In Tahrir Square in November
In Tahrir Square in November
Hafsa Halawa*

CAIRO - "Hey there, Number 28!" – A friend texts me using my new nickname. Indeed, for at least one day of every month that’s what I answer to; Number 28. That’s where I fall in the list of 43 defendants on trial for working in what the government deemed "illegal civil society organizations."

It’s a story those following Egypt have read many times: the armed raid on December 29, 2011, the trial, and it’s been all but too well documented that on March 1, 2012, the non-Egyptians (except for American Robert Becker) fled the country. Then, nothing.

There has been a sprinkling of stories in foreign media (thanks to Becker’s insistence on keeping this in the news) and a one-fourth page piece in the local papers the day following court sessions. But after March 1, everyone decided for themselves that this was over for them.

But it’s not over for me, Mohamed El Wakeel, Rawda Ali, Ahmed Shawky, Amgad Morsy, Bassem Fathy, Magdy Moharram, Essam Ali, Ahmed Zakaria, Yehia Ghanem, Ahmed Abdel Aziz, Mohamed Abdel Aziz and Eslam Mohamed.

We are the Egyptians left behind; potentially facing five years in prison. Although I’m a slightly special case: Born and raised in the UK, with an Egyptian father, I am a dual national by birthright. But when it comes to this case and this revolution, I am Egyptian; no more, no less. It’s the reason why I stayed, despite calls to leave, the reason why I joined the National Democratic Institute and why I continue to fight even though others wouldn’t.

The past year has been more than trying on all of us; our lives paused, our reputations slandered in the media. This Thursday, Jan. 10, we expect to hear defense closing statements, and then the judge should adjourn until next month when he’ll deliver his verdict. He should, but we never know.

I had actually never met any of the people from the other organizations before our first court session on February 26, 2012. We don’t really see one another from one session to the next. Cramped into a small cage, stifled by the heat and unable to hear, court is our only chance to catch up. We dutifully answer ‘present’ when our names are called, after which, most of us retreat to catch up on each other’s lives: Shawky recently got married, Wakeel is writing his MBA thesis, Yehia was made editor-in-chief of Dar Al-Hilal. Rawda, Christina and I have our little chairs, fanning ourselves and occasionally squealing when a small cockroach runs up the walls. At least two of us come prepared with bin liners or newspapers so the boys can sit on the floor, and there’s always a pen for us to mark the cage walls.

What matters most

As a lawyer, nothing matters more to me than the transparency and independence of the three powers of governance. I have frequently voiced my dismay at both the judiciary and the executive branch on issues pertaining directly to this case. Yet, our judges have been nothing but professional and fair in abiding by criminal court procedures. Yes, it has dragged on far too long, owing mostly to the political nature of this case ... and the cage is unbearable. But that’s the law. I don’t worry that there is an element of corruption, or that the decision will be based on factors that are not legal.

What I do worry about, is that this case has put civil society firmly back in its own cage, and no one is willing to speak up and fight for it. Ultimately, the government won. The foreign organizations have closed, and are no longer operating in Egypt. Local organizations which continue to work do so only in the most discreet fashion. Funding is hard, if not impossible, to come by.

The political influence over this case and the effect it has had on the ability for organizations to work has stifled and strained resources. It has created a stigma no one can shake off: working for an NGO is only seen as a threat to Egypt’s sovereignty. A friend of mine tried to obtain government approval to register an NGO; a government employee asked her: "Are you one of those April 6 kids?" – she wouldn’t give her the forms.

Ultimately this trial is not about the 43 defendants. It’s not about former minister Fayza Abouelnaga, the US government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the American organizations. It’s about democracy. You can’t have real democracy without impartial media and a flourishing civil society. They provide the checks and balances on a social level that legal directives cannot. More importantly, they keep politicians honest.

The new Constitution, specifically Article 51, appears to solve the registration problem. Accordingly, NGOs should be allowed to work freely without the strain of stringent laws governing their activity. Many would argue the pro-Muslim Brotherhood government has worked to reform civil society - and I would agree; however, probably more out of their own interests, since the issue of funding remains untouched. The article is also still subject to the problematic NGO Law no. 84 of 2002. Ultimately, that is the crux of our case; while we are innocent of the charges against us, it is the ambiguities of the law that have gotten us here.

However, I believe that the precarious situation civil society now finds itself in is fundamentally the fault of civil society itself. The clear lack of focus on this trial and lobbying by all human rights groups in Egypt to amend the laws is disappointing to me, to say the least. For Egypt, it is purely destructive.

Furthermore, the lack of discussion on a policy level by politicians, revolutionaries and opposition members is failing democracy and our revolution. Instead of shedding light on how Egypt is strangling its civil society, everyone is far too scared they will also be labeled "American spies."

There is far more to democracy than protesting in Tahrir, opposing a few presidential decrees and voting in the polls. This country can never move forward and educate its people if we do not force a very public and very political discussion on the issues that matter most to the very democracy we’re fighting for.

On Thursday we make our way back into court. We’ll catch up on all our news from the Christmas break and halfheartedly strain to hear our lawyers defend us. But deep down we’re all getting anxious as a verdict draws near. Not because we can’t survive the worst — we can and we will. But because we know no one is watching.

*Hafsa Halawa is a lawyer and a former member of the National Democratic Institute.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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