A lonely fight defending Egypt's jailed dissidents

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CAIRO (AP) — When a group of activists is arrested in Egypt, the call for help goes most often to lawyer Ragia Omran. She then starts a long trek through police stations and prosecutors' offices, trying to get their release or at least some respect for their rights.

It's a lonely, grueling struggle, and not one Omran expected to have to wage. In 2011, she was among the revolutionaries who took to the streets and led an uprising that brought down Egypt's long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The revolt gave rise to a brief period of greater freedoms and hope for real democracy.

Nearly four years later, all that has been reversed. Many of the secular and liberal revolutionaries are in prison under a clampdown by the government of army chief-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. There is zero tolerance for dissent. Police have become notorious once more for abuses they carry out with impunity. There is less democracy now, the uprising's leaders say, than under Mubarak.

Defending arrested activists is Omran's way of keeping the revolution alive.

"We are not going to accept that the police state will continue to run the country unchallenged. There have to be people who object to this, and we are going to be those people — I and the others who are with me," she said one afternoon after a court hearing for 25 young men on trial for breaking a draconian law effectively banning protests which was adopted a year ago.

"I cannot give up. My friends and family want me to leave the country. I cannot," she told The Associated Press in one of several recent interviews.

Dozens have been arrested under the protest law, which allows for heavy prison sentences for even peaceful marches. The law has mainly been used to go after secular critics. Authorities have also arrested more 20,000 Islamists since el-Sissi's 2013 overthrow of then-President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, activists and civil society workers face a relentless media campaign demonizing them as troublemakers causing instability or foreign agents trying to bring down the state. The smear campaign resonates with many Egyptians who long for normalcy after years of turmoil — meaning there is almost no public sympathy for jailed activists or those who defend them.

Revolution supporters have been left demoralized. Some are in prison, some have left the country. Some, as Omran puts it, are getting married and trying to live their lives.

Others, like Omran and human rights lawyers doing similar work, are simply doing what they can.

The 41-year-old Omran earns her living as a corporate lawyer. Defending activists is her volunteer work. That can mean punishing hours. One recent day, she attended the signing of a nearly $700 million loan deal that her firm helped work out. In the days that followed, she was in court representing jailed activists, tromping into police stations to find clients, and visiting prisons, trying to bring food and other supplies to detainees.

She often keeps clothes in her car so she can make quick changes out of her corporate business suit and heels. Her mobile gets a constant stream of texts and calls. Sometimes she herself cooks food to take to inmates — things that can go a few days without spoiling.

Standing only 5 feet tall (1.53 meters), she charges with determined steps into prisons, police stations and courtrooms, where she meets constant resistance from authorities.

"In the first two years after the revolution, police and the Interior Ministry were careful with us because they didn't want bad publicity," she said. "Now they don't care... This regime does not care about its image, the law or regulations."

On a recent day, for example, she tried to take supplies to the imprisoned Alaa Abdel-Fattah, one of the most prominent icons of the 2011 uprising. She was able to take him some canned goods, but guards barred writing materials or a radio — even though such items are allowed. Abdel-Fattah and his co-defendants are kept separated in prison, each housed with criminal convicts, and any inmate who tries to help them by giving them anything is punished, Omran said.

Last week, she went to visit a teenager who was jailed during protests in January. He has been held without charge ever since, largely forgotten, in what Omran calls one of the dirtiest of Cairo's prisons.

She tried to take him newspapers, books, a sketch pad and some pastries — but all were blocked by the prison authorities. Still, she said, he "was so happy that we visited him."

A graduate in political science from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania — with law degrees from universities in Cairo and London — Omran is a 20-year veteran of political activism. During the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, she says she spent every day in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising.

She was one of several activists featured in The Square -- an Oscar-nominated documentary about the revolution -- and she walked the Red Carpet with the director and other activists during the Oscars ceremony. Last year she was awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

Like many activists, she looks back to try to find where things went wrong. She points to the day Mubarak resigned, Feb. 11, 2011, when the military stepped in to rule directly. That put an institution intertwined with Mubarak's rule in charge of a political process she says the revolution should have directed.

"We have been set up big time," she said. "We should not have left the square, we should not have let the army run the country and we should have demanded a civilian government from day one."

"In retrospect, I think the main mistake was that we did not have a leader," she said.

The frustration weighs heavily.

"I am beyond depressed," Omran text-messaged an AP reporter on Nov. 29, the day a court dismissed the case against Mubarak over the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the uprising.

Days later, she sent another text: "Yesterday was a day from hell."

She was attending a two-day conference in Tunisia on torture in detention while, back in Egypt, police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse hundreds protesting the Mubarak verdict. Twenty-nine were arrested. Omran worked the phones until late from her Tunis hotel and managed to get all but four released.

"I swear this is what always happens to me every time I travel," she texted.

She also knows that authorities are looking for any pretext to act against her.

During a recent trial session, she received an urgent call, so she quickly hurried out of the courtroom to take it. The judge accused her of showing contempt for the judiciary, and she was questioned by prosecutors on the charge last month. Omran insists she was not speaking on the phone while still in the courtroom.

Throughout, she and other activists have to face the question of whether protests are effective any more.

During a recent protest, she recounted, 50 people formed a human chain. Half of them were arrested, so she and fellow lawyers made the usual tour of police stations to try and free them.

"It's a headache. Why you guys want to do this? You want to be in jail? It is not great, it is not cool to be in jail," she said. She emphasized that she is a firm supporter of the right to protest — but for now, there's no way to get out large numbers to make a difference.

"A lot of those who protest today now are young and desperate, I understand that, but there is zero public support now."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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