After Ibrahim Halawa’s release from Egyptian imprisonment, Sami El-Sayed looks at Ibrahim’s story and how the left needs to tackle Racism in Irish society.
On 3 July 2013, Egypt saw the return of the military to power. A bloody and ruthless counter-revolution carried out by forces loyal to General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Mohammed Morsi government, suspending the constitution and instituting military rule pending new elections (overseen by the military, which el-Sisi ultimately dominated attaining a vote of 96%). In the following months, thousands of people were killed, with numerous massacres committed by security forces against anti-coup protesters who had taken to the streets. The coup d’état, endorsed by the Coptic Church and prominent Sunni Imams, immediately suspended the constitution and anti-protest measures were brought into place.
Egypt divided into three camps. Those who supported the coup as action against the increasingly authoritarian and Islamist rule of Morsi, comprised of those hoping it would be a re-run of the 2011 coup d’état which toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak, but also containing powerful members of the old Mubarak regime who were extremely hostile to the 2011 revolution and attempting to regain power through the backdoor. There was also the pro-Morsi camp which supported his rule and opposed the coup. A third, smaller camp which opposed both sides and called for a new democratic republic also existed, but failed to attract the support necessary to become a decisive force.
In the aftermath of the military’s seizure of power, civil unrest escalated dramatically with widespread confrontations and occupations occurring on both sides. The ongoing insurgency in the Sinai escalated rapidly with daily skirmishes between the military and Islamist militia groups, the vast majority of which are now loyal to Da’esh since 2014. The climax of the unrest and repression, however, occurred on 13-14 August 2013. In the now-infamous Rabaa Massacre, Egyptian security forces killed between 600 and 2,000 people, with roughly 4,000 wounded. It was here that Ibrahim Halawa found his way into the hands of the Egyptian military while taking shelter in a mosque, attempting to escape the massacre.
It would take 1,528 days for Ibrahim to leave their hands.
The establishment media in Ireland is not fit for purpose – it enables bigotry and behaves as a mouthpiece in service of the status quo on a daily basis. However, it must be said that when it comes to the case of Ibrahim Halawa, the Irish media was swimming against the tide in order to provide real coverage of the case.
Regularly, the media stressed that Ibrahim is Irish, it didn’t give credence to the racist lies spread on social media, such as for example that Halawa had ripped up and burned his passport (it was confiscated from him by the Egyptian government). It did not give credence to the baseless claims that Halawa was a terrorist loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, or that he deserved what he got for being in Egypt at the wrong time. It did not give airtime to claims that Ibrahim’s sisters were lying and that Ibrahim himself was lying about his condition and treatment – despite the fact those conditions were corroborated by former cellmates of Ibrahim who had secured release as a result of pressure from their governments.
The media consistently maintained coverage on the case, each and every time reporting when the trial was delayed (all 25 times), each and every time insisting that Ibrahim was an Irishman, and in many ways providing a rock amid the racist social media storm that Ireland’s aspirational far-right cooked up. Without the media’s coverage of the case, we would have had the twin narratives from Ireland’s racists and the Egyptian military dictatorship, unified in their shared interests of crushing democratic dissent insofar as those practicing it are the wrong skin colour.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. One such notable is the now-thoroughly-disgraced George Hook, who took the occasion of the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan coming onto his show to claim that Ibrahim was irresponsible to participate in protest, that we should not be applying our democratic customs to other cultures, and continued peddling the lie that he was involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. Notwithstanding that and his extensive history of racism, even Hook had to concede that the price Ibrahim had paid for his alleged irresponsibility was “unfair”.
The Irish media’s biggest failure in the Halawa case, was its failure to decisively politicise the issue as it should have been.
Ibrahim Halawa was arrested in 2013. Taoiseach Enda Kenny did not once intervene directly into the situation until 2015, leaving it instead for the Irish ambassador in Egypt. As a result of this, Ibrahim spent years longer in prison than others of non-Egyptian citizenship who were arrested at the same time, such as Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, an Australian citizen released in 2015.
The failure of Enda Kenny’s government to take decisive steps to put pressure on the el-Sisi dictatorship in the same way the Australian government did has directly impacted on the length of time Halawa spent in that prison cell, suffering torture and deprivation. Kenny began making appeals in 2015, and then wrote a letter in 2017 to President el-Sisi asking for Ibrahim’s release. After supplanting Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar made a phone call to el-Sisi in August 2017 – three weeks prior to Halawa’s release, and four years after his imprisonment.
President el-Sisi claimed that after the trial that he would exercise his constitutional powers and Halawa would be released – but such a guarantee was worthless if Ibrahim died before the trial reached its conclusion. However, such a promise rung hollow in face of the fact that el-Sisi had the power to have Ibrahim deported back to Ireland at any time he wanted under Presidential Decree 140/2014 – at request of the destination country (in this case, Ireland).
In reality, as a major trading partner of Egypt and western liberal democracy Ireland could’ve put significant diplomatic, legal and economic pressure on Egypt in order to secure the release of Halawa. The fact of the matter is that successive governments didn’t value Ibrahim’s life enough to take these measures.
In no small part, the difficulty arose from the domestic situation in Egypt where el-Sisi has been attempting to appear as a strongman capable of defeating Islamism. This led to a certain intractability on his part, but it was ultimately the lack of resolve on the part of the Irish establishment that enabled him to ignore Ibrahim’s case. Furthermore, the European Union was of little to no help given that many states in Southern Europe were more than willing to sacrifice the life of Ibrahim Halawa in order to predispose the el-Sisi regime positively towards them.
Much like any flashpoint, the Halawa case is indicative of the social sentiments which simmer below the surface in Irish society – in this case, extreme racism. Despite this article’s positive portrayal of the Irish media in covering the Halawa case specifically, as a whole it facilitates bigotry and does not take on racist figures of the Irish establishment, such as the dozens of councilors around the state who trade in racism both against immigrants and Travellers.
The media’s giving attention to new fascist formations like the Irish National Party, as well as anything from puff pieces on Richard Spencer to the publishing of anti-immigration opinion columns, all goes a way towards promoting racism. This gives confidence to the same people who put extensive time and effort into smearing Halawa and his entire family, as well as the Irish Muslim community.
The Irish left as a whole has not done enough to tackle the upswing in racism in Irish society, and our failure to do so will ultimately lay the groundwork for an emboldened far right in the future. While racism can never be defeated without putting forward a serious left alternative, doing that in of itself is not enough. Ibrahim Halawa’s family was active in the Jobstown Not Guilty campaign, because of the instinctive sense of solidarity that oppressed communities feel and the instinct to link these struggles together.
Their repayment was a tokenistic support from the Jobstown campaign and then a subsequent attack on Minister Katherine Zappone for welcoming Ibrahim Halawa home (on account of her being a key player in the conviction of a minor in Ireland). Regardless of the motivation behind the Jobstown Not Guilty campaign for making that criticism, and regardless of whether that criticism taken in isolation was correct or not, it was beyond tone deaf and the complete opposite of the sensitivity that we on the left need to handle the struggle against racism in this country.
The social media firestorm around Ibrahim Halawa gives us a glimpse of the racism endemic in Irish society. The left must head off those views now before they find a coherent political expression with an insurgent far right formation like the many that now dot continental Europe’s politics. Part of this is building a new left media, but fundamentally the issue of racism must be taken as seriously as the struggles around queer and women’s liberation which we have lead the charge in. Failure to do so will have drastic consequences.