At a Cairo criminal court, a judge ordered the release of prominent left-wing activist Alaa Abdel Fattah on bail. Abdel Fattah, described by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, has spent almost four months in prison.
After the announcement, his supporters in the courtroom erupted into cheers and Abdel Fattah's father traded hugs with the defense team. Just two days ago, Abdel Fattah was on hunger strike in solitary confinement in a tiny jail cell with no light — punishment, he said, for an argument with a prison guard. His father stated this was in a wing of Cairo's notorious Tora Prison ominously referred to as the Experiment Ward, next to the death row cells. Now, Abdel Fattah is heading home — at least until the next trial date on April 6.
This case is tied to Egypt's controversial protest law, which bans demonstrations that haven't received prior government approval. The government says it needs the measure to maintain security, but rights groups have condemned the law, saying it infringes on freedom of expression.
Abdel Fattah, who has become a symbol of the 2011 revolution, is charged with organizing a demonstration the day after the protest law took effect in November. He's being tried along with twenty-four other men, who are all charged with assaulting a police officer and damaging public property. The women arrested at the same time, including Abdel Fattah's sister, say they were beaten by police then driven out of the city and dropped off on a remote desert road.
The prosecution released the remaining defendants during today's session. Dressed in street clothes, they burst into applause as Abdel Fattah entered the defendant's cage in his white prison jumpsuit. Grinning through the bars, he looked upbeat and shouted greetings to his co-defendants.
Abdel Fattah, one of Egypt's best known bloggers, has a long track record of criticizing the government; he's been doing it over the course of four regimes. He was first incarcerated under Egypt's ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2006, then again under the generals who took power in 2011. But this past stint is the longest he's spent behind bars.
And since his first arrest in 2006, his father and prominent human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif has defended him in court.
"It is a nightmare," he said as he waited in the courtroom for the judge's decision. Seif says that this time is worse than the others because of the arbitrary nature of Egypt's judicial system these days.
"There could be a surprise sentencing. Or they could release Alaa. Or they could decide to arrest the other defendants. Or maybe," he said with a smile, "they're release all of them and arrest the lawyers."
His cousin Omar Robert Hamilton says that for all of Egypt's recent governments, "Alaa represents this new, very linked-up, vocal, intelligent youth and so he is just one of a few names that is always on the top of their list."
Hamilton stresses that this isn't over, "He could very well take a sentence when it comes to ruling in the end." With an ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices, Egypt's courts are working overtime and its prisons are overflowing with thousands of people who protested against the government.
But for now at least, Abdel Fattah will return home to spend time with his wife and his young son, who was born the last time he was in prison.