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“From the revolution, we learned to be united”: leaving politics behind. An interview with Mahienour el-Massry

On the occasion of the anniversary of the eighteen days’ occupation of Tahrir Square, beginning 25 January 2011, Mahienour el-Massry, lawyer and Revolutionary Socialist activist in interview.

AA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Egyptian political activists, victims and prisoners' relatives take part in a protest on 29 March 2013. AA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Giuseppe Acconcia (GA): It is the seventh anniversary of the revolution bringing an end to the Mubarak regime. Can you elaborate on what those days mean to you?

Mahienour el-Massry (MM): One of the best moments that ever happened to the Egyptian people. It was an uprising against the injustices of the Mubarak regime and especially against the police state of that time.

Over the years, the lack of political space, and the inclusion of public space in formal politics, resulted in an apolitical environment in Egyptian society. People preached the idea of revolution but no one thought that it would actually happen during their lifetime.

This is why, after the revolution when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power, most of the initiatives by revolutionaries failed. The first elected president, who was from the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organized political group, did not win with a great majority.

The problem is that when you look at the revolution itself, the Egyptian people were great at mobilising, 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.

GA: Did this make it easier for the army to regain power after the coup of 2013?

MM: Actually, the Muslim Brotherhood played their part in dividing the revolutionaries; they do not really believe in the idea of democracy. This paved the way to the 3 July coup, which was launched by the army and remnants of the Mubarak regime.

What took place on 3 July 2013 and since can be seen as the worst time Egypt has ever witnessed. And it began with dividing the people.

For example, among those who called themselves leftists, there were those who supported the army (they were Islamophobic and very afraid of the practices of the Muslim Brotherhood) and others who were totally against what happened after 3 July and considered it a coup against the people’s will, because the Egyptians protesting were only asking for early elections.

The most horrific moment was the Rabaa massacre – since then, all public spaces have been closed down and the army has made it clear that no power was going to be handed to anyone except the army itself.

Since the Rabaa massacre there has been a huge crackdown on civilian political movements. After they finished with the Muslim Brotherhood, they started going for one group after the other.

GA: Egypt's Attorney General, Nabil Sadiq, has begun an investigation against 13 opposition leaders from the Civil Democratic Front, claiming their call for a boycott of the presidential elections as an attempt to "overthrow the regime." What do you think about the next presidential elections? 

MM: You cannot call this an election, it is a referendum. This is why I will boycott it. There is no other candidate except Sisi.

Everyone who attempted to run against Sisi gave up. Two were from a military background: Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister at the time of the revolution; and the second was Sami Anan, former army chief of staff.

This shows that there has been a division in the army because most of the army is backing Sisi, and only a small group, hardly revolutionaries of course, are engaged in an internal conflict within the army itself.

In addition, there have been thousands of people who have been paid to support al-Sisi. Sisi is a lunatic dictator who would like to be the only player in these elections. His idea of “democratic elections” is to have a second candidate that will not threaten him.

For example, a few days ago, the liberal pro-state Wafd party wanted Sayed al-Badawy to run. He refused because the party is backing Sisi.

Hesham Geneina, a supporter of the Anan campaign, was beaten up and is hospitalised in a critical condition. Geneina was the chief of Egypt’s Central Auditing Authority and was dismissed from his position after attempting to expose the regime’s corruption.  

I was working on the Khaled Ali campaign prior to his withdrawal and discovered that those who filled out registration papers for Sisi are generally very poor people who did it for EGP 50. The same people told us that Sisi is a thief and a dictator.

Sisi’s popularity has dropped and is at a turning point now. This situation is one of the weakest in which the state has ever been since 30 June 2013. And it is an opportunity for change.  

GA: What’s your position on Sisi’s definition of human rights, when he argues that “western human rights” are not applicable to Egypt? 

MM: Sisi clearly does not believe in human rights. He said: “Talk about education or healthcare as we are poor, and not about human rights”, as if education were not part of human rights as well.

This is how the army works. Sisi said that he is fighting terrorism; therefore, there should not be any calls for democracy, human rights or the opening of public space.

This is how he treats Egypt, as if the main enemies are human rights and the Egyptian people.

GA: You were released a few weeks ago: tell us more about your last experience in prison.

MM: Last time I was imprisoned only for two months – I went to the Qanater prison as well as the Damanhour prison. It was the first time I was in Damanhour, and the conditions the prisoners are kept in are degrading. They were bad when I was first detained, but now they are even worse.

In a cell of six metres by four the number of imprisoned women are around 32. Every person has around 30 centimeters to sit in and sleep.

Of course, healthcare is awful. One woman was not allowed to go to the hospital and died, because the doors of the prison had been closed for the night.

The number of detained people has increased in Egypt and capital punishment is applied, even though during the last years of Mubarak no one was executed despite having been sentenced to death.

Since the 3 July coup, the number of executions and people sentenced to death have been steadily increasing. This also applies to political prisoners.

Political prisoners are in solitary confinement and the number of women political prisoners is on the rise.

Sarah Hegazy, the girl arrested for raising the rainbow flag during a concert in Autumn 2017 and later released on bail, has been in solitary confinement for a while now. While I was in Qanater, she was even threatened with a death sentence.

Even prisoners who have been acquitted are still in prison. Four men in Cairo, for example, were released on bail a month ago but are still behind bars.

GA: In this repressive context, there have been worker strikes in Mahalla al-Kubra and Alexandria. Are the workers' movements still active?

MM: One of the things that the regime is doing is trying to close down public space, but actually workers’ movements have not stopped.

In Mahalla and Alexandria, workers are trying to get their rights even though the regime is reacting brutally.

The regime made amendments to the law on trade unions, banning independent trade unions: so a number of workers are facing trials.

There are 21 workers from the Alexandria shipyard factory facing military trials. The government is attempting to arrest all the leaders and liquidating independent trade unions. 

GA: You were arrested for your participation in the Tiran and Sanafir movement. Can you tell us if the protests criticizing Sisi’s decision in this case have ontinued?

MM: The Tiran and Sanafir movement was very important because it was an exceptional moment for the opposition to show everyone that Sisi is a traitor. The army and Sisi argued that the Muslim Brotherhood were supported by Qatar; however, this case showed the people that Sisi is a traitor as well.

The people took to the streets, but this time it was kept as a judicial case. We did not use it to talk to the people about state policies and Sisi’s new liberal agenda. Because of this, I believe it resulted in a fracture within the regime.

If people believed that the army was protecting Egypt, the Tiran and Sanafir case changed their minds and exposed the regime. For this reason, people like Sami Anan began to think about running for election.

Tiran and Sanafir was part of a huge plan to normalize relations with Israel, which Egypt has always sought to do.

This was a very important movement. We could have built more on it. Khaled Ali’s decision to run for president is also related to this. As a lawyer, he defended the idea of the unity of Egyptian land.

GA: What is your opinion on the cuts to subsidies due to the IMF’s loan? What does it mean in terms of mobilization in Egypt? 

MM: There have been more austerity measures due to the IMF loan. Cutting any kind of subsidies, while the prices of oil and gas increase, is causing huge inflation in Egypt. People are suffering. This is reducing Sisi popularity amongst the masses.

A number of people focus more on economic conditions rather than on the political. For the past two years, the people have been feeling that they have been betrayed by the regime. Sisi is losing his allies, namely the entrepreneurs who were against the revolution in the first place, because they are also now suffering due to the devaluation of the Egyptian Pound.

Sisi’s popularity has been dwindling across all sectors, even in the sectors considered pro-state. Already last year during the commemoration of the revolution, people were melancholic. This year the Egyptian people are thinking about how to organize themselves again.

GA: There have been several protests recently in Tunisia and other north African countries. Do you think that this can trigger a new social movement in Egypt as well? 

MM: When the protests erupted in Tunisia, people here were thinking: “This will affect Egypt.” I disagree, but I do think that the Egyptian people will be on the move soon. 

The problem is that the state has a firm grip on society and people are afraid of the army’s reaction. However, they are also fed up with the regime. They want to move on and have a clear alternative. 

Our duty now is to make a united front, if only because the people will move anyway and the state’s reaction will inevitably be violent and brutal.

We will pay with our lives defending the things we believe in. A new society with a new social structure is coming. 

About the authors

Mahienour el-Massry was recently released from prison having been arrested several times previously for her participation in anti-regime demonstrations and engagement in labour and civil rights movements. She is a lawyer and Revolutionary Socialist who has supported the release of dozens of political prisoners over recent years.

Giuseppe Acconcia is an award-winning journalist and researcher focusing on the Middle East; researcher at the University of Padova, visiting scholar at the University of California (UCLA), teaching assistant at Bocconi, and a lecturer at the Cattolica University in Milan (Aseri). His research interests focus on youth and social movements, Iranian domestic politics, and the state and transformation in the Middle East. He is the author of The Great Iran (Exorma, 2016), Egypt. Military Democracy (Exorma, 2014) and The Egyptian Spring (Infinito, 2012). He publishes in Il Mulino, The International Spectator, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Sada) and Palgrave.


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