“As a professor, there’s nothing more difficult than to enter a classroom to an empty seat — the sudden disappearance of one of your students,” said Hanan Sabea, associate professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo (AUC). While listening to Sabea speak, I was surrounded by a massive crowd of students and professors, all gathered at a solidarity stand at AUC for our arrested colleague Ibrahim Tamir Ibrahim, whom many of us know as “Bebo.”
On Sunday April 24, Bebo was preparing to travel on a spring break trip to Athens, and had shared with so many of us how much he was looking forward to it. But instead of boarding his flight, he was transferred to the North Cairo Prosecution Department in a police van. Three hours prior, security forces had raided his home at the break of dawn, where they discovered he was en route to his trip. Moments after the raid, as Bebo was passing through airport security, he was arrested and eventually taken to the Abbasseya Court where he was accused of, among other charges, trying to flee the country. By the next morning, April 25, Bebo was sentenced to four days in jail, which soon became 15 more (as of 26 April) after the Abbasseya Court ruled to extend his pretrial detention, pending further investigations.
These events coincide with state security’s most recent campaign of mass arrests, especially targeting young people, prior to calls for peaceful protest on April 25. Many of those arrested, including Bebo, had taken part in a demonstration the week prior on April 15, when people took to the street to protest Egypt’s transfer of sovereign control of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Dozens of these protestors were randomly arrested on the spot along with Bebo, who was simply taking a video with his iPhone. Bebo, along with at least ninety others, was taken to Qasr al-Aini Police Department, but was released a few hours later — under one unofficially stated condition: to never think of protesting again. One officer had explicitly threatened him: “If we see you in the streets ever again, you will not see the light of day.”
But most of those jailed around April 25 were not arrested off the streets, let alone while protesting. They were snatched from their beds in the middle of the night, detained when the police conducted arbitrary round-ups of young people from coffee shops ahead of the protests, or like Bebo, stopped at the airport. It did not matter whether or not the detainees planned on participating in the April 25 demonstrations — Bebo obviously had not since he was supposed to be traveling. It also did not matter whether freedom of speech and expression were constitutional rights, as they are now indictments. Instead arbitrary and massive repression, once again, ruled the day on Egypt’s streets.
Bebo was lumped into a large group of detainees, all males and all in their twenties, including journalism student Mohamed Mamdouh, known for his political satire show on YouTube: “Who is that?” This is in addition to medical student Mohamed Sultan, who had gone missing for over 16 hours after his family discovered he was arrested from a café. Bebo, Mamdouh, Sultan, and sixteen others are now being accused of the same bundle of charges under the umbrella of “inciting protests,” including: inciting the use of force to overthrow the government; inciting terrorist attacks on police stations; attempting to prevent the president from exercising “his competency” and constitutional powers; disturbing social peace; and endangering the safety and security of a community at risk of terrorism.
That these wholly unfounded charges are being leveled against a 21-year-old student who was trying to leave the country throughout the suspected time of possible protests, gets at the (il)logic of Egypt’s carceral war against its youth. This manifests itself in arrests like that of a random pedestrian passing by a police van, who was detained merely for being young.
Despite being unable to substantiate Bebo’s charges with any evidence whatsoever, the Abbasseya Court ruled to renew his detention for 15 more days, along with the 18 others defendants in the case, pending further investigations. Then, after another court session on May 7, the court ruled to release 14 of the 19 detainees, including Bebo, while renewing detention terms for the five others, after finding “suspicious” flyers in their possession. However, after a full day of deliberation, the prosecutor decided to appeal the decisions altogether, effectively extending the detention and the endless waiting. All the while, Ibrahim has been held at the Nozha Police Department in Heliopolis since April 24, rather than taking his exams and completing his engineering degree at AUC.
“Our classroom seats [are being emptied],” Sabea reiterated, not because students are sick or truant, but because they dare to have an opinion and dare to assert their role in our community, whether that be our university or society at large.”
Though it is true that students in particular have been targeted in “security” arrests over the past few years, this repression is inseparable from a much wider and arbitrary campaign of incarceration. According to a report by the Front to Defend Egyptian Protestors, the Egyptian state has arrested 1,277 people from April 15-27 alone, meaning that more than 100 individuals were handcuffed per day.
Over the last two years, however, there has been a growing insistence in Egypt to reject any freedom of thought and expression. Students, especially, have been transforming their university campuses into sites of resistance against state oppression
This was exhibited in the solidarity stand for Bebo as students unfurled a huge banner that read, “Freedom of speech is not a crime,” while marching to the administration building to demand accountability. One AUC student, Omnia Farrag, asserted that the main demand of the demonstration was to collectively stand against the unwarranted detention of a classmate. But the stand, according to Farrag, was also a call for the university to own up to its responsibility: “The university did not take any action against what happened to Italian student Giulio Regeni. We don’t want this to happen to Bebo,” Farrag said.
The tragic murder of Giulio Regeni, who was a visiting scholar at AUC, served as the most deadly example of the dangers faced by students and researchers in Egypt, as well as academic institutions’ outright complicity in the crisis. As historian Khaled Fahmy commented, security apparatuses “now have full control over all academic aspects” at our universities. For instance, there have been several incidents when AUC security has harassed students or prevented visiting speakers from entering campus with certain books or pamphlets, all in the name of “security.” The university has remained shamefully and protractedly silent after the abduction and murder of Giulio and, later, the arrest of Bebo. What kind of security bans books but acquiesces to abduction?
The night before the solidarity stand, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Life Khaled Dahawy sent an email to the student body indicating, “The university does not comment on legal matters, both out of respect for individual privacy and as a matter of policy.” But as Sabea retorted in her speech, such neutrality is a fallacy; “Not taking a position is in itself a position,” Sabea exclaimed.
Just a few days before he was arrested, Bebo had taken part in a teach-in for academic freedom that highlighted this very discrepancy. Various professors and students gave speeches that asked: What is the role of AUC as an academic institution? Where do you draw the line between individual and public matters pertaining to academic freedom? If it is not our universities that are pushing for freedom of thought and expression in our societies, then where does that leave us? How can we speak of academic freedom within universities that are walled off by security?
Bebo’s retrial will take place on the morning of May 9 at the Abbasseya Court. As his classmates, we demand his immediate and unconditional release. As students and young people, we call on the state to stop targeting us. Stop imprisoning us. And, as we chanted at the solidarity stand: We will not let the abduction of our classmates go unnoticed, nor let their stories be forgotten.
After publishing this article, Ibrahim Tamir Ibrahim (Bebo) was released on bail, while the Abbasseya Court renewed detentions for five other defendants in the case for allegedly finding “suspicious flyers” in their possession. Their names are: Ali Mohamed Ahmad Khaleefa (Ali Mekki), Abdel Rahman Hamza Mohamed Hamza, Mohamed al-Sayed Mohamed Ibrahim , Mahmoud Hesham Hasaneen Khalifa and Ahmed Abdallah.