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Mahienour el-Massry: a workers' revolutionary

To describe Mahie’s activism over the last three years is to describe how the protests have been going on in Alexandria, throughout, protesting at the antidemocratic methods of the Egyptian army. 

Trial started in July, 2010 of the undercover police officers accused of killing the young Egyptian in Alexandria, Khalid Saeed. Hundreds of people demonstrated outside the courthouse against Egyptian police practises. Tarek Hussein/Demotix. All rights reserved.

«We will topple this regime, created on the back of the protest law», is Mahienour el Massry’s message from inside the cage of the Alexandria Court. The activist has been condemned to two years because she took part in and organized a gathering in Alexandria to commemorate one of the symbols of the 2011 uprisings, Khaled Said, killed by police officers in 2010.

«In my cell there are dozens of daughters of farmers», continues the lawyer, now in prison for 40 days and bound in the white cloth worn by female detainees. The Court fans were suddenly switched off despite the humid heat, to push the hundreds of people, who came to see Mahie making her appeal, to leave the courtroom. The black looks of the judge Sherif Hafez, known for his harsh methods against political prisoners, for a while restrained the activists from chanting. Not only their friends were there and dozens of Egyptian activists, but the families of all those accused of petty crimes and waiting for a sentence before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, which started on Sunday.  

There were people fainting and scuffles between guards and the families of the detainees preceding the court decision to postpone the verdict until July 20, leaving Mahie in prison. «After the 10th of Ramadan, you can visit me every week», whispered Mahie to her mother and sisters, Miral and Mahiesoon. The lawyers, communist Khaled Ali, the revolutionary socialist Haitham Mohamedain and others, in their defence, criticized the anti-protest law as anti-Constitutional, and the unmerited arrest of Mahie who, according to her defence, was participating as a lawyer in a spontaneous gathering.  

When the postponement was announced, Mahie shouted her message from the cage, followed by the chants of dozens of activists: «To protest is our right, we refuse the anti-protest law. The revolution is in every street». In those hours in the Council chamber, some photographers managed to take some pictures inside the cage, and give them to her family, while food, beverages and cigarettes were passed by the families of detainees through one door. Mahie, who has received the International Ludovic Trarieux human rights award for her political engagement, asked a family member to come to the aid of another female detainee who did not have not enough money to pay her bail for leaving the prison.

2011-2014: the space of the contestation in Alexandria

The Egyptian judges have singled out Mahie to frighten a huge number of  secular activists who, despite censorship and restrictions after the July 3, 2013 military coup (the 6 April movement ban, the arrests of the leaders of the movement, the 15-year jail sentence given to the activist Alaa Abdel Fattah as well as other activists and the 24 arrests of protesters marching last week towards the Heliopolis presidential palace against the anti-protest law) are still criticizing the antidemocratic methods of the Egyptian army.

To describe Mahie’s activism is to describe how the protests have been going on in Alexandria, throughout the last three years: a city completely different from Cairo, with a public space which extends from the sea up to the immense university (where, between the Qait Ibrahim Mosque and Sidi Gaber all the major demonstrations have taken place since 2011) - an immense hinterland, with an extremely disadvantaged periphery.

We met Mahie for the first time in December 2012 when Egypt was divided over the Constitution as approved by the Muslim Brotherhood. With her, we visited the local neighbourhood of West al-Aghani, Al-Amereia where there are hundreds of factories packed into the coastal town of Marsa Matruh. Downtown Alexandria has the concentration of the richest districts of Kafr Abdu and Rushdy. However, the further away you get from the sea, the less paved are the alley ways, and random brick houses seem to sprout up arbitrarily. The cosmopolitan sea-walk with the Qait Bey tower and the Alexandria Library, is far removed from the Nadi el Sid and Ali slums.

Before the usual Friday clashes, we took part with Mahie in a meeting of the opposition group, the National Salvation Front, now dissolved. Her friend, the activist Taher Mokhtar had been organizing a big doctors’ strike. «We are asking for a budget for the health system, to set health up as a right for everybody and to increase the salaries of the hospital workers. 90% of the medical personnel is on strike because the Constitution is not going in this direction», Taher explained, alongside dozens of other activists, Ahmed Galal, Mustafa Sakr, Ranwa Ali. At that time, Suzan Nada, another protagonist of the Alexandria movements and Secretary of the Socialist Alliance Party, strongly criticized the Constituent Assembly defined as illegitimate because of the marked absence of women, farmers, students and workers’ representatives. «They want to privatize healthcare and prevent an independent trade unions’ movement. If the Constitution of 1971 stated that 6% of the factory profit should be split with the workers, now this provision has been cancelled. This is not the outcome we wanted for our revolution», Nada concluded. 

From Tamarrod to the arrest

We met Mahie again during the Alexandria demonstrations for the dismissal of the former president Mohamed Morsi. The campaign Tamarrod (rebellion), on May 2013, was supported by liberal and socialist movements and not then infiltrated by military secret services members, as proved to be the case later on. Mahie’s voice as she shouted the slogans led all the chants in the demonstrations that took place in front of the same court where Mahie is currently appearing as a defendant. Her commitment to breaking up the system from the bottom up meant that she spent several days in the Alexandria and Cairo courts or in the police stations, standing shoulder to shoulder with arrested activists and asking to know what had happened to activists of whom little was known, or defending detainees who has been arbitrarily arrested.   

After 20 days in prison, Mahien­our sent out her first letter from prison through her lawyer Mohamed Ramadan. Mahie described the prison as a microcosm of poor and rich people where the latter have access to everything and the former to nothing, as in everyday life. The majority of the detainees of her cell are there because they cannot afford to pay their debts, after their sons’ weddings. Moreover, Mahie has denounced the women’s conditions in Damanhour’s prison: «we cannot ask for the release of an individual and ignore the needs of the people ». From the prison, Mahie continues to ask for the cancellation of the anti-protest law and calls for a class struggle to overthrow the system, which must include the participation of those who are less well off. «We must be organized and interact with the ordinary people, we must talk of the rights of those who are poorer and the solutions we propose. We must ask for their liberation so that people understand that we are not isolated from their needs», Mahie said. In a second letter from prison, Mahie has refused any amnesty unless the protest law is fundamentally amended.

Two demonstrations have been organized asking for Mahie’s release. The first in front of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights in Alexandria (ECESR), led by her lawyer and the former presidential candidate, Khaled Ali. 16 activists, among them Taher Mokhtar, were arrested, then subsequently released. In Cairo the protest took place at the entrance of the downtown Journalist Syndicate. A march started crossing Sherif Street and leading to Talaat Harb Square. However, the activists suddenly came under attack from people with stones and glass missiles and were forced to end the protest. After the election of the former general Abdel Fattah El Sisi, last May, with such a low turn-out, the space for contestation in Egypt has vanished. Nevertheless Mahie will continue the fight for the rights of the disadvantaged and the families of the thousands of people murdered or disappeared in the last three years in Egypt. We wish that by next July 20, a verdict will set free the most sincere and brave among the Egyptian activists.

About the author

Giuseppe Acconcia, an Italian journalist and researcher, has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and a dissertation on the role of the military in politics in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. He is the author of The Egyptian Spring (Infinito, 2012).


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