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.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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