Ibrahim Halawa’s future hinges on political deal

Analysis: No quick solution for Government in what Egypt sees as a terrorism case

Ibrahim Halawa is about to reach yet another milestone. In August, the young Irishman was in his cell at Wadi el-Natrun prison to mark the two-year anniversary of his arrest. Earlier this month, he turned 20 in the same place.

Now, with his trial having been adjourned for an eleventh time, he will usher in a third New Year in jail, still not knowing even when his trial will begin.

Campaigners, human rights groups and, most recently, the European Parliament, have lined up to denounce the mass trial of Halawa and 419 others, pointing out that it is a manifestly unfair process that offends some of the most basic human rights norms a properly functioning justice system should observe.

The Government and all of Ireland's political parties agree that Halawa, who was 17 when he was arrested during protests against the ousting of Egypt's then president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, should be released. But there are sharp divisions on how that can and will be achieved.


The Halawa family and some campaigners accuse the Government of not doing enough to secure his release.

In March, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan asked whether the Government would be doing more if the boy's name was Paddy Murphy.

Others have said Dublin should be lobbying harder to press Egypt into freeing Halawa on foot of a presidential decree issued in November 2014 under Egyptian law 140. This was used to release the al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste in February.

Consular visits

Claims the Government has done nothing for Halawa are untrue. Officials from the Irish embassy in Cairo have attended each of the court hearings and so far have paid 48 consular visits to the Irishman in prison.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and other Irish ministers have raised it with their Egyptian counterparts, there has been ongoing discussion about it between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian embassy in Dublin and in recent months Taoiseach Enda Kenny has twice raised it in person with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

“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,” a high-ranking official said in August.

The wisdom of the strategy is an open question. Many campaigners see this essentially as a legal problem, but the Government’s analysis is that the Halawa saga is tightly bound up with Egypt’s delicate political situation and can ultimately be resolved only with the cooperation of the political authorities in Cairo.

That makes it important to avoid showing open hostility, Dublin believes, not least given that Ireland and even the EU have relatively little leverage over the Egyptians.

“Megaphone diplomacy doesn’t work. The more of that you do, the less they’ll do for you,” said one source.

Dublin doesn’t dispute that a close reading of law 140 suggests it could apply to Halawa, but the Egyptian government says otherwise. That may well be a political position as much as a legal one.

The Egyptian judiciary is a power centre close to but very much separate from the political leadership, and one that is vehemently anti-Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi cannot intervene in the judiciary without burning up some of his own political capital, according to several analysts.

Intervening in what the Egyptians regard as a terrorism case connected to the Brotherhood would come at a political cost.

“The domestic pressure on [Sisi] to hold the line against the Brotherhood is really quite intense,” said a source from another western state that has been consulted by the Government on the Halawa case.

Reading between the lines of public statements, it appears the Government has been given a political signal that Egypt may be in a position to release Halawa when the trial comes to an end.

Egyptian ambassador Soha Gendi indicated as much in August when she told The Irish Times there would be "room" for talks between the two governments after the trial, although she added that those discussions would depend on the outcome.

The language in official Irish statements has grown more pointed in recent months, but its position remains that the best hope of having Halawa released is a political deal after the trial comes to an end.

The problem, of course, is that two-and-a-half years after his arrest, Halawa’s trial has not even begun. That increases pressure on Dublin and Cairo. Above all it puts yet more intolerable pressure on the young man himself.