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about those bouncy bouncy checks

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So here is what happened monday when I was detained for a few hours in Cairo airport.

The Short Version

nothing happened, someone made false criminal accusations about me, the case is in the court, I have good lawyers, we don't know details yet but highly unlikely it has anything to do with the regime and chances of me being convicted are very slim. nothing to see here except waste of tax payers money, valuable pro bono attorney time and 3 hours of my life.

that's all there is to it you don't need to read the long version.

The Very Long Version

we've been living and working in Pretoria, South Africa for a year now. back in February our passports where stolen. for incomprehensible bureaucratic reasons Egyptian embassies are no longer allowed to issue passports so we had to go back to Egypt just to get new passports.

Our friendly embassy gave us a temporary travel document, it is the same document they give to people being deported (illegal immigrants for instance). so we expected to have a rough time at Cairo airport. this is exacerbated by Egyptian security being paranoid about lost passports and treating it as a matter of national security.

so we had to spend 6 hours waiting at the airport for our papers to pass by several agencies and security checks by various police departments, among them the notorious state security responsible for handling political enemies of the state.

this is the "normal" procedure people who enter cairo airport without passports go through, being activists was not an issue, in fact we did not raise any flags at state security and we passed that step with boredom as the only threat.

the last step was a routine computer search for any outstanding arrest warrants or court orders and rulings against us. thanks to our new smart and connected e-government we have a central database for these things now, u go through that routine check if you are stopped by the police for any reason including passing a red traffic light. it is not unheard of for people to be surprised by cases against them that they knew nothing about yet appear to have being going on for years.

Manal passed this final check without raising any flags, but it turned out that in November 2009 I was sentenced in absentia for one year in prison in a case of cheque fraud. and so I was arrested.

some context before I explain what this is about.

a verdict is not really a verdict

a ruling in absentia on a misdemeanor is not really a ruling in Egypt. you see when a prosecutor takes a misdemeanor to court the court sets a date for the first hearing and then they are supposed to inform the accused. people don't always live in the same place mentioned in official documentation, and some times charges are brought by people who don't know the full name or address of those they accuse, so the court must inform accused part doesn't really work much of the time and when it things don't really work they're also very easy to abuse. it is extremely easy to make it look like someone was informed about the hearing when no such thing happened, the court knows about these difficulties, the court also knows about this potential for abuse, the court doesn't really care, there will be other hearings and several appeals someone else will take care of it.

but if neither the accused nor their lawyers show up for that first hearing the court automatically assumes prosecutor argument is correct and passes a guilty verdict in absentia usually involving prison sentence even if the judge is more likely to just fine the accused. this is not because the court is crazy it is just how these things work, the verdict is not really a verdict but just a tool to force the accused to appear before the court. it makes the price of ignoring a court summons high, and empowers the police to arrest people and bring them to court when the case does not involve fancy investigations and arrest warrants.

The moment defense lawyers show up, the verdict is automatically canceled and a date for a proper hearing is set.

all of this is just routine, but the police side of routine is not pretty, being held in custody while lawyers show up can be a dangerous experience, holding cells are overcrowded and pretty violent. police can be brutal, official procedure typically involves transfer of detainees from one police station to another through multiple convoluted hops where family can loose track of you and bad things could happen. so the most pressing concern in these cases is to get you out as soon as possible.

Back to the airport

And this is exactly what happened to me, I was arrested because of that outstanding in absentia order, we needed to move fast before I got transferred, luckily the arrest was at 1pm courts remain open till 2pm.

we quickly called Egypt's best human rights lawyers, they had one hour to find the power of attorney document that allows them to represent me, plurality of previous cases and lawyers lead to confusion about who the last person to have that document was. is it khaled who handles our valiant fight against ridiculous extra charges on electricity bill or rawda who handles our libel case, etc. the chase to the court is stuff of legend we ended up with over a dozen lawyers I'm told, they made it on time, in fact the whole process was done before I got to my holding cell, so I entered the cell knowing I will be released in a couple of hours. whole thing was so routine it took Khaled and Micheal more time make their way to the airport through cairo's rush hour traffic than it took them doing the actual legal stuff.

meanwhile I was living it large in my cell, you see in Egyptian prisons and detention center prisoners get privileges based on the time they spent in their cell as well as the total time they spent in custody, my career as a political prisoner in 2006 was so short I only got to experience the very lower rung of that time honored caste system, I slept next to the trash big, had to sleep curled, etc. this being a cushy airport holding cell for people who where unlucky enough to pass through random security checks and hear for the first time about in absentia rulings I ended up being the one with highest prison days count and so the best spot was mine to claim and I got act like an experience ex-con and dispense legal wisdom and advice to the poor newbies. and then I was released and went home.

Cheque fraud is not really fraud

now for more context. Cheque fraud is not really what it seems. like any self respecting global south nation in Egypt the informal economy is the economy. and in the informal economy most transactions including credit and asset sale are done without getting pesky lawyers and bankers involved. cheque fraud is just a way to guarantee loans and payment of installments. you see if you want an informal loan of 100,000EGP to buy a small plot of land from your best friend wife's cousin twice removed you get the sum in cash then you sign an informal cheque for a much higher sum, say 500,000EGP, no one expects you to pay the higher sum of course it is just for guarantee, if you don't pay up they'll take it to court. the law recognizes these informal cheques (if they fit certain criteria) and in the eyes of the law the larger sum is the real sum and it's a cheque that bounced no loans are involved. so you get sentenced for cheque fraud which means you have to negotiate and start paying your loan if you value your freedom. the court is not stupid it knows about the whole thing so if you reach an agreement the charges will be dropped.

So far this system managed not to cause any international financial crisis and it manages to work with a minimal number of lawyers and no bankers so I assume it's a good system. but good or not it is extremely common for people to have bouncy impossible checks, as common as credit is so don't be surprised if you hear of similar cases.

Don't blame the regime

now in my particular case the charges are completely false since I've never signed checks before (I only cash them) and my contributions to both formal and informal economy is so small, I don't do credit (loans from mom don't count) and I certainly don't do business (been scientifically proved that my paternal line has anti business sense genetic deficiency).

but while the charges are trumped up no doubt we have no reason to suspect it is political, it is highly unlikely that the regime and its state security goons are involved, we don't know the details of the case yet or who brought the charges but it was started by a private individual. we are not worried since I know I never signed checks so forgery must be involved and hopefully easy to prove. these charges where probably brought up as an inconvenience a way to get me arrested for a few days.

Abdo is not a judge

I don't know for sure who is behind this but I have my theories.

Now a couple of years ago Judge Abd El Fattah Mourad falsely accused Manal, Gamal Eid and Me of libel after reports showing plagiarism in a book he authored.

let me make this clear I'm not saying that Judge Abd El Fattah is behind this new false accusation, because it is simply not true and besides it would be a stupid thing to say since it may be considered libel to make such claims and I sure don't want to tarnish the reputation of this honourable judge. so I repeat I don't know who is behind this silly check fraud charge but I'm sure it is not Judge Abd El Fattah (wink wink, hint hint, point point, prod prod, arf arf).

Blame the regime

ok so state security is not behind this, but the regime is still responsible, they created a broken justice system that makes it very easy to incarcerate anyone anytime under all sorts of excuses, that system was not created by accident it is one tool among many for exerting absolute control when they need to.

The governments brutality, frequent and systematic use of torture and basic disregard for human dignity leads to a prison system that's so broken even the threat of spending a couple of days is too much. incompetence, means mere investigations or accusations are all that's required to put any citizen into a crowded cell for a few days and corruption means it is too easy for a powerful person with a few strings to pull to put anyone they don't like through the worst of the system.

this has a chilling effect on free speech (among other more serious consequences), there are several cases where the mere threat of libel litigation lead people to censor themselves or post humiliating apologies for exposing the truth about this corrupt judge or that crooked businessman. hell even fucking tv ads director is too hot to touch in Egypt because most people facing the risk of getting roughed up while being processed in a routine procedure during a libel case will opt out, even if there is no chance in hell the charges could stick, even if there is no risk of ever being found guilty. the process is the punishment. the bureaucracy is torture.

and that's no side effect either, the system is not designed just to protect Mubarak, this corrupt judge and that butcher of a cop and that talentless director are the ruing class, they're the main beneficiaries of the status quo, they are Mubarak's power base and the whole system is designed to serve their interests, in fact they get to draft legislation and shape policy, they hold office, and get to be on boards of state run corporations.

but their abusive actions where not directed at me because I'm an activist that's just part of daily life here in Egypt, that's what they do cause misery and inflict indignity and totally consume the best of us in pointless battle after battle until we're spread too thin.

and that's all there is to it and then more.