Incarcerated in Egypt for four years and unsure of whether he’d ever get to return to his native
Ireland, Ibrahim Halawa is free. But what are the repercussions, asks Caroline O’Doherty.
On the day before what turned out to be the last false alarm for Ibrahim Halawa, he relayed a few thoughts to be posted on Facebook.
Within hours, he was expecting to hear the verdict in the trial that had kept him in an Egyptian prison for four torturous years.
Perhaps expecting was too strong a word as there had already been 30 adjournments and, amid the complexities and confusion of a case that involved more than 400 defendants, anticipating progress on any given court date had been an exercise in hope over optimism.
But this time, the last Monday in August, the Irish Government was confident this was it and senior ministers had reportedly cleared their diaries for taking and making calls in preparation either for getting Ibrahim home to Ireland as a free man or pardoned convict, or launching an appeal in the case of conviction and further imprisonment.
“I guess I’m closer to the unknown,” wrote Ibrahim.
As it happened, Monday, August 28, became just another date in a long list of disappointments. Adjourned again, Ibrahim was returned to his limbo existence.
Three weeks later, on Monday last, there was another flurry of activity as another possible final day in court loomed.
This time, government ministers were quieter, though they remained on watch nonetheless.
This time, the verdict did come through. Ibrahim was acquitted of all charges. The unknown was known.
Declan Walsh, the Irish journalist who is Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, vividly described seeing the young Dubliner, partially obscured by the glass and wire mesh cage in which the prisoners were held, jumping up and down, punching the air and hugging fellow inmates as the judge read out his determination.
From outside the soundproofed enclosure, his jubilations were a strange, silent dance of delight but the tears in Ibrahim’s eyes bellowed emotion.
But as Ibrahim prepares to begin his life again in Ireland, the effects of his experiences, how they will shape a future he had begun to doubt he would have, and how they will shape attitudes towards him, will undoubtedly begin to be revealed. Arguably, he is closer to the unknown now than ever.
Ibrahim Hussein Halawa was 17 when he travelled with three of his sisters from their home in Firhouse, south county Dublin, to Cairo to spend the summer with relatives in 2013 while he waited for the results of his Leaving Cert exams.
The youngest of the seven Halawa siblings, he was born in Ireland after his father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, moved the family from Egypt in the mid-1990s to head up the new Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin.
The expansive campus, home to Ireland’s largest mosque, is funded by the al-Maktoum Foundation established by the billionaire ruling family of Dubai who have strong ties with Ireland through their stud farms here.
The Halawas have had a comfortable but unshowy lifestyle here, family, faith, and education absorbing them.
They have always insisted they were not political — not in the activist sense anyway. But Ibrahim and three of his sisters, Omaima, Fatima, and Somaia, arrived in Cairo just as the city was erupting in political protest.
Egypt had enjoyed a brief taste of democracy after Hosni Mubarak, dictatorial leader for 30 years, was toppled during the Arab Spring revolutions that swept north Africa in 2011.
In the country’s first free elections the following year, Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the uprising, was the victor. But the celebrations were short-lived.
Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Sharia law-supporting Islamic group, quickly drew criticism for cronyism, conservatism, and a new constitution that awarded himself sweeping powers.
Crowds returned to the street in protest and Morsi’s army chief, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, turned on him, leading a coup and assuming control of the country.
A fresh wave of protests followed. Like or loathe Morsi, he was democratically elected and the voice of the people who voted him in and then asked him to change his ways was now being silenced by a strongman in the Mubarak tradition.
At first the demonstrations ran peacefully. A mix of pro-Morsi, anti-coup, and a bit of both, the protesters worked well together in a shared expression of discontent.
The Halawas joined in and on one occasion, they took to the stage under the banner of Egyptians Abroad for Democracy, Ibrahim taking his turn with other young expats to address a crowd of thousands.
Video footage shows a confident teenager, speaking energetically in Arabic while the crowd cheers their approval before he leads them in chants in English of: What do we want? Freedom. When do we want it? Now.
Curiosity, excitement, youthful idealism, too much free time — anyone could have drawn the siblings to the movement. Some have claimed — though the family strenuously reject it — that the siblings were deliberately dispatched by their father as a show of strength for the Muslim Brotherhood which was keen to prove its reach into the West.
El-Sisi’s patience with the protests rapidly waned and in mid-August he sent security forces to clear the main gathering in Rabaa. In the clashes that followed, as many as 900 demonstrators were killed.
There were casualties on the government side, too — officially several dozen members of the security forces died although other sources put the toll at less than 10. Either way, the loss of life among the protesters was enough to ensure that Rabaa would be forever accompanied by the word “massacre”.
On August 16, a demonstration against the killings was called for Ramses Square. The Halawas went along and became swept up in a terrifying ordeal. Another crackdown was ordered and the siblings took shelter with hundreds of others in the al-Fateh mosque.
They were there all through the night and into the following afternoon, with security forces surrounding them and becoming increasingly trigger happy.
During that time, the siblings stayed in touch with home by phone —calls that would eventually get them direct contact with the then Irish ambassador to Egypt, Isolde Moylan.
Through her diplomatic connections, she attempted to arrange safe passage out of the mosque but the situation escalated, the uniforms forced their way into the mosque, and hundreds were rounded up and imprisoned.
The sisters were granted bail to await trial after three months and immediately left for Ireland — an act complained of by the Egyptian authorities although their displeasure is contrived because they had to know the trio would head straight for the airport on release.
Most likely they knew detaining three young women would be a PR disaster even for a regime that didn’t care much for its image abroad. Ibrahim, however, was a different story. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong gender.
His story is not unique. Every so often a western citizen falls foul of the law some place where western styles of justice, with their preoccupations about innocence until proven guilty, rights for detainees, and respect for prisoners seem absurd.
The American student Otto Warmbier, who was returned to his family from North Korea in a coma last June, is a case in point.
He had allegedly taken a propaganda poster from a hotel. Charged, tried, and convicted of crimes against the state, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour.
What happened after that is unclear but his release was announced to his overjoyed parents only for them to discover their son had been in a persistent vegetative state for more than a year. He died days after his homecoming.
Ibrahim’s case was complicated because Egypt did not view him as a western citizen despite his Irish birth and harp-embossed passport.
With two Egyptian parents, he was considered Egyptian and no pleas for special treatment for the naive tourist from a friendly overseas nation was going to cut any ice.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, on its travel advice page, is very clear about the kind of assistance it can and can’t provide in the event of an arrest abroad and, since Ibrahim’s case, specifically addresses situations where Irish citizenship may not be recognised.
“The right of an Irish dual national to receive consular assistance from our Missions is effectively determined by the attitude of the host country,” it warns.
“In circumstances where the Irish citizen is detained either in the country of their other nationality, or is travelling on the passport of another country, we may not be able to provide consular assistance.
“Under international law, countries are not obliged to legally recognise dual citizenship/nationality. Irish citizens should be aware that travelling or visiting the country of their other citizenship may have implications for them, and that they may also be subject to laws which apply only to citizens of that country.”
Most importantly, regardless of how outrageous a country’s criminal justice system may be, or how far below the standards required by international law it falls, the Irish Government warns it “can’t interfere in the local judicial process”.
And yet, the Irish consular team in Cairo were on Ibrahim’s case swiftly and consistently throughout the four years. In the early days they were treated with contempt, not being told which prison he had been moved to, being denied visits and refused meetings.
But they persisted and managed to secure regular contact and visits with him and for his extended family in Cairo. The accounts that emerged from family contacts were disturbing, with a distressed Ibrahim telling of the daily terror of beatings, threats, and humiliation.
Everyone was anxious for an early trial but terrified of what that trial might bring. Because of the deaths of security force members during the protests, the prisoners were being collectively charged with murder. Ibrahim could be facing the death penalty.
Back at home, the Halawa sisters began a high-profile campaign for Ibrahim’s release. There were vigils, protests, political lobbying, media appearances, and petitions.
International human rights groups backed them, the European Parliament called for Ibrahim to be freed, an Oireachtas delegation visited Cairo to make representations.
As the campaign gathered strength, it attracted opposition that made its presence felt through social media. While it is hard to deduce from rants on Twitter anything more than the knowledge that certain people rant on Twitter, the sheer nastiness of some of the commentary has unsettled the Halawas.
Much has been made of a film clip of Ibrahim inside the mosque in which he refers to Egypt as “my country”. Although the clip is filmed on a phone in frantic circumstances and is of poor quality, it is clear that Ibrahim is also saying the demonstrators must keep up their protests in order to stop the kind of abuses in Egypt spreading to Ireland, the country of his home.
A view is out there, though it is impossible to tell how widely held, that Ibrahim is not really Irish, that he should “pay for the sins” of his father, that he will have been radicalised in prison and represents a threat to this country, and that he should be refused entry here.
It may be a minority view but it raises questions for how well integration is going here. In the decade to 2015, an average of more than 12,000 people a year became naturalised Irish citizens. More than 100,000 have dual citizenship.
In the last few years, large scale citizenship ceremonies have become the norm — feelgood events where people are applauded for seeing becoming an Irish citizen as something good to aspire to.
But what happens if those same people run into trouble abroad? Does their entitlement to the protections of the Irish State and the privileges afforded by an Irish passport become diluted in the public mind by dint of their acquired Irishness?
There are questions, too, around Ireland’s diplomatic strength in a fast-changing world where traditional friendships are under strain.
While the Cairo team worked hard on the ground to improve the conditions under which Ibrahim was held, Dublin rarely looked to be getting anywhere on the bigger issues of the detention itself, the disproportionate charges, and the farcical nature of the trial.
It was notable that the Egyptian ambassador to Ireland at the time of Ibrahim’s arrest, Sherif Elkholi, was not inclined to make any comment on the issue.
His successor, Soha Gendi, has been more talkative but she has never made any concessions for the sensitivity of the case or for the Irish ears listening to her.
She accused the Halawa family and human rights groups of lies when they raised concerns about mistreatment of Ibrahim or other detainees and has gruffly dismissed any criticism of the obvious injustices of the Egyptian justice system.
She simply hasn’t cared for fostering constructive communications on the issue and we must assume this is also the attitude of the regime she serves.
From a human perspective, the most pressing questions are for Ibrahim himself. He should be graduating from college around now. His sisters have toddlers he has never met. His friends have lives he hasn’t shared. Some degree of post-traumatic stress seems inevitable.
Peter Greste, the Australian journalist who was detained for more than a year and for a while shared a cell with Ibrahim, has said there will be no getting back to normal for him because normal doesn’t exist anymore.
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said priority must be given to assessing and addressing Ibrahim’s “health, psychological, and social needs” when he returns home.
With a new Irish passport issued to him and release paperwork being processed, Ibrahim is closer to home than at any time in more than four years. And once again, closer to the unknown.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved