Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rambling account of the trial today

Today’s instalment of the Abdo show began much as it went on, with the judge getting his handbag out and generally being irascible.

Shortly after it started someone who had not get the memo about the judge’s aversion to lenses used his mobile phone to take a picture. Someone told on him.

“HAATOOLY EL GEHAZ ELLY HOWA SAWWAR BEEH SAWA2 KAAN CAMERA AW MOBILE” [bring me the device he used to photography whether it is a camera or a mobile" the judge bellowed, surely with unnecessary precision about categories of electrical equipment.

Then the judge stood up and started gathering his belongings in a demonstrative fashion after reminding us that his courtroom is a photography-free zone. Lawyer Hamdy El-Assiouty remonstrated, explaining that the gentleman in question might not have been aware of the judge’s photosensitivity.

“E7na mesh fe Studio Masr,” [We are not in Studio Masr] the judge grumbled, but relented and sat down.

The first witness then arrived and off we went on a trip round Bizarreville which eventually ended with us driving off the edge of a cliff.

El Moqaddam Mostafa Hamed works for the Interior Ministry’s Internet Crimes Department. He explained that in February 2007 he got a complaint from Judge Abdo alleging that the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and 17 other websites had published a statement that he considered libellous.

About a week after this he received instructions from the public prosecutor to investigate the websites in question.

El Moqaddam Mostafa explained that during his investigation he divided the websites into three categories:

1. The ANHRI website which originally published the statement.
2. Other websites which published the statement but did not allow comments on it.
3. Other websites which published the statement and allowed comments on it.

The judge then asked posed his first slightly alarming question: “Do you need special permits to access these websites?”

I hope I misheard the question because (as happened on several occasions subsequently) the answer had nothing to do with the question asked. El Moqaddam Mostafa explained that sometimes websites contain the information necessary to identify their owners and also that he is able to get complete data about a website from the first day it was created.

When asked whether he found any libellous phrases or words on the websites El Moqaddam Mostafa said that two websites allowed libellous comments. Negad El-Borei pointed out that one of the websites, Madha Ba3d ya Watany is not even involved in the case. El Moqaddam Mostafa acknowledged this and gave him the stink eye. As for the other comment, posted on naughty Amr “Mahmoud*” Gharbeia’s blog, it accused Judge Abdo of taking bribes and working for the police.

The judge then asked whether El Moqaddam Mostafa’s investigations revealed who owns the websites that allowed the comments. El Moqaddam began by drawing an incomprehensible (to me at least) analogy between websites and cupboards “El website zay el dowlab” before attempting to explain the concept of domains and sub-domains. Where the website is a sub-domain such as, only the domain owners know the website author’s identity.

The subject of comments and their authors required El Moqaddam to launch into an explanation of IP addresses (“el basma el electroneyya”) which is fine, except that at one point the judge said something along the lines of “The only thing I use the computer for is to write stuff”. The Internet did seem like uncharted territory for him, which was unfortunate given the subject matter he was confronted with.

El Moqaddam Mostafa explained that he “tried to summon Amr more than once. All we wanted him for was to access the control panel [don’t know what he meant] in order so that we could get the IPs of the people who made the comments”.

“But Amr didn’t come”, he said.

Gamal Eid then challenged El Moqaddam Mostafa to say where exactly in the ANHRI statement the word “stole” was used, saying that El Moqaddam had found that ANHRI accused Judge Abdo of “stealing”.

El Moqaddam countered that he had not used the word “stole” but “copied” (copied).

Gamal Eid then asked whether the ANHRI site allows comments, and whether it contained libellous material. El Moqaddam ignored this question and said the website owners are able to identify the authors of comments.

Another defence lawyer asked El Moqaddam Mostafa whether his investigations revealed the name of one of the defendants, Ahmed Seif (who is also accused of libel).

“I examined about 18 websites and his name might have been mentioned”, el Moqaddam Mostafa said. I wanted to ask whether his investigations might possibly have also revealed the name of Ronald Macdonald or Demitrious Roussos or Laika the First Dog In Space and whether their names should be added to the list of defendants.

Defence lawyer Negad El-Borei then asked whether Amr “Mahmoud” Gharbeia published the naughty ANHRI statement that accuses Judge Abdo of plagiarising 50 pages of an ANHRI report for his book on the Internet.

“I don’t remember. It’s all in the public prosecution office report,” El Moqaddam Mostafa replied most unsatisfactorily.

We then again set off into the unknown when Negad alleged that the Interior Ministry’s copy of the blog post in question by Amr “Mahmoud” Gharbeia might be faked because the comments do not appear in chronological order.

“The website owner controls comments,” el Moqaddam answered. Dr Moftases suggested that while this is not false, it’s not exactly the whole truth either, since comments which e.g. appear in this order:

February 7th 2007

February 5th 2007

February 8th 2007

…will only do so where the blog owner enables readers to vote on their favourite comments (which makes the comments appear in the order readers choose). Apparently Amr “Mahmoud” Gharbeia’s blog doesn’t have this function.

But there is also apparently something called the “nested comments” function which also makes comments appear in no particular order.

The next witness was a defence witness, Gamal Manaa, a former ANHRI employee who was in 2007 head of the research department.

Manaa explained that he identified the pages lifted from ANHRI’s report by Judge Abdo and not credited to them. He said that on February 13 2007 Judge Abdo rang Gamal Eid up and there was a long phone call, which was followed by repeated “annoying” phone calls.

Judge Abdo’s lawyer interrupted in order to demand that the court be told what Manaa’s qualifications are.

The next defence witness was Abdo Abdel-Aziz Hamada who explained that his job is to upload content to the ANHRI website.

Another worrying question was posed by the judge: “How exactly did the plaintiff lift/transfer content from the ANHRI report to his book?” Abdo said that he didn’t know but that the report was published on the net.

The judge then asked what harm was caused by the plaintiff using 50 pages of a ANHRI report word for word without crediting them, and asked what the correct procedures are for referencing material taken from the Internet.

I hoped that this was some kind of sophisticated legal interrogation device rather than being for informational purposes. But then I watched the judge dictate the witness’ answers to the court scribe (there is no stenography in Egyptian courts) and remembered his earlier comment about computers and thought glum thoughts.

Judge Abdo’s lawyer then demanded to know ANHRI’s working hours, whether the report was published in PDF format or Word and how long Abdo has been with ANHRI.

The pattern of this gentleman’s questions reminded me of those Facebook “20 things you didn’t know about me” questionnaire things posted by the unemployed such were their randomness.

Abdo said that it was clear that the report had been plagiarised because identical spelling mistakes were reproduced in Judge Abdo’s book.

Asked about the significance of the PDF/Word distinction, Judge Abdo’s lawyer made the astonishing claim that it is impossible to copy PDF files which even I know is codswallop.

At this point defence lawyers wanted to summon more witnesses but the judge announced that he would need time to read the case file before questioning these witnesses, prompting the outrage of Hamdy El-Assiouty.

This man stood in this position for about 10 minutes without moving. His look of hopelessness sums up the whole day

Things got rather tense and in a moment of high action the judge tersely declared that the case was adjourned until 26 September before exiting stage left, leaving defence lawyers enraged.

Off we buggered out of the courtroom but then a lawyer friend told us that the judge was now summoning witnesses and we went back in and there then followed a series of events.

Then lawyers said that the judge was demanding to hear the witnesses in a closed session WITHOUT LAWYERS, sort of a la Guantanamo.

Lawyers of course refused.

Then lawyer filed a “talab el radd” which is when they demand that a judge be changed.

It was announced that the demand would be considered on September 4 2010.

Then defence lawyers drafted a letter requesting that the talab el radd be withdrawn.

Then we hung around for absolutely ages and eventually went home when it was announced that a decision would be reached by the court the next day.

One lawyer I spoke to was a bit confused by the decision to change the judge since in October judges are all rotated anyway and someone new will hear the case.
I was more or less confused by everything.

Here is what Gamal Eid had to say about it all.

*Private joke too tedious to explain here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I lived in Alex for a year at the beginning of this millennium, and it was one of the best experiences of my life: heat-filled, carefree and of limited duration.

Revisiting the city for the first time after I left it was unexpectedly painful, what with the bumping into the memories and all that. It is a still wonderful city - and one I became attached to far more intensely than I will ever feel fondness for stinky, crotchety Cairo - but with each visit it has become less and less mesmerizing, and is almost now a stranger where once it was my partner in crime. Reduced to someone I would nod my head at in greeting in the street.

The city was intensely unfamiliar when Sharshar, Um Nakad and I arrived on Monday evening. The intense emptiness of the night’s black sea was still there - but it emitted a putrid stench of piss and sweat. The corniche’s buildings, the old soldiers, still stand sentry duty - but are pockmarked and wind-lashed and exhausted. At their feet are the crowds, Alexandrians and holidaymakers happily promenading in the evening’s sticky, cloying air - but I don’t remember seeing so many beggars in Alex when I lived there.

But then memories of places are always carbon copy versions, a faulty imprint of geography and time and emotion.

I was in Alex for the trial of two policemen being tried for misuse of force against Khaled Said, who died when they apprehended him in an Internet café in June. The courtroom was absolutely filled with both media and relatives and friends of the two defendants. Angry-looking women occupied one row. One remonstrated aggressively with the tea-seller about the LE 4 change he had still not brought her. When I squeezed past them in order to take a photo of the defendants they hissed and mumbled in complaint. It was only when a slanging match broke out between them and a woman who is testifying against the defendants that I realized that they were relatives of Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud and Awad Suleiman.

At one point in the trial I had the despairing thought that as usual, justice is only going to be half done in this case; the two men will be found guilty but not of the crime witnesses say they committed (murder, or at least manslaughter) and that those higher up the chain of command will continue to sleep peacefully at night. The findings of the two postmortems performed on Khaled Said’s body have effectively locked the truth in a room to which the legal system doesn’t have a key, as I understand it. Maybe the judge will be different this time. I don’t have much hope of this however since a defence lawyer (who introduced himself as “general” so and so = ex police = regime) speaking after the trial described him in glowing terms.

After the trial we went to Trianon in Raml Square so I could write my article. Sharshar (who had not been allowed into the courtroom and was kept waiting in the sun for two hours) slept, Um Nakad made phone calls and provided invaluable legal assistance for my story.

There was a man in the corner of the café who talked in a loud voice and gesticulated in an animated fashion for the duration of the time we were there. I thought he was using a hands-free but later realized that he was talking to himself. He had a briefcase on the chair next to him. I wondered what was in it.

After I had finished my story I went to use the loo and on the way there saw that all the café’s staff were staring out of the window.

Street children/teenagers were fighting. As we watched through the glass one of them, wearing a baseball jacket, dragged a youth with no feet out of his wheelchair and proceeded to pummel him, assisted by two other children and a young man who came and went.

I stood next to the man talking to himself - whose stream of consciousness now centered on the fight - as it continued, the disabled man on his back, his stumps flailing wildly as the youth in the baseball jacket punched him in the head and the other children kicked him. A middle-aged man carrying a plastic bag stood and watched, half smiling, fascinated.

Separated by the café’s glass, the fight played out for people in the café in silence, and this was perhaps its most disturbing aspect: seeing the disabled man being dragged along the pavement by his shoulders, the empty wheelchair rolling, the fists cutting through the air, the vain attempt to resist, the dirty desperation of it all, how long it was, how long, and all mute.

Café staff eventually intervened and police arrived. The disabled man, now smiling, was placed back in his chair and the youth in the baseball jacket obligingly pushed the wheelchair accompanied by two policemen. Calm returned. I then noticed that the street kids had put pieces of cardboard in the opening of an unused underpass where the fight broke out, in addition to flowers in an improvised vase. A man kicked it all away on the instructions of the man from Trianon.

Um Nakad later told me that someone from Trianon told her that the disabled man had “opened up someone’s stomach last week and is no angel. Nobody intervened because they’re all scared of him. He might be carrying a knife”.

Maybe there will be a time in Egypt when it will be impossible to silence and conceal this everyday violence, when the glass sealing off desperation from people who can afford not to care will be shattered. I hope so.

Friday, July 09, 2010

الكبري ممنوع

Today there was another silent protest against police brutality, or at least there was meant to be.

I went along to Qasr El-Nil bridge ten minutes after it was meant to have started and encountered the usual scene of lovers staring cross-eyed and nauseatingly at each other while caressed by a gentle wind, but distinctly no protestors. The idea is that protestors all wear black and stand in silence/read the Quran or Bible for an hour, in a line. So far assembly points have been along the Nile, presumably because the presence of the aforementioned couples and other flaneurs both increases the profile of the protest and provides a protection of sorts. Because these are after all only individuals contemplating the Nile. Who all happen to be wearing black while standing in silence.

The filth had other ideas however. As I approached the Tahrir end of the bridge I saw a bunch of them standing by one of the lions instructing youths wearing black t-shirts to bugger off. I then wandered along the corniche below the bridge where 6 – 7 young men in black were positioned doing silence and contemplation etc. I assumed they were part of the protest. Up on the bridge meanwhile on one side even the non-political lovers were being moved on, and I overheard one officer say to pedestrians attempting to walk along the bridge, “El kobry mamnou3” [the bridge is forbidden] and felt like we were in some role-playing computer game and that we would have to find the golden chalice through the haunted forest.

By this point I had run into a journo I know, who was accompanied by another journo I didn’t know called Ahmed, who turned out to be demagh and droll. Me and Ahmed trundled around looking for the protest until we discovered that for some reason it was outside the Trade Chamber [el ghorfa el togareyya] in Bab El-Louq, so off we went.

There were about 20 people there who were immediately descended upon by a group of uniformed cops and plain-clothed nasties. It was “agreed” that the protestors (some of whom were not the usual activists present at almost all demonstrations, and who included a child) would leave in groups of three, which is what happened.

There was a minorly interesting moment when a copper asked a journo in a brusque fashion who he was and what newspaper he worked for. When said journo replied New York Times the tone changed considerably. I must remember to use this tactic.

There was more confusion after that as we wandered and wondered where to go, including a bonkers moment when some men in the street began exclaiming “a protest! A protest!” and “Ali El-Hashem has died!” and “We’re going to the Synagogue!” Two of them strode off while behind us another dragged one man off his seat while all laughed and lots of colourful descriptions of the mother of the man doing the dragging were bandied about. It was eventually established that these gentlemen had nothing to do with the cause, and that the cause had now (inevitably) moved to the Journalists’ Syndicate.

On the way there Ahmed described a protest by El-Baradei’s National Coalition for Change that he had covered a few weeks ago, participants in which – after being having been prevented from demonstrating by the police – decided that they would finish off their evening of activism by decamping to City Stars, a 5 star shopping mall. I don’t know if the anecdote is true, but it reflects an impression held by some that Dr Elbadz’s movement is somewhat elitist - or at least that it recruits individuals from certain social strata.

I thought very unchristian thoughts throughout the day as I observed the feeble number of people who had turned up for the protest, because on Twitter people were calling for “activism” by tweeting tweets about Khaled Said and the protests.

I still have some thinking to do about this and so don’t want to get my high horse out quite yet but I have a burgeoning belief that Twitter activism is something of an oxymoron.

Twitter is indispensable for communicating information and throwing light on issues ignored by the media big boys, but activism? How can writing 140 characters to (as most my followers are, at least) like-minded people constitute activism? Isn’t this like the Pope railing against abortion at a Catholic priests’ annual general meeting? Not that I’m blaming or chastising or judging or anything, I am all for people ranting against oppressive mothafuckas because it’s one of my favourite activities. I just object to the nomenclature. Getting something as a trending topic on Twitter is good and everything but it isn’t activism, it’s awareness-raising. To call it activism is a little bit of an insult to the people who interrupt their lives to go out on the streets, in the process exposing themselves to arrest and injury.

And here endeth the lesson.