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Egyptian Activist Mahienour el-Massry: The Cost of Persistence

Mahienour el-Massry
Photo: Gigi Ibrahim / Flickr ©Flickr ⁃ Gigi Ibrahim

Human rights lawyer and activist Mahienour el-Massry, 33, was arrested on 22 September 2019 in Cairo, two days after rare protests erupted against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, and amid an unprecedented wave of arrests of potential or presumed protesters and opposition members.

El-Massry is being held in pre-trial detention on charges of aiding a terrorist organization and spreading false news – common charges in politically motivated arrests – in a revived case related to protests over the deadly train accident in February 2019 in Cairo’s central station.

It is not the first time el-Massry has been imprisoned. She was first held in 2008 in a police station in her hometown Alexandria. She became politically engaged at a young age, participating in student protests at school and university in Alexandria before joining the Kefaya movement against former President Hosni Mubarak in 2005.

In May 2014, she was handed a two-year sentence for organizing an unauthorized protest during the retrial against the police officers responsible for the death of inmate Khaled Said. Her sentence was later reduced to six months and suspended in September that year, after which she was released.

During her detention, she wrote an open letter titled ‘We shall continue’, vowing to keep on fighting until the controversial Protest Law issued in November 2013 – which effectively annihilated the right to protest – was abolished. She also pointed to class differences that determine one’s treatment even in prison, ending her letter with the call: ‘Down with this classist society’.

She was awarded the Ludovic Trarieux Human Rights Prize in 2014, while still in prison.

Barely a year later, she was imprisoned again, when an Alexandria court sentenced her to 15 months in May 2015 for ‘storming’ a police station in Alexandria in 2013. She had taken part in a sit-in outside the station. After serving her sentence, she was released in August 2016.

In an interview with al-Monitor, she described her detention, detailing a small cell without beds shared with 18 female prisoners, a lack of hygiene, medical care and ventilation and frequent water cuts. “Things in prison don’t go according to the law. Rather, they go according to the practice of the prison commissioner,” she said.

She was arrested again in November 2017 for protesting in Alexandria against the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. She initially received a two-year sentence, but the appeal court overturned the verdict and acquitted her in January 2018.

Her motivation appears to be primarily humanitarian rather than political. She has persistently aided Syrian refugees detained after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and has paid the bail for detainees out of her own pocket.

She is a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, a far-left opposition group that originated in the 1990s and remained largely underground until 2011. It played an important role in mobilizing demonstrators for the protests that toppled Mubarak in January 2011, but – like many other liberal and leftist political groups – has been heavily marginalized under al-Sisi.

In an interview with Open Democracy, el-Massry described the 2011 revolution as “one of the best moments that ever happened to the Egyptian people”.

Other prominent members of the Revolutionary Socialists include lawyer Haitham Mohamedeen, who has faced arrest multiple times and is currently in prison as well, and Kamal Khalil. The latter was arrested in September, several days before el-Massry, and is a defendant in the same case.

El-Massry’s latest arrest took place in front of a court in Cairo, where she was due to provide legal support to people arrested in the aftermath of anti-government protests on 20 September. Security forces responded fiercely to these small but significant protests, which took place in various cities including Cairo, Suez, Mahalla and Alexandria.

Almost 3,000 people were arrested over the course of three weeks, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, in order to prevent further protests, including over 100 minors, Amnesty International said. It constitutes the largest arrest campaign since al-Sisi assumed the presidency in June 2014. Police have been conducting checks in central Cairo, particularly on young men, to search their phones for sensitive political content. Eyewitnesses saw people being arrested during such checks.

El-Massry was the first of a number of high-profile activists, lawyers and opposition members to be arrested since the protests. Other include the leader of the al-Karama Party, Abdel Aziz el-Husseini; al-Dostour Party member and journalist Khaled Dawoud; Cairo University professors Hassan Nafaa and Hazem Hosny, the latter having served as spokesperson for the arrested presidential hopeful Sami Anan in 2018; veteran activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who was on probation after having served a five-year sentence for illegal protesting; and his lawyer Mohamed el-Baqar, who was arrested when he was waiting at the prosecutor’s office to attend the interrogation of his client.

The latest prominent activists to be arrested on 12 and 13 October were April 6 Youth Movement co-founder Esraa Abdel Fattah and Bread and Freedom party official Abdallah Said.

Despite the shrinking space for political opposition in Egypt and her previous arrests, el-Massry has remained politically active and continued to support (political) detainees in her capacity as a lawyer.

“Mahienour is one of the strongest and most determined people I’ve met, with a heart so big that it keeps her doing what’s right for herself and others,” a friend told Fanack.

In the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections, el-Massry campaigned for presidential hopeful Khaled Ali, but he withdrew from the race citing safety concerns for his team and unfair competition. Several other potential candidates were either arrested or intimidated into withdrawing, leaving only a staunch al-Sisi supporter to run against the president as a puppet candidate.

“You cannot call this an election; it is a referendum. This is why I will boycott it. There is no other candidate except al-Sisi,” el-Massry said in the Open Democracy interview in 2018.

In the same interview, she acknowledged mistakes made in the 2011 revolution. “The Egyptian people were great at mobilizing, but when you consider what should have been done afterwards, the people were at sea. We did not have one clear vision: we were divided,” she said.

She also predicted that something like the recent protests and subsequent crackdown would happen. “[People] are also fed up with the regime. They want to move on,” she said, adding that when the people move, “the state’s reaction will inevitably be violent and brutal”.

She concluded the interview hopeful that political change can and will happen but realizing this would come at cost: “We will pay with our lives defending the things we believe in. A new society with a new social structure is coming.”

As her friend put it: “Those who are consistent will consistently be persecuted.”

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©Flickr ⁃ Gigi Ibrahim | ©Flickr ⁃ Gigi Ibrahim

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