Ibrahim Halawa - the inside story
Weekend Read: Ibrahim Halawa travelled with his sisters to Egypt, where he was caught up in political protests and arrested. Efforts to get him released have failed, and two years on his family blame the Irish State for his continued imprisonment. Are they right?
Ibrahim Halawa: awaiting trial in Egypt. Ilustration: Brian Gallagher
Omaima, Fatima and Somaia Halawa sisters of Ibrahim Halawa who is in prison in Egypt. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Before the arrest: Ibrahim Halawa with sisters Fatima, Omaima and Somaia. Photorgaph: PA Wire
It was a Friday in mid-August, a time of year when Dublin shifts into a slower gear and the long days blend into one. Politicians were on holiday. CAO college offers were due in two days. The front pages carried a scientist’s warning that temperatures in Ireland would rise to dangerous levels, but the sky over the city was a benign, familiar shade of grey.
That Friday – August 16th, 2013 – Egypt was ablaze. In Firhouse, south Dublin, where she was tending to her two young children, Nosayba Halawa kept an anxious eye on the rolling TV coverage of demonstrations that were convulsing the country of her birth. Nosayba’s sisters Somaia (27), Fatima (23) and Omaima (21), and her brother Ibrahim (17), had departed for Egypt in late June.
Since they had arrived, the removal of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, had set off a cycle of violent clashes between the newly installed government and the deposed leader’s supporters.
Friday was to be a “Day of Rage”, called by the Brotherhood on Cairo’s Ramses Square in response to the demolition by security forces of a protest encampment in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which Human Rights Watch said left at least 817 people dead.
As Nosayba, the eldest of the seven Halawa children, watched the footage of Ramses Square, she could see plumes of tear gas rising above the crowds, the sound of gunshots echoing in the background.
By late afternoon, increasingly concerned about her siblings, Nosayba got into her car and drove to her father’s house 10 minutes’ drive away in Firhouse.
Sheikh Hussein Halawa was watching the unfolding chaos from his livingroom, waiting for another call from his children in Cairo. Earlier, Nosayba says, he had advised them to seek refuge in the al-Fateh mosque.
They were now in the mosque, and communications were patchy. The TV screen showed police, soldiers and vigilantes surround the building. “We were watching, thinking, ‘what can we do’,” says Nosayba.
Acting on a friend’s suggestion, she called the Department of Foreign Affairs, where a duty officer took the details of the four Irish citizens. “We’ll do everything we can,” she recalls him saying.
Night had fallen in Cairo when Seán Norton’s got a call from the department in Dublin. It was his second month as Irish consul in Egypt. He was about to be drawn into one of the most complex and delicate consular cases ever handled by the department.
‘The boy is not political’
Ibrahim Halawa, the youngest in the family, was born in 1995 at Dublin’s Coombe Hospital. He went to Holy Rosary primary school in Ballycullen, had a close group of friends, and by all accounts spent his spare time doing the sort of thing that every suburban teenager does: playing football, listening to music, sitting around on walls.
At home, Ibrahim tended to leave the room when the news came on. “The boy is basically not political at all,” says one Irish official. “He’s an Irish schoolboy. He likes sport, music. He writes rap music. He speaks with an ordinary Irish accent. Lovely fella.”
Ibrahim’s parents were born in Egypt, and their extended families live there. So it was common for Ibrahim and his siblings to travel there in summer to spend time with their cousins. Ibrahim had just finished his Leaving Cert when he and his three sisters flew to Cairo in late June. He would later say that he had wanted to go on a post-Leaving Cert holiday to Spain with his friends, but he was asked to accompany his sisters to Egypt. “I wish I’d gone to Spain,” Ibrahim told a visitor last year.
They touched down in a country in turmoil. Security forces and pro-Morsi demonstrators were clashing every day, and a state of emergency had been declared.
According to Somaia, the siblings were out of the political loop when they landed. She had just finished her Montessori studies and was hoping to gain some teaching experience in Egypt that summer; another sister had applied for a place on an art course. “All of a sudden, the coup happened,” Somaia recalls, “and we felt, this is not right.”
The Halawas are a religious family; Sheikh Hussein, the imam of Dublin’s Clonskeagh mosque, is the most prominent Muslim cleric in Ireland.
The sense of liberation that followed the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 had been intoxicating, Somaia says. “In Egypt, for once in your life, you had a voice. In Mubarak’s regime, when we went for a holiday, you were not allowed to talk about any politics. Everything was okay. Mubarak was fantastic. No poor people. The economy was perfect.
“And then you go to Egypt and all of a sudden everyone is talking about politics, everyone is talking about Morsi, everyone is giving out in the media. You felt this freedom.”
Somaia says she and her siblings didn’t agree with everything Morsi did, but they were sufficiently angry about his removal to join the Islamist sit-in at Rabaa. On Facebook on July 28th, Omaima Halawa wrote: “I’m still [in Rabaa] and will be until our democracy is back, until our religion is no longer attacked . . . because we only fear Allah not bullets.”
A YouTube video shows the Halawa siblings addressing the Rabaa crowd against a banner reading “Egyptians Abroad for Democracy”, a lobby group set up by young Egyptian expatriates opposed to Morsi’s ousting and the subsequent crackdown on his supporters.
Almost 900 people were killed when security forces launched a deadly assault at Rabaa on August 14th. A subsequent Human Rights Watch investigation found that, in addition to hundreds of protesters who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police once the assault began, demonstrators fired on police in at least a few instances.
The report added, however, that the protesters’ violence in no way justified the “deliberate and indiscriminate killings of protesters largely by police, in coordination with army forces”.
At Rabaa, Fatima Halawa was hit by a rubber bullet. Two days later, the Halawa siblings made their way to Ramses Square for the demonstration called by the Brotherhood as a show of defiance after the Rabaa killings.
The Egyptian ambassador to Ireland, Soha Gendi, calls the Halawas siblings “activists” who “knew exactly what they were doing” by joining what she says were violent protests at Rabaa and Ramses. “It’s not like [Ibrahim] was a lost child and he got entangled in this. He and his sisters were there.”
When they reached Ramses Square, Somaia says, they found the scene had already turned ugly: the crowd had thinned out and shots were being fired. “Then we just decided we’ll head home, because there is no point being in a place like this; it’s dangerous.”
By that time, however, a 7pm curfew had begun, leaving them liable for arrest if they attempted the walk to their uncle’s house. “As we were talking, the army kept coming towards us and shooting,” she says. “We just ran towards the mosque, went inside and closed the door. We stayed there, wondering what was going to happen.”
It was 3am when news of the stand-off reached Isolde Moylan, who was then Ireland’s ambassador to Egypt. She spoke by phone to Omaima, who told her “thugs” were surrounding the mosque and were “trying to kill us”. (Omaima repeated that message in a live interview on Al-Jazeera from inside the mosque.)
Witnesses described chaos and panic as security forces opened fire and shots were returned from the mosque’s external minaret. “They have us surrounded in the mosque to kill us,” Ibrahim said in a video recorded inside. “Everyone is willing to give themselves to the last bullet.”
The ambassador advised the siblings to stay together. “I’ll do what I can to get you out safely,” she said. Irish officials also suggested that the Halawas not draw attention to themselves by giving any more interviews.
Working her contacts through the early hours of Saturday morning, Moylan eventually reached a brigadier who ran the international cooperation section at the interior ministry.
Moylan says she and the Irish Government were looking for the Halawas to be guaranteed safe passage out of the mosque. The officer asked if the Halawas wanted to leave; through Moylan they confirmed they did. The brigadier called Moylan back a few minutes later. “That’s settled,” he said.
‘If you leave, we will kill you’
What happened next remains in dispute two years on. Irish officials say safe passage was guaranteed to the ambassador and the Irish government, and that it would have been guaranteed to the Halawas in person. Under the arrangement, the siblings would be taken from the scene, searched, have their records checked and then be released.
Irish officials say two groups had already left the mosque and that the deal was explained to the Halawas, but that their phone kept ringing out when the brigadier tried to call them to arrange their exit.
However, the family says there was no such thing as safe passage, given the confusion at the scene and the fact that the mosque was surrounded by police and angry local residents.
“We said, the army is outside and they’re pointing to us, saying, if you leave the mosque we will kill you,” says Somaia. “So we said to them, can anyone from the embassy come and take us? They said, it’s not safe for us. So we replied, if you don’t think it’s safe for you, how would you think it’s safe for us?”
Amnesty International, which has declared Ibrahim a prisoner of conscience, says it agrees safe passage was not an option and that it is “understandable” from “the video evidence and the teargas coming into the mosque as well as the sound of gunfire outside, that people would fear for their own lives if they were to come out of the mosque at this point.”
The Government insists safe passage was an option. “I have no doubt that the safe passage would have been observed,” says one Dublin-based official, who suggests the siblings may have come under pressure from others inside the mosque not to accept the offer. The official says that at no point was the ambassador asked to come to the mosque as part of the arrangement.
At about 2pm the next day, security forces entered the mosque and remaining protesters were escorted out. The Halawas, with several hundred others, had been inside for 17 hours. The siblings were split into two groups and put in police vans.
At the family home in Firhouse, an Egyptian number appeared on Hussein Halawa’s phone. It was Fatima. She spoke briefly before the line was cut.
For the Irish Government, the arrest of four citizens presented a major challenge. From early on, the strategy was two- pronged: first, to press to have them released; and second, to provide as much consular care and assistance as possible during their detention.
The three Halawa sisters were held at a women’s prison for three months before they were released on bail and returned to Ireland in November 2013. Ibrahim remains in prison; the two-year anniversary of his arrest falls later this month.
He was first sent to an overcrowded, unsanitary detention centre adjacent to the notorious Tora prison. Later he was transferred to Al Salam, a military detention centre where conditions were no better and, according to one source, overcrowding was so chronic that it was difficult to lie down.
After an intervention on his behalf by the Irish authorities, Ibrahim was moved to Al Marg, a low-security prison for inmates serving the final stage of their sentences. He was there between November 2013 and August 2014, when he was transferred to Tora in advance of his trial.
Ibrahim’s family say conditions at Tora were appalling. “He was one of 15 people in a room. August. It was blazing heat. No air conditioning. No beds. The toilets were blocked and stinking,” says one visitor. Amnesty says Halawa was shot in the hand as he left the mosque, and Nosayba says he still cannot fully open it.
Irish authorities again intervened when Ibrahim reported that men in balaclavas had entered his cell at Tora and beaten him with chains. The Egyptians agreed to move him to what was known as the “VIP wing” at Tora, where one of his cellmates was the Australian Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste.
Ibrahim and Greste hit if off immediately. “Peter took him under his wing,” says one visitor. “They spoke English. He lent his books to Ibrahim, and he read them all.” When Greste was released last February, he said Ibrahim was a “real character” who “brought a real energy to the cell and a real sense of humour”.
After Greste and others left, Ibrahim grew despondent. Asked to describe his state of mind at the time, a source who met him says: “Absolutely lifeless.”
Officials from the Irish embassy visit Ibrahim regularly; as of this week, there have been 43 visits. Early on he struck up a good rapport with Moylan, the ambassador, and her staff. For her part, Nosayba Halawa, who was the family’s contact point with the Government for the first nine months, says the department was “brilliant” during that time.
As time went on, however, relations grew increasingly strained. The Government and the Halawa family began to disagree on strategy.
Irish officials believed the Halawas’ media campaign was counter-productive and that open condemnation of Egypt was “weakening our capacity to intervene, when intervention becomes feasible,” as one official puts it.
The family felt media coverage was an important tool, and last year it went public with the claim that the Government wasn’t doing enough to press the Egyptians – a criticism that was picked up by opposition parties, turning the case into a domestic political row.
In March, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan put words to a question that critics of the Government’s stance had previously implied: Would the Irish Government be doing more if Ibrahim’s name was Paddy Murphy?
Channels of influence
Behind the scenes, Irish authorities were meeting more problems than they acknowledged in public. One of the channels of influence Ireland uses in sensitive cases such as this is its membership in the European Union. After the ousting of Morsi and the crackdown against his supporters, however, the EU was badly divided on how to react.
A number of southern European states resisted moves for the bloc to strongly condemn the military’s action, resulting in public statements that merely noted the EU’s “regret” at events and stopped short of using the word “coup” to describe Morsi’s overthrow by the military.
Senior EU figures have raised Halawa’s case with the Egyptians, but the divisions within the bloc diluted its influence on the ground, according to one European source who was involved in the discussions. The chief focus, then, has been on bilateral lines of communication.
Ireland’s ministers for foreign affairs during this period, Eamon Gilmore and now Charlie Flanagan, have raised the case regularly with their Egyptian counterparts. The two states’ embassies, in Dublin and Cairo, have also been closely involved.
“I would say there is no consular case that is receiving even a quarter of the care and attention the case of Ibrahim Halawa is receiving,” says a high-ranking official.
‘Megaphone diplomacy doesn’t work’
From the beginning, Egypt’s understanding of the case, and the Halawas’ place within it, was at odds with Dublin’s. While Cairo allowed Halawa consular visits, it was also adamant that, under Egyptian law, anyone with Egyptian parents was automatically an Egyptian national until he or she formally renounced it.
The Egyptian regime also claimed there were links between the Halawa family and the Muslim Brotherhood. The family denies this.
“The whole family is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether they deny it or not,” says Soha Gendi, the Egyptian ambassador. “Usually, the kids, they are born within this ideology. So they defend that ideology. If the father and mother believe in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, automatically the kids believe in that.”
A US embassy cable from 2006, published by Wikileaks, refers to suspicions about such connections based on Sheikh Halawa’s position as secretary of a body called the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which gives religious opinions on issues relevant to Muslims in Europe. The council is an offshoot of the Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, an umbrella group of various branches and affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.
Nosayba Halawa responds that, in Egypt today, the claim of Brotherhood membership is levelled at anyone who disapproved of the military’s actions in 2013.
“Let’s be honest,” she says. “The Brotherhood is a political group like any political group. They have the right to express themselves as long as they express themselves in a peaceful way. In Egypt now, either you are with me or, if you’re against me, you’re Brotherhood.
“My brother Ibrahim didn’t know anything about the Brotherhood until he went to Egypt. He has learned more about it in prison than he learned his whole life.”
While a political decision was made from the outset to break with Department of Foreign Affairs policy by speaking publicly about efforts on Halawa’s behalf, the Irish authorities have drawn a red line at public criticism of Egypt.
According to six well-placed officials, there was unanimity in Government on the need to avoid any sign of hostility towards Cairo, and that line has held for the past two years.
It was no secret that Ireland had concerns about Egypt’s legal system in general. In its submission during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Egypt in November 2014, the Government said Ireland was “greatly concerned by judicial and detention policies in Egypt, including the use of capital punishment and mass trials, that threaten the rule of law and fall short of international standards on due process”.
At the same time, however, Ireland has good diplomatic relations with Egypt, and Dublin remains convinced it is in Ibrahim’s best interests that they be maintained. That has meant that while discussions in private can be direct, public comment are to be measured.
“We had serious problems with many of the things that were happening in Egypt,” says one Irish source. “It’s awkward. But there are ways of dealing with it. Megaphone diplomacy doesn’t work. The more of that you do, the less they’ll do” for you.
This put the Government in conflict with the family, their lawyers and human rights groups that demanded stronger action. Doughty Street Chambers, a London-based law firm that has taken up the case, says there are a number of unexplored legal avenues. It says, for example, that Ireland could put Egypt on notice of potential legal action for breach of its obligations at the International Court of Justice.
The lawyers argue that a decree issued by Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in November 2014, and used to repatriate the Al-Jazeera’s Greste to Australia, could be used to free Ibrahim. Using the slogan “Pick up the phone, Enda”, Opposition politicians have called on the Taoiseach to contact Sisi directly and demand Halawa’s release.
The Government initially believed the presidential decree held promise for Ibrahim, and formally supported an application by his lawyer to have the teenager returned to Ireland under the terms of the new law.
At a meeting with the prosecutor general in Cairo in February, however, the Irish authorities were told the law would not be applied where an individual was in the course of a trial process.
Since summer 2014, Ibrahim has been under a trial judge’s jurisdiction. This tallies with what happened in other cases where the decree was successfully applied.
“Peter Greste’s initial trial had concluded and his retrial had not begun so, strictly speaking, he was not in the course of a trial process when he was returned,” Flanagan told the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee last month.
The position is reiterated by Gendi, the Egyptian ambassador: “Once it has been transferred to the judicial authority, we have separation of powers. We can’t just intervene. We cannot, until the case is done.”
‘A very serious case’
At the Oireachtas committee meeting, Flanagan described as “overly simplistic” the claim that if senior politicians lifted the telephone that “Ibrahim would be immediately sprung from prison”.
The Minister said he shared concerns about the length of time Halawa had spent in prison and continues to raise these concerns “at the highest level” with the Egyptian authorities.
“Concerted and targeted work is ongoing behind the scenes with a view to ensuring that we are best placed to take advantage of any opportunity that arises to achieve progress towards a positive outcome for Ibrahim Halawa,” he said.
The most benign scenario, the Government believes, is that Ibrahim is acquitted or receives a relatively light sentence that accords with the period he has already spent in prison.
The worst-case scenario is a long sentence, in which case the Government believes it would have a 60-day window to intervene and press for Ibrahim’s return.
Gendi signals as much, saying there would be “room” for talks between the two governments after the trial. She adds, however, that it may depend on the outcome.
“It’s a very serious case,” she says. “It’s not something to be taken lightly. I doubt very much that if it was the same case here, and an Egyptian citizen got entangled in this . . . that the Irish court system would just hand him freely to the Egyptian government.”
Gendi says that Halawa has not been beaten, has been treated “in a very, very respectable way”, and that she has done her utmost to facilitate the Irish authorities. “I am 100 per cent satisfied that he will have a fair trial,” she adds.
For any political intervention to work, one official says, it is essential to maintain “credit in the bank”. After all, calling the Egyptian president now would be to play Ireland’s last diplomatic card.
“At the right time, in the right circumstances, the Taoiseach will make that intervention,” the official adds. “Even the US had to wait until the case had gone through the courts,” says another high-ranking official, referring to the case of Mohamed Soltan, a US citizen who was released last May after receiving a life sentence.
The Halawa family believe the strategy is misguided.
“It’s not enough,” Nosayba says. “I don’t think any of them would be able to allow his son to be in my brother’s situation for two years, saying ‘we can’t interfere in the legal process’. The Government has spent two years using the same strategy, and it’s not working.”
There has also been criticism from within. “I know this is something that is being pushed, but there are certain things you can say if you’re not a Government minister,” former minister for justice Alan Shatter said in March during an appearance on The Late Late Show with the Halawa sisters.
“We have very good diplomatic relations with Egypt,” Shatter said. “I think now this has reached a point where we should question the nature of our diplomatic relations if this continues on indefinitely.”
‘It’s difficult to get Irish people excited’
Amnesty International has campaigned for Halawa’s immediate and unconditional release. It says it understands that Egypt’s assertion that Ibrahim is an Egyptian national presents “particular difficulties” in diplomatic efforts to secure his release.
“We also note that in the case of the Al-Jazeera journalists, efforts to secure their release were only successful post-conviction – and that two of them still face the threat of jail,” says Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.
“However, Ibrahim has been detained awaiting trial, and facing a manifestly unfair mass trial, for almost two years. It is critical that Ireland continues to make strong representation on his case. It is also important that the EU focus its attention on securing his immediate and unconditional release without further delay.”
At a separate meeting of the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee last month, O’Gorman said he had “enormous sympathy” with the Halawa family’s view that if Ibrahim was ethnically Irish there might have been a different response to his case.
He also said that some of the xenophobic and Islamophobic comments posted online about Ibrahim were “of grave concern”.
Another frustration for supporters has been the challenge of building a mass campaign. While Ibrahim’s teachers have given warm and affectionate public testimony about him and his schoolfriends have made online videos to raise awareness of his situation, “it’s still difficult to get Irish people truly excited” about the case, says one campaigner.
Dublin has discussed the Halawa case at length with senior officials from Canada, Australia and the US State Department. Their analysis broadly tallies with that of the Department of Foreign Affairs, according to multiple sources. At the root of that analysis is a belief that the president, Sisi, cannot intervene without burning up some of his own political capital.
“Sisi is a product of the Mubarak-era system, but not in the way that the judiciary was,” says a well-placed source from one of the states Ireland has consulted with. “The judiciary is its own power centre. It has its own interests. It has its own political motives, its own political culture – which is vehemently anti-Muslim Brotherhood.”
The president must weigh international and domestic pressures, the source argues. From Sisi’s perspective, the international pressure is relatively blunt. For all the criticism on human rights, the US will not stop sending military supplies and the EU will not cut off its financial aid. For both, not least given the crises in Syria and Libya, Sisi is strategically too important to abandon. “They can’t turn off the taps, and Sisi knows that.”
In Egypt, however, there is a political cost to intervening while the case is in judicial hands. “If he starts sticking his finger in the judiciary, it’s going to cost him political capital and domestic support . . . The domestic pressure on him to hold the line against the Brotherhood is really quite intense.”
An Irish official summarises it as follows: “We see Ibrahim as an Irish citizen and a consular case. They see this as a Muslim Brotherhood case, and in their view the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. That’s why it’s all the more important that we maintain a good bilateral relationship. We could be asking them to do us a political favour in an area that is for them very sensitive and problematic.”
That view is echoed by Dr HA Hellyer, an Arab affairs specialist at the Brookings Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington and RUSI in London.
Hellyer says that while the Egyptian government has the ability to influence the judiciary, “it appears to have calculated that the cost of using that ability is more costly than it is worth.”
When tensions arise between executive and judiciary, he says, “the presidency intervenes very delicately, as in the cases around Al-Jazeera and Mohammed Soltan show”.
‘I miss the cold of Ireland’
None of that gives much consolation to Ibrahim Halawa, whose trial was again adjourned last Sunday for another two months. Charges against the 420 co-accused range from murder and attempted murder to taking part in a banned protest. It is understood that Halawa falls into the least serious category, though his family say they have not received official confirmation of that.
According to Doughty Street Chambers, the teenager’s case file contains no evidence to link him to any of the crimes he is alleged to have committed. He is said to be refusing prison food, taking only the meals that his mother, Amina, queues for several hours in searing heat to deliver. Otherwise he takes “six or seven dates with some milk”, Somaia says.
The experience has taken a toll on Amina, who has “got very old” the last two years and now struggles to walk without a stick, according to Nosayba.
On August 17th, Ibrahim will have spent two years in prison. In that time, Nelson Mandela died, human cloning became a reality, the world’s population grew by 150 million, a terror group named Isis was formed, Nasa found water on Mars, “selfie” entered common usage. and the Smartwatch was born.
Ibrahim is now 19. His schoolfriends are about to start their third year of college.
He has told the family that his bedroom better be just as he left it, and jokes that his accumulated monthly pocket money must now amount to a small fortune.
“He says things like, ‘I miss the feeling of getting a clean shower, I miss the cold of Ireland,’” Nosayba says, laughing. “I’m like, okaaay.”
One day, a visitor tried to perk him up by offering to cook whatever he wanted on his first night of freedom. He opted for fish and chips. “Yeah,” he told them. “I’d love some fish and chips.”
Egypt, the Arab Spring and the protests the Halawas joined
On December 17th, 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian market trader named Mohamed Bouazizi flicked a lighter and set himself, and the Middle East, alight.
Bouazizi’s death was the catalyst for a wave of nationwide protests against the rule of the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who for more than two decades had presided over an autocratic and corrupt regime. The demonstrations continued for more than a month and eventually forced Ben Ali to flee the country.
That sent tremors rippling across the Arab world. Within days, protesters had gathered on Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that president Hosni Mubarak release his 30-year grip on power and clear the way for democratic elections. A real revolution was brewing.
As the protests grew in strength, the Mubarak regime resorted to increasingly violent tactics to quell the challenge to its authority. Hundreds were killed and injured. Mubarak’s attempts to placate the demonstrators with concessions cut little ice.
On February 11th, 2011, vice-president Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak was stepping down. The crowds on Tahrir Square were euphoric.
When Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections took place in June 2012, the big winner was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been banned for three decades. In Mohamed Morsi, an engineering professor and former political prisoner, the Brotherhood had its man in the presidential palace.
The victory was a remarkable turnaround for the Brotherhood, a grassroots organisation that, since its founding in Egypt in 1928, has grown to become the world’s most influential transnational Islamist movement.
The euphoria of Tahrir Square soon gave way to discontent. Critics began to complain of an anti-democratic drift under Morsi. He alienated secularists and moderates by stuffing ministries with Brotherhood stalwarts. The economy stalled.
Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers to push through a controversial new constitution. The opposition said he was paving the way for an Islamic state. The crisis reinvigorated the opposition, and crowds came back onto the streets.
When youth activists of the Tamarud movement called for nationwide protests on June 30th, 2013, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, Egyptians turned out in their millions to call on him to step down. (Counter-demonstrations drew a few hundred thousand people.)
On taking power, Morsi’s new head of the army was a devout Muslim and career infantry office, Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But relations between Morsi and the military deteriorated fast.
The day after the June 30th protests, Sisi issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Morsi: either yield to the protesters’ demands that he share power with the opposition, or make way for the military to impose a solution. Morsi rebuffed the ultimatum.
On July 3rd, he was placed in detention and the military took control. The removal of this democratically elected leader prompted a wave of pro-Morsi demonstrations such as the one the Halawa siblings joined.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested, and in September a court outlawed the group. Sisi became a central figure in the army-backed post- Morsi government. In May 2014 he won a two-candidate presidential election.