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Saturday 3 December 2016

Somaia Halawa: 'We can never be free as long as my brother is in an Egyption jail'

Somaia Halawa talks about her prison ordeal and her brother's ongoing detention in Egypt

Somaia Halawa and Joanna Kirwan
Somaia Halawa and Joanna Kirwan
Somaia Halawa and a picture of her brother Ibrahim
From left, Nosayba,Fatima,Omaima and Somaia Halawa. Photo: Tom Burke
Ibrahim as a baby
Ibrahim and his sister
From left, Nosayba,Fatima,Omaima and Somaia Halawa. Photo: Tom Burke

In August 2013, news of the arrest of four of Sheikh Halawa, Ireland's most senior Muslim cleric's children, during protests in Cairo, broke. The siblings - sisters Somaia, Fatima and Omaima, alongside their younger brother Ibrahim - were subsequently imprisoned.

In December 2013, the three sisters returned to Ireland following their release. Ibrahim, however, who was just 17 at the time of his arrest, was not as lucky and has now spent both his 18th and 19th birthdays imprisoned in Egypt, awaiting a mass trial in which he is to face charges alongside 493 other defendants.

For Somaia, who has not returned to Egypt since, life now is consumed by campaigning for Ibrahim's release. "We are free, but we are not free," Somaia explains, "because our young brother is still there."

So how did members of a prominent Muslim family from south county Dublin end up arrested and imprisoned in an Egyptian jail?

"We had lived in Egypt most of our lives before this, and Yemen also for a time," Somaia explains. "So we have been here almost 20 years."

"We were away from all of the politics and we were able to go in and out of Egypt all those years, even though Murbarak's regime was strict. It was okay for us because they knew they had nothing against us," Somaia tells me.

"When the revolution happened, it was the most amazing thing that happened in our country. But, obviously, we were not just going to book our flight and go there."

Somaia found it difficult to adjust to schooling in Ireland through English and so, went back to Egypt for her secondary education, continuing on to do study for a degree in primary school teaching. She then returned to Ireland where she worked as a pre-school teacher, before studying for a higher diploma in education here, around the time the revolution was happening in Egypt.

She hopes to complete her masters and PhD in this area some day.

Ibrahim was born at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin and holds an Irish passport. He grew up in Ireland and went to school in Firhouse, Dublin. He had hoped to continue his studies and attend Trinity College before he was arrested.

holidays

After receiving her higher diploma in 2013, Somaia returned to Egypt in search of summer work with her sister Fatima. In June that same year, after his exams, Ibrahim followed his sisters to Egypt for the summer holidays, during which they were to attend a family wedding.

Summers in Egypt were a tradition for the Halawas at this point, who had spent their youth visiting family there during the school and college holidays.

Egyptian politics, Somaia claims, was never of much interest to her until she and her sisters witnessed security officials firing on crowds of peaceful protestors in the summer of 2013.

"When the revolution happened in 2011 and into 2012, it wasn't really, for us, a matter of who is going to take over - whether it was Muslim Brotherhood or non-Muslim Brotherhood or Christian, whatever. The most important thing for us was that people would live in peace and democracy," Somaia explains. "When we got there in 2013, there were things going on - you know, politics - and it's not that we didn't care, but because we didn't live there, we didn't understand the reality of what was happening.

"There were obviously things that we criticised Morsi about and there is no denying that, but at the same time, we just felt there is no point in protesting - people can just get him out at the next election.

"People were protesting every Friday; there would be pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi protests and we didn't get involved in that."

On the July 3, 2013, however, Mohammed Morsi, who was Egypt's first democratically elected president, was removed from office by the military following a turbulent first year in office.

"When Morsi was removed by the military, that is when we went down [to the protests]. It meant that Murbarak's regime was never gone, that it had all just been a facade," Somaia explains. "That is when we felt 'you can't just do that. You can't just all of a sudden when I have a voice take it away from me'."

"Loads of people became involved then, who were not pro-Morsi, but they just went out because they felt that their humanity asked them to go out," Somaia adds. "There were loads of Christians there and there was politics of all different parties. It wasn't only the Muslim Brotherhood like people have been saying."

"Then, we met this lady from America, who decided to do something called Egyptians Abroad for Democracy - they were gathering people from abroad to make the world outside hear what was going on. So if a person knew English, they spoke in English, and if a person knew German, they spoke German, and I did a speech about democracy and Ibrahim spoke about how he lived in democracy in Ireland," Somaia says.

"It's funny that you see people pointing to this video now and saying, 'Well look, he was on the stage'. When was going on a stage and speaking out a crime?"

A number of online critics have also circulated a video claiming to show Ibrahim tearing up his Irish passport. Somaia is eager to point out that the young man in this video is not her brother.

"It is ridiculous," she responds, "I have seen the video and it looks nothing like my brother, and my brother was holding on to his Irish passport with everything he had throughout the arrest because he hoped that it would save him. It was the only thing to prove he was only 17, a child."

Ibrahim was not as dedicated to protesting as his older sisters became that summer and continued to enjoy his holiday.

Massacre

"He would support humanity, but he was still a child inside, so he stayed enjoying his summer, visited the pyramids. He did not witness the massacre with us," Somaia says of the Rabaa massacre, which she and her sisters watched unfold on August 14, 2013.

It is a day, which has since been referred to as Egypt's Tiananmen Square, following the killing of at least 817 people in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square alone and estimates of a further 1,000 across the country, when Egypt's security officials moved to violently disperse those taking part in the mass sit-ins against the military coup.

"It was like a war," Somaia remembers. "People were dead in front of us with their brains coming out. Fatima was shot with a rubber bullet."

Finally, the Halawa's older brother, Ahmed, made it into the city and drove the girls to safety. "Ibrahim was not with us that day, but he could see from our eyes what we had witnessed," Somaia explains. "The next day Fatima was getting medical treatment and by the time we reached Ramses Square, people were being killed again, so we decided it was not working, we all needed to leave. But by then, the square was being attacked so we ran to what we thought was the safest place in the mosque."

"Our friends and family called the embassy at that time and they said later 'We have arranged a safe passage for you', but there was no such thing as a safe passage. We saw others go out, who had been promised the same, being arrested. We were the first people who wanted to go home, but it was just too dangerous," Somaia adds.

The al-Fatah mosque in Cairo's Ramses Square was later surrounded by Egyptian police and all of the occupants were arrested.

"You just felt that you were going to die," Somaia says. "At one stage, we were in this prison van and there was no air. We agreed that no one would talk because there was not enough oxygen."

The siblings were first taken to a military camp before being separated into male and female prisons. "It was just really bad, really dirty," Somaia recalls. "Every 45 days, they would bring us to a so-called hearing. The last time we weren't told why we were there, all they said was 'I hope you have learned your lesson'. That was it and we were free."

A couple of weeks after their release the Somaia, Fatima and Omaima returned to Ireland.

"We condemn what has happened around the world, we condemn what Isis does," Somaia says. "What's happening in Egypt is terrorism too and that is the reality."

Ibrahim's next court hearing is set for August 3.

According to a statement given by Minister Charlie Flanagan to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade last Wednesday, he and his officials are treating Ibrahim's continued detention with 'the utmost priority.'

Ibrahim and his family have also been receiving consular support from the Irish Embassy in Egypt and since his arrest, he has been visited by embassy officials on a total of 42 occasions.

However, for Somaia, the fact that the Irish Government has stopped short of requesting Ibrahim's release means his detention is likely to continue for many months, or even years, to come.

"It's frightening that these people, who know human rights very well, will say that they cannot interfere in the judicial process, when they know there is no such thing as a fair judicial process in Egypt now, especially in an illegal mass trial," Somaia says. "My sister visited him in the prison yesterday and she says he is very unwell. He has lost hope, he has no self-esteem left.

"He does not care what happens to him now. It is heartbreaking."

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