Eleven days before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was due to travel to Washington for his first White House visit, Aya Hegazy was escorted from her cell in the Qanater women’s prison, where she has been locked up for nearly three years, to the Abdeen courthouse in downtown Cairo to be sentenced.
It was the culmination of a nightmarish ordeal for the 30-year-old Egyptian American.
Hegazy grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, but after graduating from George Mason University with a degree in conflict analysis and resolution, she returned to Egypt following the 2011 revolution. She got married and, with her husband, used the wedding money to establish the Belady Foundation, an organization that provided services for street children in Cairo. In May 2014, during a broad crackdown on civil society, police raided the foundation and arrested the couple, along with several others, on a raft of trumped-up charges, including human trafficking, sexual exploitation of children, and using children in antigovernment protests.
Their trial, which has been marked by due-process violations and frequent, prolonged postponements, has been decried by Human Rights Watch as a “travesty of justice.” Finally, after spending 1,058 days behind bars, Hegazy was to hear the verdict.
Hegazy was escorted into the courtroom by black-clad policemen in berets, who led her to the defendants’ cage and locked her in. Dressed entirely in white with a scarf draped loosely over her hair, she stood out amid the unwashed walls, the gray floor, and the bustle of men around her; a pristine figure in striking contrast with all the cement and iron and dust. Ignoring the commotion of the court, she sat down and quietly began to read from the book she was carrying: Maya Angelou’s evocative memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, and the other defendants in the case were eventually brought in and joined her. The married couple only see each other at trial sessions, weeks or months apart. When Hassanein entered the cage, they embraced tightly and sat close to one another, smiling and speaking in hushed tones.
After several hours, the judge announced that the verdict would be postponed to April 16. There was no explanation. Hegazy, Hassanein, and the others were hauled back to prison.
Outside the courthouse, Hegazy’s mother, Naglaa Hosni, looked downcast. “What if they postponed it to wait until after Sisi’s trip to Washington?” she asked searchingly. “That could mean it’s a harsh sentence and they don’t want him to come under criticism while he’s there.”