Alexandria, Egypt – Ola Ezzat is already making plans to protest again, just two weeks after she and 20 other women were sentenced to 11-year jail terms for their activism.
Ezzat, 18, a student at Ain Shams University, was convicted on November 27 for taking part in a peaceful protest in this Mediterranean city in Egypt. Seven of the defendants were minors, the youngest just 15 years old.
On Saturday, however, an appeals court lessened the verdict – three years’ probation for the girls, one-year suspended sentences for the adults – and allowed the defendants to go free, with a warning not to break the law again.
When this happened I was sad. For my daughter, I was crying inside. But for what's happening in Egypt, I support her.
But in an interview in her family apartment in Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr neighbourhood, Ezzat said her friends are already discussing more protests.
“This is our right, and we cannot only exercise it the first time,” she said.
Ezzat and her family are outspoken supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was elected last year and overthrown by the army in July. They insisted that Morsi, “the legitimate democratic president”, would eventually return to power. A hand-drawn portrait of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, hangs over the couch in their living room.
For a family such as the Ezzats, however, the political has also become intensely personal. Ola’s brother joined the sit-in at Raba’a al-Adawiya square, one of two pro-Morsi protests where hundreds were killed in August; several friends were shot in front of him, he said.
Four other family members are in jail, including her cousin and uncle, who have been held without charge since August.
The case against the girls has highlighted not just the flaws in Egypt’s deeply politicised judicial system, but also the desperate need for reconciliation. Countless Egyptians have been affected by the crackdown on the Brotherhood; their numbers grow daily, and their anger at the government is an intractable obstacle to the political “road map” laid out after Morsi’s ouster.
“We need to do this to remember the martyrs of Raba’a … everyone has friends or family who have been killed or arrested,” said Ezzat, explaining why she plans to protest again.
‘It was a political verdict’
The facts of the case have been widely criticised, not only by Morsi’s supporters but also by human rights activists and political factions opposed to the Brotherhood. Even politicians such as Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserist who is trying to position himself as the pro-army presidential candidate in next year’s elections, called publicly for a pardon.
Many compared the ruling to Alexandria’s best-known criminal case, the murder of Khaled Said, a businessman whose brutal killing at the hands of police became a rallying point for the 2011 revolution. The officers who beat him to death were sentenced to just seven years in prison.
“It was a political verdict in the first place,” said Amr Ismail from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The government was surprised by the reaction that the first verdict caused. Even people who hate the Muslim Brotherhood were shocked.”
The protest on October 31 was the first by a group calling itself “7 am”, which hoped to catch the attention of commuters on their way to work or school.
Prosecutors accused the girls of blocking the Corniche, the main seaside road in Alexandria. Ezzat denied this, saying they stood on the shoulder.
Some of the pro-Morsi protests have turned violent, with protesters attacking police and local residents. State media accused the Alexandria women of carrying weapons, but no evidence was put forward to support that claim.
The women were also charged with destroying property, but the only example offered in court was a scratched glass door on a nearby building; damages were estimated at 50 Egyptian pounds, about $7.
“They didn’t even prove that the girls were the ones who did this,” Ismail said. “Their witnesses said the people who scratched the glass were men.”
Ayman al-Dabi, one of the lawyers who represented the jailed women, said the harsh verdict was meant to intimidate women and stop them from joining protests.
“If you manage to scare 50 percent of those people by making them think they’re going to face tough consequences, then they will stop going down in the street,” said Dabi, whose niece was among those arrested. “This was a security plot gone wrong.”
‘We couldn’t speak’
Ezzat’s parents said they did not even take the case seriously at first, because of the contrast between the charges against the girls and the evidence.
“At first I thought it was a joke, and they would be released after a few hours,” said her father, Alaa Eddin. “But then I asked a police officer what happened, and he said, ‘This girl is dangerous, she has broken the law.'”
The girls were first held in Alexandria for about 48 hours, Ola said, detained in a dirty cell strewn with garbage. “The policeman asked if we were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and we said, of course, and that is our right,” she said. “And he told us, you don’t understand, you have a big case against you.”
They were eventually transferred to a jail in Damanhour, a Nile Delta city about 50km southeast of Alexandria, and held for nearly a month until their trial.
“When we went into the court, we were expecting to go to prison but for a short sentence. One year, two, three,” Ezzat said. “When we heard it was 11 years, some of us were shocked, crying, we couldn’t speak to each other … And after a while we started laughing, hysterically laughing. We couldn’t understand what had happened.”
Public reaction was equally shocked, particularly after newspapers started to publish photographs from the courtroom, showing young girls in white prison clothes and headscarves standing inside a metal cage. An adviser to interim President Adly Mansour told reporters the girls would receive a pardon after their appeals were finished.
No pardon has been issued, and if the girls are arrested at another protest, the suspensions on their jail sentences could be lifted. Ezzat’s parents, however, said they would support her right to continue protesting.
“When this happened I was sad. For my daughter, I was crying inside,” her father said. “But for what’s happening in Egypt, I support her.”