Defending Egypt’s jailed dissidents

By Hamza Hendawi ,AP

CAIRO — When a group of activists is arrested in Egypt, the call for help goes most often to lawyer Ragia Omran. She then starts a long trek through police stations and prosecutors’ offices, trying to get their release or at least some respect for their rights. It’s a lonely, grueling struggle, and not one Omran expected to have to wage. In 2011, she was among the revolutionaries who took to the streets and led an uprising that brought down Egypt’s long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The revolt gave rise to a brief period of greater freedoms and hope for real democracy. Nearly four years later, all that has been reversed. Many of the secular and liberal revolutionaries are in prison under a clampdown by the government of army chief-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. There is zero tolerance for dissent. Police have become notorious once more for abuses they carry out with impunity. There is less democracy now, the uprising’s leaders say, than under Mubarak. Defending arrested activists is Omran’s way of keeping the revolution alive. ��We are not going to accept that the police state will continue to run the country unchallenged. There have to be people who object to this, and we are going to be those people �X I and the others who are with me,�� she said one afternoon after a court hearing for 25 young men on trial for breaking a draconian law effectively banning protests which was adopted a year ago.

Almost No Public Sympathy Dozens have been arrested under the protest law, which allows for heavy prison sentences for even peaceful marches. The law has mainly been used to go after secular critics. Authorities have also arrested more 20,000 Islamists since el-Sissi’s 2013 overthrow of then-President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, activists and civil society workers face a relentless media campaign demonizing them as troublemakers causing instability or foreign agents trying to bring down the state. The smear campaign resonates with many Egyptians who long for normalcy after years of turmoil �X meaning there is almost no public sympathy for jailed activists or those who defend them. Revolution supporters have been left demoralized. Some are in prison, some have left the country. Some, as Omran puts it, are getting married and trying to live their lives. Others, like Omran and human rights lawyers doing similar work, are simply doing what they can. The 41-year-old Omran earns her living as a corporate lawyer. Defending activists is her volunteer work. That can mean punishing hours. One recent day, she attended the signing of a nearly US$700 million loan deal that her firm helped work out. In the days that followed, she was in court representing jailed activists, tromping into police stations to find clients, and visiting prisons, trying to bring food and other supplies to detainees.