Early last February, 26-year-old Hafsa Halawa was visiting her sister in the UK when she finally found out what she had dreaded for weeks. Back in Egypt, where Halawa worked as an election observer, she had been sent to trial – along with 42 other democracy advocates – ostensibly for being employed by a foreign NGO that had not been properly registered.
British-born, raised in Plymouth, and the daughter of a retired NHS surgeon, Halawa could have stayed put; the charge was clearly politicised. The 43 had taught parliamentary candidates how to campaign, or monitored poll counts. But that day investigators claimed they were foreign spies, and sought to jail them on an administrative technicality. Previously an MP had called for them to be executed. Under earlier interrogation, Halawa herself had been accused of flouting the Geneva conventions.
That day in February 2012, Halawa had a choice: she could stay safely in Britain, or – being half-Egyptian and fiercely patriotic – return to Egypt to face the possibility of jail. Her mother, whose own father had fled death threats in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, told her to stay. Family friends, who had been jailed under Mubarak, agreed. “Everyone said: ‘stay, stay, stay’,” she remembered this week. “Don’t you dare come back.”
But she came back. “I was very adamant that: no, I was employed as an Egyptian, so I’ll be investigated and interrogated as an Egyptian,” said Halawa. “Plus, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Even if this went the whole way, it seemed impossible that I’d be found guilty.”
But last week, after an 18-month trial, Halawa was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for three years. It was not quite what Halawa had expected in mid-2011, when she left law school in Britain to help rebuild post-revolutionary Egypt. After joining the National Democratic Institute (NDI, an NGO that promotes the democratic process), she spent the next six months training Egypt’s new political parties, and leading poll observers in southern Egypt.