The Cairo four
The Irish-Egyptian Halawa siblings became increasingly politicised during a summer holiday in Egypt, and have now been detained by the regime they protested against. But friends say they are innocent victims of a political power struggle
The Irish-Egyptian Halawa siblings, from left, Ebraheem, Fatima, Omaima and Somaia. Photograph: PA
In a security facility somewhere in Cairo, four siblings from Ireland await their fate after they were detained during unrest in Cairo last weekend. They have been allowed no contact with their family or lawyer.
Hours after an Irish diplomat was granted access to them on Tuesday, reports emerged in Egypt’s state-run media that four Irish citizens – believed to be sisters Soumaia (27) Fatima (23) and Omaima Halawa (21), and their brother Ebraheem (17) – were among nine foreign nationals detained for up to 15 days pending investigation into charges including attempted murder, possession of arms and explosives, and belonging to a militant group.
The story of how the four Irish citizens ended up in military custody in Cairo began last Friday, the day the Muslim Brotherhood called for rallies against the army’s overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and the bloody security operation to evict his supporters from protest camps in the city.
Sheikh Hussein Halawa, father of the siblings and imam at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) in Clonskeagh, Dublin, says he advised his children to seek refuge in Cairo’s al-Fath mosque after deadly clashes broke out at nearby Ramses Square, where the Halawas had been demonstrating with thousands of others.
Security forces surrounded the mosque, inside which hundreds of people had barricaded themselves. Automatic gunfire and screaming could be heard in the background as the siblings gave dramatic interviews to TV channels including Al Jazeera from inside the mosque, describing scenes of chaos.
“They want to kill us,” said Ebraheem in a clip widely shared by his friends on social media. “We just want things to be like they are in Ireland. Everyone is willing to give themselves to the last bullet.”
The siblings told Al Jazeera that they were too frightened to leave, despite the promise of safe passage by the military, because they had witnessed other women being set upon by a baying anti-Morsi mob, some armed with wooden sticks, as they tried to get out.
A US reporter at the scene said some within the crowd threatened to “get to” a woman who had been doing interviews with Al Jazeera from inside the mosque, a possible reference to the Halawa sisters.
When security forces eventually overran the complex, the Halawas were among scores of people, including several journalists, who were rounded up and taken to Cairo’s infamous Tora prison.
“I saw them at the protests and the mosque. They did nothing wrong,” said Shaimaa Awad, an Egyptian journalist who was detained at Tora with the Halawas but later released. “They told the interrogators that they had Irish nationality and they wanted to contact the Irish Embassy as soon as possible. The man replied: ‘We will see.’”
As Irish officials try to get further information about the reports that the Halawa siblings may face serious charges, their family and friends in Ireland have been protesting their innocence and highlighting their case through demonstrations outside the Egyptian embassy in Dublin and media campaigns. A “Free the Halawas” Facebook page has been set up, along with a similar Twitter hashtag.