Nation & World

Egypt dissident released on bail in possible sign government is easing crackdown

An Egyptian criminal court on Sunday released on bail a leading liberal activist charged with holding unauthorized protests in a ruling some here saw as an effort by authorities to cool political tensions ahead of an expected presidential election.

Judge Mohamed al Fiqqy set bail at 10,000 Egyptian pounds, about $1,400, each for Alaa Abdel Fatah, a prominent dissident who helped spur the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a security guard who was arrested for carrying a knife near a demonstration. Both men had been held for four months. The next court date was set for April 6.

Spectators in the courtroom cheered when the judge announced his ruling, and political commentators expressed hope that it was a sign the government was reassessing its eight-month, brutal crackdown on opponents of all stripes since its ouster July 3 of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi.

That hope was bolstered Sunday when the family of jailed al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Fadel Fahmy said it had received a letter from Egyptian President Adly Mansour, promising a speedy trial in the case. The government charges that Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egyptian citizenship and has worked for CNN and the BBC previously, ran a terror cell and fabricated news from al Jazeera’s temporary office in the luxurious Marriott Hotel. Three other al Jazeera journalists, including Australian Peter Greste, were arrested Dec. 29 with Fahmy, whose next court hearing is set for Monday.

According to government figures, at least 16,000 people – both Islamists and liberals – have been arrested since Morsi’s ouster on charges that include protesting the government, terrorism and speaking out in a way that harms national security. The result has been overcrowded prisons, overtaxed courts and a climate of fear just three years after an uprising that sought democratic reforms.

But rather than bringing stability and security, the arrests have deeply polarized the nation, led to a burgeoning insurgency and raised fears that Egypt was becoming even more repressive than during Mubarak’s rule.

Abdel Fattah, Abdel Rahman and 23 other defendants were charged in November after demonstrators gathered in front of the country’s Shura Council legislature to protest the then newly passed law that banned Egyptians from holding protests without government approval. Abdel Rahman and 23 others were charged immediately after their arrest Nov 26, though it remains unclear whether Abdel Rahman was participating in the protest or just happened to be passing nearby.

Two days later, officers stormed Abdel Fattah’s home, beating him and his wife before hauling Abdel Fattah off to Cairo’s Tora prison, where he has remained. All 25 defendants were charged with assembling illegally, stopping traffic and assaulting security forces and stealing police two-way radios. Abdel Fattah was also charged with organizing an illegal protest.

Ten days after the Nov. 26 protests, all the defendants except Abdel Rahman and Abdel Fattah were released on bail. And as recently as two days ago, Abdel Fattah was put in solitary confinement for speaking ill of the police guards within earshot of them.

As Abdel Fattah entered the courtroom, his father and lawyer, Saif El Deen, yelled: “How are you, Alaa?” Other defendants cheered and clapped upon his entrance.

During the roughly 30-minute court session, Abdel Fattah, who wore a white prison jumpsuit and was confined, as is Egyptian tradition, in a cage, joked with his co-defendants as his father and legal team appealed for his release and for the government to allow them to review the case against them.

Abdel Fattah said he was thrilled and eager to embrace his two-year-old son. His father credited public pressure, including criticism from human rights organizations, for the court’s decision to grant his son bail. Still, he said, there’s no guarantee of a fair trial.

“It is like the throwing of the dice. It has nothing to do with the rule of law or cleverness of the lawyers,” El Deen, himself a long time activist who was arrested during Mubarak’s era, told reporters afterward.

As he explained to McClatchy just before the ruling: “Anything is possible in this country. They can release the defendants and arrest the journalists [covering the trial] and the lawyers.”

The preceding court session offered an example of El Deen’s complaint. In that case, a group of Islamist lawyers defending two leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive group through which Morsi rose to power, said they now had so many cases that they can’t keep up and that they fear arrest.

One lawyer, Khalid Badawy, told the judge that his client had two court sessions at the same time in two different courts, leaving him unsure where to go and whether his client would be there.

And he said in today’s Egypt, he fears that he too could be arrested.

“At least 300 lawyers had been arrested,” often when they went to attend the interrogations of their defendants, Badawy told the judge. “Seeing my colleagues getting arrested is a threat for me.”