CAIRO – Egyptian activist Sanaa Seif decided she had had enough of Egypt's justice system.
When the 22-year-old was summoned for questioning on accusations of inciting protests, she refused to answer the investigating judge's questions. She told him she would not participate in the "charade" and said the courts and prosecutors all follow the will of the government.
Stunned and offended, the investigator didn't charge her with incitement; he charged her instead with insulting a government employee while performing his duties. Within days, Seif was tried, convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. She refused to attend the trial and then refused to appeal the verdict.
On May 14, she gave herself up to authorities and is now serving her sentence in a prison outside Cairo.
"It's not an act of bravado. Being jailed is not easy and I know it," Seif wrote on her Facebook page before turning herself in.
Her unusual protest reflects the deep frustration among Egypt's pro-democracy activists who led the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Five years later, they say, the system has become entirely stacked against them under the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
In the media, memories of the 2011 "revolution" have been silenced, replaced by what authorities call the 2013 "revolution," in which the military — led by el-Sissi — removed the first freely elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, after massive protests against him and his Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sissi was elected president almost a year later, claiming a mandate to do whatever was needed to bring stability after years of turmoil.
A law issued in late 2013 virtually banned street protests and largely succeeded in suppressing demonstrations. Along with thousands of Islamists, many of the top secular activists have been jailed. Pro-government media have fanned public bitterness against the 2011 activists and critics of el-Sissi, depicting them, at best, as naive youth who cause chaos — or, at worst, as traitors intentionally trying to wreck the country.
El-Sissi insists the judiciary is independent and that its verdicts must not be criticized outside the courts. But whether following government pressure or its own devices, the judicial system has largely followed the lead of the security forces in the fierce crackdown on dissent.
Courts have issued heavy prison sentences against Islamists, secular activists and protesters, often with little evidence or due process, rights groups say. Prosecutors have vigorously applied vague charges like endangering security or stability, while turning a blind eye to police abuses ranging from torture and forced disappearances to long detentions without charge.
Seif's confrontation with her investigators "was the most honest thing anyone can ever say about Egypt's justice system," Wael Iskandar, a prominent political blogger and a Seif acquaintance, told The Associated Press.
Many activists are convinced the judiciary is beholden to el-Sissi's government. But rights lawyer Negad Borai noted that judges and prosecutors have their own interest in ensuring that Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed and branded a terrorist group, does not return to power and they believe the activists threaten stability.
"The judiciary, just like the middle class that supports el-Sissi, is filled with fear. Fear of the Brotherhood, fear of lack of security and fear of a repeat here of what's happened in Iraq and Syria," he said. "It feels that el-Sissi saved them from the Brotherhood," which judges feared intended to purge the judiciary and stack it with its supporters while in power.
Seif, a film editor who worked on "The Square," a 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary on the 2011 uprising, hails from Egypt's best known family of activists. Her father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, who died in 2014, was a renowned human rights lawyer. Her mother, Leila Soueif, a mathematician, is a prominent advocate of academic independence.
Seif's older brother, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, is an iconic figure in Egypt's pro-democracy movement. He is serving a five-year prison sentence for taking part in a 2013 demonstration. Mona, her sister, is an outspoken critic of el-Sissi's government. Her aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, is a novelist and rights advocate.
Seif had her first direct run-in with authorities in December 2011, when she took part in a sit-in protest against the appointment of a leading Mubarak-era politician as prime minister. She was detained for a day and beaten in the military's custody, said Soueif, her mother.
Seif raised a case against the army officer who beat her, backed by a medical report on her injuries. "But like always in these cases, it came to nothing," Soueif said.
In 2014, Seif was sentenced to three years in prison for joining a demonstration against the protest law. After serving 15 months, she was among a number of activists freed in a pardon by el-Sissi last September.
Months later, on Jan. 25, when police had fanned out in the streets to prevent any demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, Seif made a bold, solo protest, risking arrest: She walked alone to Tahrir Square retracing the steps of one of the biggest anti-Mubarak marches with a sign on her back reading, "It's still the January Revolution."
Seif described her confrontation with the investigator on her Facebook page.
"In the past, I took the 'justice system' seriously," she wrote, but she said she became disillusioned. She said one prosecutor in her 2014 case told her he didn't want to jail her but was under pressure to do so. A judge, she wrote, ignored her when she told him she was being held in so-called "protective custody," used by police to detain suspects without charge for lengthy periods.
Taher Abu el-Nasr, a lawyer who was present during Seif's questioning, confirmed her account to the AP. "She knew what she was saying and that she will pay the price," he said. "Her delivery was not violent, but not weak either. She was confident."
Rights lawyers say the justice system has been overwhelmed by the huge numbers of arrests since 2013 — as many as 40,000 by some accounts.
"The justice system has suffered a partial meltdown in the past 18 months," said Nasser Amin, a prominent rights lawyer and a member of the state's National Council for Human Rights, or NCHR.
"The Egyptian judicial system is carrying an unbearable load. It has become a partner in safeguarding security, not justice," he added.
Last month, 152 protesters, some of them randomly arrested, were convicted and sentenced to up to five years in prison for participating in demonstrations denouncing the government's decision to hand over control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Last week, the sentences for 47 of them were overturned on appeal but they still face fines of about $10,000 each.
Ghada Shahbender, a human rights advocate and friend of Seif's, said some call her form of protest unorthodox and abnormal.
"But the truth is," she said, "Sanaa is unorthodox only because hypocrisy is the new orthodox in Egypt and abnormal because adulation of the general is now the only acceptable norm."