The east Cairo Police Academy gives off a more serious vibe than its Tora counterpart when it temporarily turns into a courthouse. Former heads of state have stood trial here, which means more rigorous security, or at least the spectacle of it, with plain clothed policemen roaming around and flashing threatening gazes at everyone.
I was guarded when I entered the courtroom, unsure what exactly I was worried about. Before I even got close to the cage, one of the policemen raised an eyebrow at me, threatening me not to come near it. I sat down at the other end of the bench in a show of good faith. Glancing sideways, I noticed people in the cage, possibly even the one I came to see.
Finally unscruntinized by the guards, I started inspecting the cage more closely. Some defendants wore orange prison suits. These are the ones sentenced to death. Those wearing blue are sentenced to prison.
I looked more closely and managed to discern Mohamed al-Beltagy, the prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, in his orange suit. There were a few others, like former Islamist member of parliament Sobhy Saleh and former Brotherhood parliamentary speaker Saad al-Katatny.
Inside the cage someone was animatedly talking to a seemingly mesmerized audience of Muslim Brotherhood members, some awaiting death, others fated to spend life in prison, yet still seeming mesmerized by something in life. Observing his hair, position, gestures and militant enthusiasm — even inside a court cage — I knew it was Alaa Abd El Fattah, the inmate I came for. I imagined him lecturing them about how they went all wrong during their rule.
It was the first time I had seen Alaa in a blue suit. While I was trying to ignore the disturbing sight of the orange suits around him, it wasn’t possible to do the same with his blue suit. His white suit had represented a dim possibility of an end to all of this. But that was before he was sentenced to five years for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
I came to the court less as a journalist and more as a friend, to keep him company and try, very hard, to convince him that he wasn’t alone. The truth is, not only is he alone in his prison cell, despite the company of a few brave inmates, but in this particular cage, he was also very alone.
The case includes 24 defendants, covering the spectrum of Egyptian politics, ranging from hardcore Brotherhood leadership —including former President Mohamed Morsi, Beltagy, Katatny and Saleh, as well as Islamists like preachers Wadgy Ghoneim and Abdel Rahman al-Qaradawy, and Jama’a al-Islamiya leader Assem Abdel Magued. There are also moderate libertarians involved, like political scientist Amr Hamzawy, and remnants of the Nasserite movement, including journalist Abdel Halim Qandeel and ardent Hosni Mubarak supporter and TV presenter Tawfik Okasha. And then there is Alaa. Their unusual convention is based on them all having insulted judges in some form or another.
I gathered all my courage, went up to the plain clothed policeman who had threatened me with his raised eyebrow, and asked for permission to greet Alaa in the cage. He gesticulated a “yes,” but added “quickly,” probably to both reassert his power, but also to reward me for politely recognizing this power. I went up, knocked on the glass cage to interrupt Alaa’s vehement lecture and attract his attention. I managed to have a two-minute exchange with him. He had followed the Hossam Bahgat arrest ordeal and jokingly asked when I would be arrested. He also asked about friends and loves. I tried to tell him other people are coming to court, but I was inaudible to him in his glass cage.
Encouraged by this brief encounter, some photographers congregated in front of the cage, trying to snap pictures through the glass barrier. Beltagy struck a few smiling poses, not far removed from those you would normally pull while being photographed on a rock by the beach. The whole Brotherhood prison team then came together in a collective pose with the Rabea hand sign, another odd relic of life in this ominous cage. Alaa sat on the side, looking at them. He was alone.
Riled up, the policeman and his eyebrow asked us all to return to our benches and expelled all photographers from the courtroom.
At that point, Morsi had arrived in court, also in an orange suit. He got a separate cage at the back, barely noticeable, even to our curiosity, as people once governed by him. He seemed absent and disinterested.
The hearing began. Lawyer Mohamed Selim al-Awa, who represents Morsi, as well as judge Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, demanded the hearing be adjourned until the latter could be present in person, as he had to undergo heart surgery. Awa had a few procedural arguments with Judge Ahmad Abdel Wahab Shehata in what was a temporary reminder that we are in some semblance of justice, reduced to a set of procedures that even the defendants and their lawyers have to work hard for.
Lawyer Khaled Ali, present for Alaa, echoed Awa’s second demand from the court to receive a photocopy of all the prosecution’s reports on the case, as well as the CDs containing incriminating evidence against the defendants. A good 10 minutes were spent in argument between lawyers demanding a copy of the documents, and the judge convincing them that looking at these documents would suffice. In the end he conceded, and ordered that one copy be shared by all the lawyers, as well as one copy of a flash drive that contains incriminating evidence, which an expert, brought specifically from state television, would provide the technical support for.
At some point we watched a video deemed incriminating of Beltagy, in his parliamentary days, fervently criticizing the court that found former President Hosni Mubarak innocent, and saying, “We won’t accept this injustice, even if we die as martyrs.” I couldn’t help but look back at him in the cage, in his orange suit, in what was some representation of a time lapse of our lives in Egypt.
A few minutes before this, a group of five women walked into the court, startling the curious guards, who could not fathom why this noisy bunch was unsettling our makeshift performance of justice.
During an intercession in the hearing, the group announced itself more prominently. A cup cake, a candle and a black marker came out of their bags. They borrowed white paper from the few bored journalists in the courtroom, on which they wrote “Tomorrow, we will paint the air with car paint,” Alaa’s famous Twitter motto. With the backs of their earrings, they pierced a heart shape into a white paper and in it, they wrote “The pink dragon,” the way we’ve come to describe Alaa for years. It’s his 34th birthday, and they have come to celebrate it, in style, at the Cairo Criminal Court.
A more pronounced officer, in formal attire this time, stationed himself just in front of them, bewildered by their fearless dynamism. One of them, Mai, confidently placed the candle on top of the cup cake, looked at him, and said, “I will be lighting this candle right now,” and everyone sang — in their minds and with their whole hearts — a happy birthday to Alaa. His laughter could not be missed through the glass barrier. He soon asked for everyone’s news, and a tsunami of messages on white papers were written and shown to him by the group. They were about adopted pets, departed lovers and new haircuts. There was no paper left for the journalists to write on. The officer remained immobile, like a statue.
The case was adjourned to December 8.