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The female 'terrorists',15, who united Egypt

Tuesday, 3 December 2013 - 8:34am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

One of the 15-year-old girls plays the guitar and enjoys going for a daily walk before school with her mother. The other likes painting and watching cartoons on television. When Rawda el-Saadany and Salma Reda Mohammed got caught up in a small Muslim Brotherhood demonstration a month ago, their families thought they could just go to the police station and bring them home, as countless other parents had done in recent years.

Instead, the girls were jailed along with five other minors, all handed indefinite terms in detention by a justice system that seems to many Egyptians to have gone mad. "Does this look like a typical terrorist to you?" Rawda's father asked through his tears as he held up a picture of his daughter playing the guitar. Egypt's famously fragmented opposition has united around its outrage at the jailing of the seven girls and 14 other young women over a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration that ended peacefully and with only the slightest damage to property.

The sentences have reenergised protests against the regime; even anti-Brotherhood figures such as Hamdeen Sabbahy, the leading Leftist politician who backed the army's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, called for the sentences to be overturned. The families of Rawda and Salma insist that they were purely in the wrong place at the wrong time - but no one had responded to their statements when the group was taken to court last week. In proceedings that have been attacked by human rights groups and the girls' relatives, the judge, retiring, hinted that he saw no case to answer.

Yet, later that night, the families turned on the television to hear the girls handed custodial sentences - not in a courtroom, but via police press release. The 14 adult women with them in the caged dock that day, including Rawda's mother, Salwa, were jailed for 11 years each.

"When I saw it on the news, I was in such a state of shock that I thought I would go crazy" said Rawda's father, Ramada el-Saadany. "I just began to pray. All next day I fasted, to prove to God that I could still accept his Witness." Meanwhile, footage was shown of the girls being led away. As the file of young women dressed in all-white prison uniforms and headscarves climbed into the windowless prison van and disappeared into the black interior, many observed that the judiciary's opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood could not have scripted a better image of virtue being consumed by dark forces.

The past six months in Egypt have seen a bloody denouement to three years of political crisis. There have been endless protests since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, often subdued with lethal force, elections won by the Muslim Brotherhood, and yet more demonstrations that loosened Morsi's always uncomfortable hold on power. The army took charge; in subsequent demonstrations, broken up even more violently, more than 1,000 people were killed, mostly shot dead by policemen and soldiers, more than 600 of them on a single day in Cairo on Aug 14.

However, it seems to have taken the seemingly far less significant events of last week for the regime to unite a significant cross-section of public opinion against it. Just as the Brotherhood demonstrations were starting to diminish and a committee was completing a relatively well-ordered process of drafting a new constitution, the cabinet out of the blue announced a new law banning further protests not approved in advance.

Since the army continued to claim a legitimacy derived from popular protests, it seemed at best hypocritical and at worst an open sign that it intended to reinstate military dictatorship. Unabashed, it promptly turned on a new foe, seizing scores of young liberals demonstrating against that law, beating them and depositing 24 women detainees on a desert road outside Cairo in the middle of the night.

Two of the leading figures in the 2011 were also arrested, one in a midnight raid after he had already promised to give himself up. Then came the jailing of the 21 young women in Alexandria and the week was complete. No explanation has yet been forthcoming, either as to the sentence's harshness or its unusual delivery. Although the women were accused of being "members of a terrorist organisation", of blocking traffic and wielding weapons and stones, the evidence the prosecution put forward was innocuous. There was certainly a small protest that briefly blocked a road and some of the protesters, male and female, threw stones after residents of a building poured water on them.

But no evidence was presented that any of the women in the dock were personally responsible. No weapons were produced. The building's doorman presented an estimate of the scratches on the door, which he said would cost about 50 Egyptian pounds - pounds 5 - to repair. "The lawyers working on the case say the evidence was simply rubbish," said Heba Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, who has monitored every twist and turn of the legal system's responses to recent challenges. "The craziness of the crackdown on the Brotherhood isn't new. The interesting aspect though is to see it in such stark terms."

El-Saadany says his wife and daughter were not even part of the protest. His wife had been ordered by her doctor to take a walk every morning for her heart condition. He said she was neither fit enough to run away when she and Rawda saw a protest ahead of them being dispersed, nor felt the need as they were not involved.

"Unfortunately, it seems they arrested the slowest," he said. Salma had been standing in the protest with some friends of her older sister, a pharmacology student at Alexandria University. She did try to run, but had an asthma attack. The three friends turned back to help her and were also seized, along with another friend of Salma's who had spotted her from a minibus and got out to help. All four were sentenced with her. Her brother and sister were active in protests, her family said, but she had no interest herself. "She was more interested in her drawing and Facebook and cartoons," her mother, Hadaya, said.

Mohammed broke her arm after fainting on seeing her daughter in the dock. The speed of the case contrasts with the usually elongated court hearings of serious crimes. There will be an appeal on Saturday, and the publicity given to the case even by pro-regime media has led to widespread hopes that the sentences will be overturned.

El-Saadany said that if his wife and daughter were freed, they had already been discussing emigrating. He is not a Brotherhood supporter and Morsi was not his or his wife's first choice in presidential elections, but he says they were already disgusted after the lethal events of the summer.

"I want to go somewhere where people are treated with respect," he said. "So not another Arab country either. I visited Germany before, and Zurich. Then I was glad to get home because I loved Egypt so much. "But I can't stay here any more. In this country you can't breathe, for the blood that's all around you.'

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