Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The Mahalla trial continued today, for the fifth consecutive day.

It’s being heard in Tanta, and I went there by Peugeot, one of the 7-seaters. I enjoy road trips generally, but there is something particularly mesmerising about travelling solo, and in an antique Peugeot, which remains one of the most comfortable cars I have ever deposited myself in. Today’s vehicle was no exception: it felt like we were being pulled across ice.

The last time I went to Tanta (on Saturday, also for the trial) I had gone by train and my introduction to the town had been a row of jumbled concrete tower blocks standing opposite the train station. I was happy to see that inside the town are narrower streets which, while they are not breathtaking architecturally, are kinder on the eye than the visual assault of the drag outside the court house.

I attempted to enter the court house from the entrance I had used last time, which seemed to me to be a logical idea. State security thought otherwise, and told me to use the staircase further along. No reasons were given, mostly because there weren’t any.

Low-scale harassment continued later, when the defence team retired to a screened-off cafe to enjoy a secret fag and a coffee, unseen by Ramadan’s everywhere eyes. On their way back, a relative of one of the defendants told one of the lawyers that the defence witnesses weren’t being allowed into the court house. He spoke to the state security officers, who were sitting on chairs opposite the court house in their tight jeans and open shirts. Things escalated after a security officer asked one of the lawyers when he graduated (!), again for no apparent reason.

The state security officer stood up, squared off to the lawyer as his colleague held him back. “Don’t try to make problems with me because I won’t let it happen,” he said. I was reminded of English pubs on a Friday night at closing time.

I noted that the other security officer had in his hand a load of ID cards, which appeared to belong to the defence witnesses given the way he shuffled through them when the subject was brought up. Why? Who knows.

Inside the court things were tenser than on previous occasions, partly because the lawyers are tired and disappointed that the media didn’t show up. They wanted cameras in court. It creates pressure.

Seven defence witnesses testified on behalf of their friends today, almost all of them were poorly dressed, unemployed or employed in modest trades – for this after all is a trial of the weakest, poorest and most ignored of Egypt’s population i.e. the majority.

One woman came clutching her tiny baby, which stared back at the court wide-eyed as she told the judge that her neighbour wasn’t even in Mahalla at the time of the demonstrations.

As she walked away her baby vomited lightly all over the floor, which I think, was the best statement on today’s proceedings.

Things exploded when the prosecutor began his pleadings before the court. He initially refused to speak into the microphone (which has replaced the loudspeaker used during Saturday’s session) and I soon understood his reluctance to do so.

After speaking at length about the political motivations behind the events of April 6th and 7th he went on to say that half of the 49 defendants have previous criminal convictions and, in the same breath, quoted a Quranic verse about individuals who spread depravity throughout the world (mofsedeen fel ard).

The effect was like dropping a match in hay. The defendants began screaming, shouting, tearing at their clothes while plain-clothed state security officers rose up from the benches and surrounded the cage in which defendants are held, some of them standing on benches, apparently trying to intimidate the defendants into silence.

“Kafara? KAFARA?!? [infidels] What else are you going to do to us?” they screamed at the officers. “He knows that we’ve been wronged” one defendant said, pointing at the prosecutor. “How can a Muslim label another Muslim an infidel?” another defendant shouted.

The judge adjourned the session while the shouting and the screaming got louder. An officer threatened to remove the defendants who were still shouting. “La2, e7na wa7ed” [no, we’re together] a defendant said.

It was extremely distressing to see their fury. In quoting this verse the prosecutor had attempted to harpoon what for some of the defendants is the only lifebuoy keeping them afloat in a sea of poverty, oppression and general meaninglessness – their refuge in faith. It was a dirty trick.

A state security officer stopped me photographing them beating their heads and tearing at their clothes inside the cage. Did I have permission from the judge, he asked, ignoring the fact that I had been photographing two metres away from the judge for the past three hours, in front of the whole court. Yes, I said, on the basis that silence amounts to tacit approval. He took me to the judge’s room. “Did you give her permission to photograph?” he asked the judge. “No,” the judge replied, annoyingly.

That ruse having failed, he demanded that I get rid of the photos. He asked me for the memory card. I gave him the battery. A policeman said “that looks like a battery,” not unreasonably. I said that I didn’t know where the memory card was.

N.B. This is not technically a lie. I do not, in fact, know where the memory card is stored.

The state security admitted that he didn’t know where the memory card was either, after I told him to remove it. Which is what I was counting on.

There are times when speaking the Arabic of a 10-year old, and being a 99% foreigner pays off, and this was one of them. Take the camera, I said. He closed his eyes and laughed and looked exasperated and basically said be off with you and don’t take any more pictures. A lawyer bundled the camera into his bag before the officer changed his mind.

The thing that will most stick in my mind about today’s session, concerns the defence witnesses.

Two of them were illiterate. They signed their statements with a thumb print. The woman with the baby, when she was asked how old she is, said, I don't know.

“Well when were you born?” the judge asked.

“I don’t know that, either” she said. “Look at my ID card, it’s written on there.”

It turned out that she was born in 1986. Mubarak had had five years - a presidential term - to give her half a chance by the time she was born. Twenty-two, a mother, and illiterate. Testifying on behalf of a man facing imprisonment because he doesn’t know the right people and can’t buy his way out.

There are some disposable Egyptians who can’t be got rid of through falling rocks. This, I suppose, is what the courts are for.


Q said...

Gripping stuff. It seems you're getting better at obstructing justice ;-)

By the way, the Peugeot you're talking about, probably a 504 station wagon, is famous for it's smooth ride, ruggedness and durability. It's one of my favourite cars.

Amnesiac said...

Documenting justice you mean, of course.

Yeah, the 504.

If ever I got LE 40,000 together, this would be my wheels.

Worthy Oriental Gentleman said...

great post. love the detail about the baby. and good job noting the SSI officer trying to intimidate defence lawyers and witnesses.

Forsoothsayer said...

yes, very sad. keep up the good work.