked harrowing stories of exploitation and maltreatment.

In Egypt, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have made the hazardous trip through the Sinai Peninsula in the hope of reaching Israel, entering somewhere along the 165-mile mutual border. The refugees are trafficked into Israel by various Bedouin tribes at extortionate cost, physically, mentally, and monetarily.

A recent report on human trafficking in Sinai by the European External Policy Advisors found that as many as 30,000 people have been trafficked through Sinai since 2009. About a third of those died in the process, and the traffickers have collected more than $600 million in ransoms.

In 2006, Sinai resident Hamdy al-Azazy made the decision to dedicate his life to the struggles of those refugees who were caught up in the human trafficking business.

“It all started when I was arrested in December 2006,” Mr. Azazy says. “I had a fever, and the police took me from my house when I was wearing next to nothing.”

In prison he found himself among 45 African refugees, mostly from Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, who were caught attempting to reach the Israeli border. “They [the refugees] gave me jackets and warm clothes,” he recalls. “They treated my fever with cold water and looked after me. I felt that they were my family. I thought, ‘Why did they help me?’ I realized, this was humanity.”

He began talking to them and listening to their stories, amazed at how widespread human trafficking was and how little he knew about it.

He heard stories he is now all too familiar with: of husbands and wives and children separated, of kidnapping and ransoms, of organ harvesting, of torture and death.

Azazy had been working at his English-language center in the infamously dangerous capital of Egypt’s northern Sinai region, El Arish. He was born and raised in El Arish, so his ignorance of the pervasive human trafficking in the area took him by surprise.

“I began to hear more about the trafficking that is happening in my region. I was listening and thinking: Where is the [military] intelligence? Where are the police? Where is the Army? Where is the government?”

Shortly afterward he started the nonprofit New Generation Foundation for Human Rights. The organization gives assistance to jailed and hospitalized refugees, providing legal assistance, references, and medical treatment. For those that have been killed, Azazy transports the bodies that he finds to a morgue before ensuring they receive a respectful burial.

“I don’t know if they are Muslim or Christian or what, but I take them to the graveyard I made near my house and give them a proper burial all the same,” he says.

Through his family connections and history of human rights work, Azazy has access to prisons and hospitals that others lack.

“He’s very well connected with everyone. He has family high up in the military, he has a brother who is the main tax collector at the port, and he has a very good relationship with Bedouin,” says Dr. Ellen Rosser, an American peace activist and retired English professor who lived in El Arish for about two years.

Dr. Rosser first met Azazy in 2010.

“We had been speaking, and I volunteered to teach human rights [at his language center],” she says. “He was already concerned about the Bedouin. He was helping one group of Bedouin who were being paid very, very little for their land lease that the government had put a factory on.”

Azazy has since brought tribal leaders together and spoken to them about Bedouin rights, as well as the plight of trafficked refugees. It was through this work that Azazy built trusting relationships with many Bedouin tribes in the area, allowing him greater access and insight into the intricacies of human trafficking.

Now he knows all too well just how it works. “They transport them worse than animals,” he says. Refugees are hidden inside pickup trucks and empty oil and water tankers.

“They often make a false shelf in pickup trucks where the refugees cram inside and then have fruit, vegetables, [and] animals placed on top of them,” he says. “From one ‘torture camp’ to the next, this is how they transport them until they are arrested or killed or make it to Israel.”

The descriptions of “torture camps” become more vivid as Azazy shows video testimonies of African refugees who managed to escape their captors. Documents, videos, and photos that he collects are stored on a computer hard drive he carries with him: They show the horrors that thousands of trafficked refugees go through.

In one folder are documents and images of organ trafficking. In one photo an empty corpse is seen, cut open from just under the chin all the way to the navel, the rib cage cleanly sawn through. Accompanying the body is a postmortem document from the Egyptian doctor. Under cause of death it reads “Under Investigation.”

“Of course, this so-called investigation came to nothing. They know what has happened here, but they do nothing!” Azazy exclaims.

Having family in the military has not curbed his anger at what he sees as incompetence and outright corruption with regards to the Egyptian government and security services.

“It is so difficult to truly deal with traffickers because I know for a fact that many police are getting money under the table,” he says. “At the very least they won’t do anything when you ask; at the most they will try to shut you up.”

“He’s had to go into hiding for several weeks before, after threats from certain Bedouin tribes,” says John Stauffer, president of the American Team for Displaced Eritreans. “He’s certainly drawing attention to the situation, and he puts himself at some risk by doing so.”

Mr. Stauffer first heard of Azazy when an Eritrean friend in the United States told him that there was a man who was visiting refugees in the prisons in Sinai. Since then, they have kept in touch with regular phone calls and e-mail updates. Stauffer also provides some financial backing for Azazy’s work.

When asked how he could provide money to a man he hasn’t even met in person, Stauffer acknowledges that Azazy has a proclivity to make grand statements. But Stauffer stresses the good work Azazy has done.

“If he has one fault, I guess you can say he’s overly optimistic,” Stauffer says. “He’s probably been guilty of making a promise that is near impossible to keep in the past…. Sometimes he spices things up, but, all in all, you just can’t deny all the good he’s doing. I’m convinced that what he’s doing is very good for the refugees, so shame on me if I turn my back on that.”

Ahmed Salama, a Bedouin from the Sawarka tribe and a human rights campaigner with the nongovernmental El Gora Community Development Association, which offers services to thousands of Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula, also notes Azazy’s remarkable ability to help imprisoned refugees.

“We’ve worked together before in coordination,” Mr. Salama says. “I work with the IOM [International Organization for Migration], and he works with various other international agencies. I know he’s been very successful in transferring many refugees back to their home countries or refugee camps.”

Since the Egyptian military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July, an increased military presence in Sinai has somewhat curbed the extent to which human trafficking takes place. However, Salama notes that “we are still talking about hundreds who are being kept with their traffickers.”

Azazy shakes his head and sighs, “I don’t see myself retiring from this anytime soon.”

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Protest and Public Space – Egypt’s Streets

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A less theory-heavy version of this appeared in Vice on December 17th

For close to three years Egyptians employed protest and the occupation of public space to devastating effect.  Almost every Friday, some group, somewhere, would be demonstrating.

In Spring 2011, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding change.  In Spring 2012, the indolent SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) Military government sped up their transition of power after immense pressure from the streets.  In Summer 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office and into a cell when huge numbers gave the Army reason enough to remove him from power.

Now, the military-backed interim government has passed an anti-demonstration law that Amnesty said would “pave the way to bloodshed” and Human Rights Watch said was “in violation of international standards”.

Article 7 of the Protest Law especially stands out due to its vague and wide reaching parameters regarding “violations of general security, public order or production…” which, as subjective terms, leaves room for punitive arrests, a jail term of up to 5 years and fines of up to $14,500 USD.

For the current government, which is only in power as a result of demonstrations, to pass an anti-demonstration law is an irony that is not lost on many.

According to Professor Charles Tripp author of, “The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East”, the occupation of a public space is, in and of itself, an act of resistance against the state and can be an incredible tool in challenging power.  Unlike the clearer, often opulent, physical manifestations of government, public spaces aren’t usually under constant guard or omnipresent supervision.  The openness of the squares, roundabouts, parks, streets, etc. often make these sites the ineluctable frontiers of confrontation.

As the name suggests, public space invites citizens into it’s areas, but by virtue of being conceived, planned and built by the state, it can also be seen as an extension of the state: what Tripp refers to as the “built environment of the state”.

By taking to public spaces and occupying them, the demonstrators change the areas’ function.  No longer are they squares, roads, or parks (as labelled by the state), rather settings for dissent.  The occupiers have already challenged the power of the state simply by refusing to use these spaces as designated by the Government.

The dissent is aired openly so that others, including the officials (but more importantly other members of the public), can see and hear what is happening.  Word spreads.  In economic vernacular, what was once ‘individual knowledge’ is now ‘mutual knowledge’.  Where before you may not be sure as to what your fellow countryman and woman thought about the Government, now you and everyone knows, and everyone knows that you know.

The sociologist Max Weber writes of the existential imperative for states in “Politics as a Vocation” stating, “If the State is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be”.  So when crowds disrupt public space, it immediately gives lie to the image that governments the world over, but specifically in autocratic states, attempt to portray: The image of an ordered, obedient, content society that is reverential to power and state public institutions.

Within Egypt, public protest had long been against the state and its institutions.  However, an intriguing change was experienced after the massive June 30th demonstrations that led to Morsi’s removal on July 3rd.

Nathan J Brown, Professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, elaborates, “What is unusual…is the way that key state actors–not only General al-Sisi and the military high command but also the previously disgraced security apparatus–have been able to position themselves on the winning side since June 30.  Indeed, whatever happened on June 30…it has been clear since July 3 that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it.”

In the aftermath of removing a president who had alienated a large proportion of Egyptians, the state and specifically the de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were able to use their high approval ratings and appropriate public protest and demonstration for their own sake.

No longer was public protest, ipso facto, against the state, it was now a tool being wielded by the state.  This was nowhere made clearer than on July 26th when General al-Sisi called for a “mandate to deal with terrorism”.  The call was answered by the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the streets nationwide in support.  Previous governments had attempted similar calls of support, but the numbers al-Sisi garnered were unprecedented in this regard.

Any major demonstrations of dissent that followed were dominated by the Pro Muslim Brotherhood ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’, who had been effectively demonized as “terrorists”.  They were easily, and brutally, put down without any risk of sparking a national backlash.  Any group opposed to both the Army and the Brotherhood was outnumbered and drowned out by a dichotomised discourse that didn’t provide space for a ‘third choice’ – neither brotherhood nor army.

After approximately 1000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed on August 14-16th by Security forces, a state of emergency and curfew was put in place.  Unlike previous attempts at imposing a curfew, which were largely ignored, the following three months of curfew was largely adhered to.  One of the noisiest areas, Downtown Cairo, became a ghost town in the evenings, all the shops shut with only the headlights of the odd car seen breaking curfew.

As part of enforcing the curfew, Army APCs and tanks were placed strategically around the city, Tahrir Square especially well guarded.  Little in the way of opposition or uproar was voiced in response to the increased security presence, as it was interpreted as a necessary presence.  This could be seen as symbolic of the government’s successful reclamation of public space.

Not long after the military-backed interim government’s popular approval peaked (during the nationalistic October 6th War celebration) a draft of the new protest law was approved by the cabinet and placed under the review of interim President Adly Mansour.

When details of the law were exposed, it was met by a deluge of outrage and disapproval across the societal spectrum: salafists; April 6th Youth Movement; political figures; rights groups; youth revolutionary block; and even the Tamarod group – one of the Army’s main grassroots cheerleaders.  It seemed the army had overplayed their hand and overestimated their carte blanche support.

“Other people were looking after their own interests [before], but after this law, it’s affecting their interests too and violating everyone’s rights.  It’s amazing because what Sisi did has actually united the people.”  Says Deena Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Anti-Coup Alliance.  “[Sisi] has decided to determine the will of the people, even the ones who are with him, to close their mouths and to decide alone, so even Tamarod aren’t really allowed to speak.  People both with him and against him are not allowed to speak now.”

Despite the overwhelming criticism, the interim President went on to pass the law.  The details of the final draft its and heavy-handed application proved worrying enough to prompt the EU High Representative and the UN Secretary-General into voicing their concerns at the law and the events that immediately followed its implementation.

On November 26th, the day the anti-demonstration law went into effect, a protest was planned outside the Shura Council in Downtown Cairo.  Those participating were peaceful and relatively small in number, some 150 people; amassed in opposition to a long contentious aspect of the judiciary – namely the trying of civilians within military courts.

Within 30 minutes, riot police appeared on the opposite side of the street.  A policeman on a loudspeaker gave the protesters 5 minutes to disperse.  As soon as the time was up, they opened with water cannons before charging, beating and arresting any protesters who couldn’t get away fast enough.

Ironically, while arresting several dozen of the protesters, the police accidentally broke a stipulation of the new law they were so fervent in upholding.  Video footage emerged of men and women being harassed by plain-clothes policemen despite Article 11 of the law clearly stating [emphasis mine] “Security forces in official uniform should disperse protests, meetings or marches…”

Some 27 people sat in jail as a direct result, including high profile activists like Ahmed Abdurahman, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Maher.  With regards to those last three, official warrants of arrest were issued for them after the demonstration.  Their charges included: incitement to violence, rallying and “thuggery”, resisting authorities and violating the new protest law.

23 of those 27 have now been released on bail, but the other four remain in detention: Alaa and Abdurahman for the events by the Shura Council, Douma and Maher for events outside Abdeen.  Now the prosecutor general has referred Alaa and 24 other activists to the criminal court for breaking the protest law.

On hearing of his warrant, Alaa Abd El-Fattah (having already been detained under Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi) released a statement saying “my ever imminent arrest is now a running joke in Egypt”.  Nevertheless, he indicated his intention to turn himself in on Saturday at noon but was not given the chance.

That Thursday, Alaa’s home was invaded by security services.  He and his wife were beaten, their laptops taken and Alaa arrested.  Having already made his intentions of turning himself in very clear, the actions of the security services appear somewhat punitive.

As the ire of the activist community and ‘Third Square’ (supporters of neither the Brotherhood nor the Military) groups increases against the incumbent powers, so do incidences of articles smearing them as sexual deviants, or inhuman (as demonstrated by an article titled “Human Rights? What Human?”)

Nevertheless, as more cases of injustice crop up, more people who affiliate with neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Army are making their voices heard.  In Alexandria 7 female minors were sent to juvenile detention while another 14 women were handed 11-year sentences (longer than many policemen convicting of killing civilians receive).  All for making a human chain and holding balloons sympathetic to Mohamed Morsi.  In the aftermath of disgust shown towards the verdict, the detainees had their sentences reduced to one suspended year.

After the first draft of the protest law, increasingly variegated factions of Egyptians are voicing concerns towards matters of injustice, corruption and reform.  They hint at a future where the theatre of the street and public spaces are once again a weapon wielded against the state and for reform, rather than for the state and the status quo.

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3rd Anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud St Clashes

First published on Vice November 21st here – all photos by Amanda Mustard (@mustardphoto)

The second anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes was a confusing day of demonstration. Hundreds gathered in Cairo Tuesday to pay tribute to protesters killed by riot police during a crackdown on the Egyptian revolution two years ago, but wanting to commemorate those who lost their lives was about as close to an overall common ground as it got. Demonstrators included people who support the army, people who support the Muslim Brotherhood and people who support neither and don’t want to be ruled by either a military junta or Islamists.

Thankfully, the scenes of the 19th of November, 2011 weren’t repeated, but small scuffles did break out near the Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square as pro-army groups exchanged verbal – and then physical – blows with their opponents. For the most part, it was a peaceful day of demonstrations dominated by the “third square” movement that opposes both the army and the Brotherhood.

In the build up to the day’s events, various groups released statements outlining their plans for the day. The pro-Brotherhood “Anti-Coup Alliance” made it clear that they had no intention of going anywhere near Mohamed Mahmoud Street or Tahrir Square, “so as not to give a chance to the conspirators to fabricate violent incidents and blame them on the [Anti-Coup Alliance]“. They kept their word and their protests were mostly confined to areas away from central downtown Cairo.

Overall, it was the incongruous plans of the pro-army groups that seemed to irk the majority of Egyptians. They called for mass demonstrations in remembrance of the martyrs killed in Mohamed Mahmoud, but also in support of the Interior Ministry, the police and the army. Ironically, it was the police who’d killed the martyrs being remembered, but I’m guessing the pro-army groups just chose to forget that minor detail.

A “coffin” of one of the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs

After the deaths of around 50 people in the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud crackdown, the Ministry of Interior released a statement condemning a “third party” in a vain attempt to shift the blame. In response to such a flagrant shot at rewriting history, the groups that identify themselves as the “Third Square” – a mix of Muslims, Christians, Islamists, moderates and secularists who reject both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule – called on their supporters to flock to Mohamed Mahmoud to remember those killed, while also opposing the pro-army groups.

Their work started the day before when a new Third Square group called “The Way of the Revolution Front” held a demonstration in Abdeen, not far from Tahrir Square. Speeches were given and video from the 2011 tragedy was shown on a screen. The mothers of those killed during the fighting also joined the group.

Afterwards, they ventured down Mohamed Mahmoud Street and into Tahrir Square, where a monument “in memory of those that died in the January 2011 and June 2012 revolutions” had just been erected. The monument didn’t go down particularly well. Considering it was built by the current government, many believe it taints the martyrs’ memory somewhat. Less than 12 hours after it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, it was being taken apart and sprayed with graffiti that read: “Down with those who betrayed us: Brotherhood; remnants of the old regime; and the Interior Ministry.”

A man who supports General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – the First Deputy Prime Minister, who led the coup against former President Morsi – watching from the periphery turned to me and whispered, “This is a disgrace, for the martyrs and all Egyptians. These dogs are not real Egyptians.”

On the anniversary itself, a rare criticism of the incredibly powerful army could be seen and heard throughout downtown Cairo. Until Tuesday, the pro-Brotherhood groups had a monopoly on anti-army chants and the pro-army groups dominated the anti-Brotherhood chants. Now, members of the Third Square were – almost in the same breath – chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood andthe army. “Down with military rule!” could be heard alongside calls against former President Mohamed Morsi.

It was noticeable that there wasn’t much of a security presence, especially given that the area is often inundated with police and armoured vehicles (APCs). Clearly aware that their presence would likely cause more problems that it would prevent, security forces had evacuated the area.

A take on the old chant of, “Aysh horreya, adala igtameya (bread, freedom, social justice)” was modified to, “Aysh, Horreya, Tutheer ad-Dakhleya (bread, freedom, purge the Interior Ministry)” in a special mention to the feeling that impunity is rife in the security forces. Mohamed Fatthi, a member of the Way of the Revolution Front, explained: “We won’t allow [pro-Sisi groups] to stain the memory. We want justice and the Interior Ministry needs serious reform before that will be possible.”

The entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud Street from Tahrir had a banner that read: “No entry – army, Brotherhood, remnants of the old regime.” Several coffins lay at the entrance to the street, symbolising those martyred two years ago.

The pink camofuflage graffiti lining the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud

Up on the wall was a large new piece of pink camouflage graffiti – an apparent slight against the armed forces and their supporters who’d intended to occupy the street. In Tahrir itself, there seemed to be a blend of allegiances happily mixing among one another. In fact, it was only clear from the signs they were carrying as to what their affiliations were, with some brandishing portraits of General Sisi and others wearing Third Square T-shirts.

An odd development of the various groups being among one another was the sudden influx of hand-signs depicting allegiances. Occasionally, the famous four-finger “Rabaa” hand sign – a symbol of remembrance to the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp – was held aloft, countered by the two-finger peace sign now claimed by pro-army Egyptians. Meanwhile, the Way of the Revolution Front and other Third Square groups were using the three-finger hand sign, showing an allegiance to neither the army nor the Brotherhood. The sheer amount of hand signs, all meaning representing opposition to each other, made the otherwise peaceful atmosphere slightly surreal.

However, the weirdest part of the day arrived after sunset. As well as being the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, the 19th of November was also the second leg of Egypt’s World Cup qualifying match against Ghana. They had lost the first leg 5-1, so needed to win by a five-goal margin in order to make it to the World Cup. That wasn’t exactly likely – but nevertheless, as soon as the match began on the screens set up around Tahrir, the hundreds of chanting demonstrators suddenly fell quiet, squeezing up against each other to watch the match. Egypt won 2-1, but failed to qualify.

After that, as though the preceding 90 minutes had never happened, the chanting continued and small clashes broke out by the Arab League building on the edge of Tahrir Square. For the first time that day, some tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd, a man was killed after being hit by birdshot and the back-and-forth between protesters and security was once again in motion.

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Arrested In Cairo

First published in Vocativ on November 11th

Two riot police backed up towards us and asked me, “Do you have any cigarettes?”  I handed them a couple of cigs and could see that they were suffering from teargas exposure.  Their hands shook so violently I had to light their cigarettes for them.  They were short, skinny and looked incredibly young.  “How old are you guys?” I asked them. “We’re 20” they replied before giving thanks and leaving.

At that moment, I couldn’t help but feel some pity for these young men, knowing they are conscripts who are treated atrociously by their superiors.  This pity was short lived.

This was the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s “strategic victory” over Israel during the 1973 October War.  With nationalistic fervour already at an all time high thanks to the Army’s help at removing the much despised President, Mohamed Morsi in the July 3 ‘coup-not-a-coup’, this was a day that bordered on the chauvinistic.

The majority Muslim Brotherhood Anti-Coup Alliance had called on four marches to converge on a Tahrir Square that was the setting of unprecedented state security.  My count on the day was at least 10 APCs and a few tanks just for good measure.  All entrances to the Square had several lines of barbed wire and metal detectors – an affront, surely, to a public space that had long been an icon of anti-establishment protest.

Meanwhile the Tamarod group, which had organised the supremely successful campaign that led to Mr Morsi’s removal, had called for a full day of celebration, also in Tahrir Square.  With confrontation predetermined, the bloodshed that came later was just as inevitable.

The day began with a number of fighter jets flying low enough to set off car alarms and shake the dilapidated windows of my flat.  Tahrir Square itself was the scene of a joyous army love-in.  The de jure nationalistic song “Teslam el Ayady” blaring out sentiments so sickly saccharine as to cause tooth decay.

Two officers by a metal detector told me the orders if a Muslim Brotherhood march was to make it to the square.  “We will arrest them,” one said with a shrug.  But if there was any struggle?  The other officer narrowed his eyes and replied in English, “we will shoot them, and we will win”.  I left to cover the Anti-Coup March on the west side of the Nile.

Once the march turned onto Tahrir St, which leads to the Square, the fighting broke out almost instantly.  With teargas canisters flying in from further down Tahrir St, the crowd immediately reversed back onto the street they came from, while the Central Security Forces (CSF) advanced, followed shortly by Army personnel. A fellow journalist and I sheltered in a side alley on Tahrir Street and watched as the riot police passed us by.  By standing in one spot we had moved from the front of the march to the frontlines of the CSF.

Small groups of riot police pointed their shotguns towards the side alleys where cowering men and women withdrew to; occasionally firing what I hoped were blank rounds.  As the teargas subsided, we cautiously made our way out.

Beyond the CSF some 30 meters stood the protesters, waving, shouting and throwing rocks.  Burning tyres were already beginning to obscure my view of them.  The riot police continued to fire teargas towards them, an unholy swirling mixture of black and white smoke engulfing the protesters.  One CSF member who had clearly watched too many action movies started shooting his shotgun into the crowd one-handed; he was smiling.

Then a CSF recruit grabbed me on the back of the neck.  He slapped me on the head repeatedly as his friend took my camera from around my neck and my phone from my pocket.   The gentlemen marched me towards a small alley that leads off Tahrir St where I could see a number of other Egyptian men being penned in by some riot police.

I fumbled in my wallet for my press pass.  Not one month old, my newly acquired pass, issued from the Cairo Press Centre, was shown to senior member of the CSF.  He looked at it and saw that it said “British”.  He looked up at me and back down at my photo a few times before saying, in English, “I’m sorry”.

They gave me back my bag and my camera but the officer held onto my press pass.  Assuming I was free to go I enquired as to the whereabouts of my phone and motioned for my pass.

Instead I received a hefty push in the back and I suddenly found myself with the other detained men. I called to a nearby CSF recruit and told him I was a British journalist and there was some misunderstanding, he told me to put my hands behind my back.  I reiterated my point and received a slap in the face for my troubles.

What has long been a blessing was suddenly a curse.  I have an ability to pass off as Egyptian.  I don’t get any grief when I walk around alone and I tend not to get ripped off by ‘foreigner’s prices’.  The worst that had happened up till then was an awkward exchange at a hotel bar during Ramadan, when the barman refused me service until I produced an Egyptian ID card that betrays your religion.

We were all frog marched in a line down Tahrir St.  I spied the journalist I had been with and he nodded his head to me.  “Thank god someone I know saw this happen,” I thought.

Video cameras appeared from nowhere to, no doubt, document the “successful capture of terrorists by the glorious state security”.  A man in a suit appeared from nowhere and started berating us.  I was genuinely shocked by the look of disgust on his face.  I have never before seen such visceral hatred in person.  He was practically foaming at the mouth, spitting at us, and calling us dogs and worse.  Before departing he ensured to take leave with a slap on my face.  It was unfortunate that I was at the front of the line.

I could see the large blue shell of the police van that was to transport me to the police station, but not before we were told to get on our knees by the sidewalk.

As they started to handcuff everyone with cable ties, I tried again to explain that, “I am a journalist! A British Journalist!”  I repeated it in Arabic and English but the policeman who eventually came to my pleas only proceeded to take my camera bag, camera in tow.  Then they picked me up and started marching all ten of us to the van.

I believe this was the point when I started to panic.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” was all that went through my head.  In a state of panic, eloquence is the first casualty.  I was pretty sure that was the last I would see of my camera, phone and bag, replete with voice recorder and notepads.  That’s a lot of money and work when you’re freelancing.

I was thrown into the back of the van.  There was already one man inside as well as a police officer, the latter beating the former in a repulsively calculated fashion; kicking each leg, then punching the kidneys, then working his way to slaps on the head before starting from the bottom again.  It was somehow more chilling that this all took place in complete silence, no swearing, nothing.

I shamelessly prepared myself once again with the, “I’m a British journalist” that had worked such wonders before.  He gave me a look, but nevertheless he declined me the same treatment.  The others were not so lucky.

We were driven all of a minute to the Dokki Police Station just down the road from where I was picked up.  As the door opened we were ordered to march through a group of CSF, every one of them landing a kick or a slap on us as we passed them down into the basement of the police station.

The basement itself was a sad sight, decrepit and soul sapping, although that is presumably the point.  Filigrees of damp crawled across the walls towards the barred windows where they died in the light.  A comical stand-alone cage is propped alongside one of the walls and we are duly crammed into it.

Two policemen readied themselves by a nearby door, one standing on a table and the other below him.  We were taken out, one by one, and liberated from what belongings we had left on us.  I was the second man to be frisked.  The man on the table kicks me in the hip while his friend below grabs my face and points to my belt.  I remove it without hesitation and am whipped with it.  It’s surprisingly infuriating to be whipped by a belt you provided.

In the room, I’m set to my knees.  There are two women in the room and about twenty men, not one of them without some bruise, abrasion or cut visible.  As the others are poured in, the room begins to fill up.  It’s a tiny room with one barred window that was shuttered off to ground level.  I could just make out the Sheraton hotel through the trees.

Eventually a plain-clothes policeman comes into the room and starts taking down the name, age and address of everyone.  When he gets to me I decide this is the best chance I have at being released.  I put on my best BBC accent and proclaim “Adam Patrick Ramsey”.  I knew my best bet at getting out was now playing the ‘British’ card.  It’s a privilege I knew my fellow detainees couldn’t exploit, but my moral pillars crumbled in the circumstances, much to my disappointment.

The ‘Adam Ramsey’ part of my name is far too close to being an Egyptian name, so I decided to throw in one of my middle names.  I thought it best to omit my other middle name, “Omar”.

“Adam what Ramsey?” he asks me.  “Adam Patrick Ramsey” I say again before continuing, “I’m a British journalist”.  “How old are you?” he suddenly asks in English before rooting through my wallet, where he thankfully finds my UK drivers license.  Before I can answer he leaves the room only to return, incensed and suddenly speaking Arabic again.

“Born in Saudi Arabia eh?”  I completely forgot that for some reason the UK license puts your country of birth.  Rather than explain that I’m half-Malaysian half-Northern Irish and that I had little say in the place of my birth (never mind the fact Saudi is giving Egypt billions in aid), I decided to act coy.  “I don’t understand you,” I said in terrible Arabic.  “Fuck Saudi!” He replies, before throwing my license onto a pile of Egyptian IDs just outside the door.

The door is closed and the temperature slowly rises.  A 50-year old teacher nods his head gently against my shoulder.  I turn around and see a face of genuine sympathy, “I am sorry,” he says.

“Look”, he motioned to a corner of the room.  I had completely missed a man of at least 60 crumpled in the corner.  Both his legs were covered with birdshot, blood slowly pooling around his feet.  I looked at the blood and the smell immediately became unbearable.

Outside the window a couple of CSF recruits looked in but all I could see were their legs.  Suddenly, the barrel of a teargas gun is rested on one of the bars.  When pain subsides and boredom sets in, the imagination plays fast and loose.  I immediately recollect the story I read of the 36 men who suffocated to death in police custody.

Of course, in the end, the recruits simply walked away, but I was still shivering over the thought of what it would have been like, picturing what I would do were they to have fired tear gas at us.  Probably die, was the conclusion I came to.

We could hear screams from outside the door, which would open only to reveal yet another poor man who was being flogged for no reason other than to sate the appetites of these megalomaniacal sadists.  They wouldn’t stop until a scream or yelp was emitted, before then pushing him into the room to join us.  They were practically high-fiving each other at their new and ingenious methods of delivering pain.  In five years at a boy’s boarding house I never witnessed such levels of hyper-masculine pageantry.  They fit the stereotype of despotic state security so perfectly it would have been funny if it were not so depressing.

After around an hour and a half, they decided to move us to another room.  By now we were standing, packed like sardines, sweat beating off us.  The two women had been removed long ago to God knows where and they hauled the birdshot man to get, I hope, some medical attention.

Policemen lined our path and hit us as we passed them into a room some 20 meters away.  Except it was not even a room, rather a miniscule, enclosed courtyard in the middle of the building.  Sixty of us squeezed our way in.

The tiled floors were dusty and covered in rubbish and aberrant marks of dried blood.  I was pushed to my knees once again.  I turned and tried to reason with my captors.  I heard the desperation in my voice, but it was quickly cut off by a kick to the back. “Look straight ahead!” Would be the catchphrase for the rest of the evening.

I found it almost physically impossible to turn from a man who was hitting me, and this only prolonged the smacking.  I finally turned and stayed turned, covering the back of my head.  I noticed that everyone else was in exactly the same position.

This was by far the most painful part of the day.  Far more than any whipping, slapping, kicking or punching.  Kneeling for close to 3 hours left me almost incapable of walking once we were finally asked to stand.  We were so crammed together there wasn’t space for me to put my hands on the floor to help shift my weight.

During this time I studied the back of the man kneeling in front of me.  The different rips and blood stains, the open wound on his upper right shoulder, where the blood began to coagulate, haemostasis working its magic.  I could feel the man behind me resting his head on my back.  As the sun set the call for prayer was heard and incredibly (after asking a guard’s permission) everyone somehow pivoted towards Mecca and began to pray, still crouched.

As time passed, the men started whispering to one another and I took the chance to see where everyone else came from.  They were taken from the same area as me.  Some openly said they were part of the march, while others swore blind that it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time.  All but one was experiencing arrest for the first time.

“Don’t worry, your embassy will help” one said to me.  “Yeah, but only if they know he’s here,” replied the man behind him.  “Just stay… what’s the word?  Optimistic” said the man behind me, his head still resting on my back. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was dealing with it, some even risking  humour.

The man in front suddenly gave that old trope that every visitor to Egypt would have heard a thousand times.  “Welcam to Eegipt” he said.  Everyone burst into laughter.  “Shut up!” was the guard’s reaction.

After an hour or so, someone decided to ask for some water.  With all of us facing the wall in front, we were suddenly pelted with small bottles from behind, the plastic pinging off heads and backs.  These were shortly followed by near inedible packets of knock-off Borios (itself a knock-off Oreo).

“Mohamed Adel Mohamed?” a policeman suddenly asked.  A young man to my left turned around, his face lighting up “Yes! That’s me.”  He said with a look of pure hope.  “Do you live in Imbaba?” queried the policeman. “Yes, yes!” replied the man.  “Ok! Could you please… stay there,” he said.

He would do this every five minutes or so with a different person.  It was a cruel twist moving from physical punishment to the emotional.

Suddenly, I hear “Is there a British national here?”  I immediately twist around, my hand in the air, “Yes!” I replied.  “Oh no, we need someone who was born in Saudi and is half-Malaysian”.  “Yeah… That’s still me,” maybe the embassy had called, I thought.  Maybe they finally realised that I really was a British journalist and are letting me out, “OK thanks, just stay there,” he smiled at me.

Of course he was just deluding me like he had everyone else.  Hope is an incredibly tenacious emotion that can survive a lot of trauma, but can also make you feel immensely stupid for trusting in it.

After evening prayers, I began to resign myself to staying the night.  My legs were numb by now so pain wasn’t a problem.  The smell of noxious vinegar began to grate as more men began pissing themselves – I was happy to realise that this was the one type of relief I was not in need of.

At around 10pm, just over six hours after I was initially arrested, we were suddenly asked to stand up.  I almost collapsed as my knees screamed bloody murder.  Leaning on the man in front of me, I steadied myself and we filed out of the room and upstairs.  We were told to queue up in front of a notice board.  I read the yellowed certificates and newspaper clippings in recognition of the Police station’s valiant work of past decades.

Once again we were pulled aside, one by one, and our details recorded.  Depending on the answer you gave, you were directed to one of two corners of the room.  I readied myself once again.  Same BBC accent, same reply of “Adam, what, Ramsey?” But this time, for a reason I still cannot figure out, I was separated from the rest and placed in a different corner by myself.

I stayed there silently while they sorted through the two groups, one with around 12 men and the other closer to 50.  All looked exhausted, the blood on their shirts now that dull brown colour.

After some paperwork and backslapping the policemen sent the larger group back downstairs.  The smaller group and I were free to leave.  I immediately searched for a man I could communicate in English with.  One man cordially obliged, until I began asking questions like “Why was I detained? I had a press pass issued in Egypt.”  Suddenly, he became a mute, all hand signs, shakes of the head and dumbfounded expression.

I later found out that another foreign journalist had been detained in almost exactly the same area at exactly the same time as me.  Having spoken to him about it, there is a good chance we actually travelled to the station in the same van, but he was sitting in the front.  While I was on my knees, he was being questioned in an office ten meters away.  The main differences between us that I could see were that: he is a little whiter than me; had his passport on him; yet he did not have an Egypt-approved press pass.  The value of a press pass is questionable when it doesn’t guarantee a journalist is free from harassment or arbitrary detention.

The question is not just why a foreign national, or a journalist, can be detained like this, but why such conditions continue at all, for anyone.  What I experienced looks dramatic on paper, but in reality, it was relatively trivial.  I was kept for around 7 hours, that’s it.  It’s a nightmare reality that gets much worse for far too many, far too often.  Think of the Frenchman that was murdered in his cell, the Canadians who eventually went on hunger strike, the Al Jazeera reporters who are still being detained.  Never mind the thousands of normal Egyptians that you won’t have heard of who are still in prison, some being tortured.  These conditions have existed through Mubarak, The SCAF, Morsi and now Sisi.  It’s nothing new.

But in the current nationalistic rapture, the state security can (and do) now point to a popular approval as mandating them and therefore endorsing these methods.  It brings to mind Alexis De Tocqueville’s concept of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, where the sovereignty of this or that majority trumps the sovereignty of mankind – a lamentable state of affairs.

Walking down the street I flag a taxi to take me home.  “Welcome to Egypt” says the taxi driver with a grin.  On the radio ‘Teslam el Ayady’ is playing.

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The Chaotic Start of Mohamed Morsi’s Trial


Morsi supporters gathered outside the court

First Published in Vice on Tuesday November 5th

 

Yesterday, for the first time in four months, Egypt’s deposed Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, appeared in public. Since his ousting on July 3 the interim government and armed forces have gone to great lengths to keep his whereabouts a secret. The inevitable speculation made for some interesting gossip: Was he rotting in jail in Alexandria? Was he effectively being held captive in the Republican Guard HQ? Was he, for whatever reason, in Qatar? Could he even be dead?

If he is found guilty of the charges against him, death will become a very real possibility for Morsi. He, along with 14 other high-ranking members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, are accused of a multitude of crimes, including incitement to murder.

On December 5 last year, a march staged by supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood intentionally made its way to an anti-Morsi sit-in outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. Predictably violence ensued, with 11 people dead—three of them non-Brotherhood. Reports subsequently emerged that Brotherhood members had set up makeshift torture rooms and graphic stories leaked out over the proceeding weeks. The question now is how much Morsi, or Brotherhood leaders, had to do with any of it.

Less than 24 hours before his trial was due to start, the location of the courtroom was finally released: New Cairo’s Police Academy—exactly where Egypt’s pre-Morsi leader Hosni Mubarak had his trials and verdict announcement about two years ago. The room that Morsi stood in yesterday is exactly where Mubarak had been wheeled out to stand, the courtroom having been specifically built for his trial.

As journalists and lawyers poured into the room, it was clear that this was an ad hoc job. What seemed to have once been a lecture hall had been split in two, one half a jumble of mesh, bars and cage, the other half tiers of benches.

Down in the corner were six leading members of the Brotherhood, their white prison uniforms just visible through the mesh. Once everyone was in place they chanted in unison, “We are not a military state!” and, “Down! Down! With military rule!” The response from the lawyers’ section of the hall was immediate. Some held up the four-finger salute that has become a symbol of Muslim Brotherhood solidarity and joined in with the detainees’ chanting, while other cried out, “Execution!” Simply put, it was the polarization of Egyptian society in microcosm.

After the dust had settled, the judges came out and ordered silence. Presiding judge, Ahmed Sabry, had just about taken his seat when a loud clapping sound could be heard coming from the cells. Morsi appeared to the applause of his arrested colleagues. Having apparently refused to wear the white prison uniform, he instead opted for a dark blue suit, with a white shirt and open collar. He waved, setting off another few minutes of yelling and chanting. A journalist down from me suddenly lost it and started yelling, “Execution! Execution!”

Morsi’s strategy for the trial was clear well before it had even started. He has always clung to the absolute authority of “legitimacy” because he’s certain he has it—this is widely disputed. Astatement released through IkhwanWeb—the Brotherhood’s official English-language website—a week before the trial stated, “The legitimate president and legal team totally reject the trial.”

Morsi remained as defiant in person, not waiting to deliver a statement to the massed judges, lawyers, and journalists. Talking over the judge, he proclaimed, “I am the legitimate president of the republic! This is an illegal coup and I do not recognize the court! I have respect for the Egyptian judiciary, but they are being used as a cover for the coup!” Later, he extended some advice to the security services, warning, “Never let anyone turn you against the Egyptian people!”

The trial was chaotic, with the judges, defendants, and lawyers all yelling at one another, forcing two temporary breaks in proceedings. It seemed to be Morsi and Mohamed el Beltagy (an important Brotherhood member) who were most vocal in decrying the politicized nature of the process they were caught up in and the charges brought against them. Beltagy often interrupted the judge with cries of “Illegal!” and “Illegitimate!” whenever certain topics were touched upon.

After the court was stopped the first time, a fight broke out among the lawyers, which sounds odd but wasn’t all that surprising given they were openly calling for polar-opposite goals. Morsi stuck to the plan and refused any negotiations or interactions with the court. When offered the chance to have his old legal companion Mohamed Selim Al-Awa as his lawyer for the trial, he simply restated, “I am the legitimate president of the republic!”

The lawyers didn’t seem in too much of a rush to get on with things either, begging the judge for more time to read through the 7,000-page case for proper preparation. Eventually, after a second break was forced due to raucous behavior, Judge Sabry adjourned the trial until January 8, 2014.


One of Morsi’s defense lawyers being held aloft by Brotherhood supporters after the adjournment

Outside the huge compound, a congregation of about 300 Morsi supporters waited chanting. Making my way back through the police and onto their side I was bombarded with questions. When they found out that Morsi had not complied whatsoever and had another trial date set for January, there was a mixture of pride and anger among those I spoke with.

“The whole court is corrupt,” declared Mahmoud Suleiman, a Morsi supporter outside the Police Academy. “Why would he agree to do anything with them? He is my president and the legitimate president of Egypt.” As pro-Brotherhood lawyers made their way out they were greeted with cheer, each one surrounded for interviews and occasionally lifted onto the shoulders of the crowd. The odd ant-Morsi lawyer who accidentally came through this exit needed to make a quick getaway or face a beating.

Elsewhere in Egypt, numerous small protests took place and minor trouble flared whenever pro-Morsi met anti-Morsi or riot police. It was the final day of a raft of protests planned by the Anti-Coup Alliance, but in light of Morsi’s defiant actions, they released a new statement that called for a new “million man” march today, naming it, the World Salutes the President’s Resolve.

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Morsi trial adjourned until 2014 after chaos in Cairo court

First published in the Irish Times on Monday November 4th

 

After four months in secret detention, Egypt’s ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi appeared in court alongside 14 other members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Facing an array of charges, Mr Morsi refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, repeatedly shouting, “I am the president of the republic”. After a rowdy two hours the trial was adjourned until January 8th.

Since the military removed Mr Morsi from office on July 3rd, he has been held in an undisclosed location with little external communication. He and his co-defendants face charges of inciting the killing of protesters who massed outside the presidential palace in December last year and demanded he call off a referendum on a new constitution drafted by his Islamist allies.

If convicted, the defendants could face the death penalty.

An estimated 20,000 security personnel were stationed around key areas in Cairo in advance of the opening day of the trial. The court location, in the New Cairo Police Academy, 25km from central Cairo, was not disclosed until Sunday and any person getting in was required to go through five security checks.

No electronic devices were permitted and police set up barriers to the public far from the entry to the sprawling compound. The courtroom was built specifically for the trial of Hosni Mubarak, the former president who was deposed in 2011 and remains under house arrest in a military hospital.

Here it was being used to try Mr Mubarak’s democratically elected successor.

Resembling a lecture hall, the room had been fitted with large ad hoc prison cells and half of it was obscured by the mesh of wire and bars. At one end, six Muslim Brotherhood members, including leading members Mohamed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, waited in silence, dressed in white prison uniforms.

After journalists and lawyers filled the stands, the six suddenly began chanting in unison “Down with military rule!” and “We are not a police state!”

A female lawyer in the crowd shouted back “Execution! God willing.” Other lawyers sympathetic to the Brotherhood held up the four-finger salute that has become a sign of support for the now suppressed organisation.

Chaotic scenes

Mr Morsi eventually made his way into the courtroom to applause from his Brotherhoo

d colleagues and amid chaotic scenes. Journalists and lawyers stood on their chairs, then tables, to get a better look at the man who had managed to create this visceral bifurcation in Egyptian society after only one year in power.

The deposed president, dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt with open collar, smiled and held his hands up to the crowd, looking healthy and resolute.

The judge, Ahmed Sabry, called for calm in order to begin proceedings. But he managed to get only as far as a roll call of the defendants before being interrupted by Mr Morsi.

“This was an illegal military coup. I am Dr Mohamed Morsi and I am the legitimate president,” he began, slowly raising his voice so he could be heard over the loudspeakers, through which Judge Sabry could be heard calling for order.

“I am here against my will,” Mr Morsi continued. “I believe in the great Egyptian judiciary and I don’t want them being used as a cover for the coup.”

Eruption of noise
Once again, the courtroom erupted into noise as some lawyers chanted “Execution!” while others chanted Morsi’s name. After less than 15 minutes, Judge Sabry adjourned the court for an hour and Mr Morsi was removed from the cell and out of view.

In a statement last week, a Brotherhood legal team had also challenged the legitimacy of the charges against Mr Morsi. “We reaffirm now, that no lawyers will be defending President Mohamed Morsi . . . because the president does not recognise the trial or any of the actions and processes that resulted from the coup, such as the politicisation of the judiciary,” it said.

During the enforced break, some lawyers began holding aloft portraits of al-Hosseini Abu Deif, a journalist who was one of those killed during the clashes last December. This provoked an outbreak of shouting and scuffling that required intervention from the courtroom’s security.

Eventually, the court reassembled and charges were read out, but the defendants again challenged the legitimacy of the proceedings. Asked how he pleaded to the charges, Mr Beltagy replied simply, “This is all illegal”.

Mr Morsi had refused to have a lawyer so according to standard legal procedures, will be appointed one by the judge. The lawyers who were present pleaded with the judge to give them more time to work through the 7,000 pages of case papers.

Prison disclosed
After further disruptions the judge temporarily halted proceedings again before finally adjourning the case until January 8th, 2014. The defendants were quickly led out of their cell and state TV later reported that Mr Morsi was now being kept in Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria, the secrecy of his whereabouts apparently no longer a priority.

Outside the courtroom, a few hundred Morsi supporters chanted in support of their president. They carried out Brotherhood legal representatives on their shoulders while chasing away the odd prosecution lawyer who made the mistake of exiting through them.

After news broke of the new trial date, mixed feelings were expressed about the meaning of this first trial. “Today doesn’t matter, it’s just paperwork, I am here to show support to my president, the only president, Mohamed Morsi,” said Ahmed, who had been at the police academy since 8am.

Mahmoud Suleiman, a manual worker from Cairo, was, however, incensed at the prolonging of this “fake trial”. Through a Morsi mask he said: “He is the president, he won elections, he got the constitution, how can he be in prison for so long? How is that possible?”

Elsewhere in Egypt, pro-Morsi protests were held in several governorates, with relatively small clashes breaking out in Cairo, Alexandria and Asyut, where pro-Morsi protesters met riot police and anti-Morsi protesters. Further protests have been called for today.

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