‘Between hope and despair there is Mahienour’

On the front door of Mahienour al-Massry’s family home in Alexandria, a single yellow sticker hangs. The bold black letters on top read, in Arabic, “No to Military Trials for Civilians.”

“It’s so they know which door to come to, if they want to arrest her,” quips her younger sister, 24-year-old Miral. The wooden door opposite bears no such markings.

Instead, the 28-year-old lawyer and activist went to them.

Mahienour was put in jail last month with a two-year sentence over a protest last year outside a court trying two policemen accused of the killing of a young man, Khaled Saeed, whose death in 2010 helped spark the uprising in early 2011 against then-president Hosni Mubarak.

She attended the court session on May 20 fully aware that it might lead to her arrest. 

“I kept telling her not to go, but she was convinced that she shouldn’t hide, that she should confront the court,” says Safiyah Serry, a 30-year-old television journalist, and Mahienour’s friend.

It’s the kind of bold act Mahienour is known for, her friends, those she helped as a lawyer and activist, and her family say.

Serry and Mahienour met in August last year when the journalist put out a call for help on Facebook with photographs of detained Syrian refugees, including women and children as young as three months old.

Serry went to Alexandria’s Dekheyla police station to help get two of her fellow colleagues out of jail after they were arrested from a boat that was smuggling Syrian refugees to Europe. Her colleagues were misled into believing they had bought a ticket on a legitimate tourist boat.

“The sight of the children shocked and really worried me. They looked like they were getting sick in the squalid conditions of the jail,” says Serry.

Mahienour was one of the first to respond. She would spend subsequent months sleeping in jail beside Serry, and providing whatever legal and humanitarian aid she could. It was the beginning of her activism with Syrian refugees. 

The conditions for Syrian refugees in Egypt worsened after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July by the military, after a mass wave of protests calling on him to resign.

The Egyptian military’s subsequent “war on terror” campaign has included the arrest and killing of thousands of Morsi’s supporters, as well as a crackdown on Syrian refugees, accused of being agents of the Morsi regime.

For Mahienour’s fellow activists and family members, she was driven less out of politics, and more out of human concern. Her mother, Azza, said the Syrian refugee issue was one of the things that kept her up at night.

“She never spoke to us about politics, only humanitarian things,” says Ahmed Hawamda, a 35-year-old married father of five, who was detained after trying to leave Egypt on a boat in September. He was trying to reach Europe for a better life for his children, he said.

“When we were in the prison cell, she’d say things like Egyptians and Syrians are siblings. We were united once, and we still are. Don’t be upset, don’t be sad, it’ll be alright,” says Hawamda, who is one of the few Syrian refugees remaining in Egypt. Many have either left voluntarily or been deported.

Mahienour organized doctors to go and visit the detained refugees, who were spread across a number of Egypt’s jails, as well as informing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office about them, and brought food, blankets, clothes, milk for the children, money, and organized plane tickets for those who wanted to leave, says Hawamda.

“She was a sister to us, not just a lawyer,” he adds.

“I’m so upset she’s in jail, she really doesn’t deserve it,” says Hawamda’s wife, 29-year-old Ouhoud. “She never left us short of anything, helped us with rent money and anything we needed, even clothes for the children. She’s so kind.”

Serry continues to work on the cases of more than 200 refugees, who are languishing in Alexandria’s jails, including Syrian, Palestinians, and Africans, despite having permits to stay in Egypt, she said.

“Mahienour taught me the basics of how to do the legal paper work and how to talk to officials, so I am doing that,” says Serry.

She is one of many to have learned from Mahienour’s groundwork. Ashraf Ebeid experienced Mahienour’s activism in 2008, when she was beginning to pave her own unique way of doing things.

“She didn’t just offer you fish to eat, but a rod to provide for yourself,” the 40-year former resident of Alexandria’s Toson district says.

Hundreds of houses in Toson were subject to demolition orders to clear the land for privatization.

“It was an attempt to take over the land from poor people by men associated with Gamal Mubarak,” says Ebeid, referring to Mubarak’s son, in jail since 2011 on corruption charges.

“Mahienour taught us how to stand up for ourselves and obtain our rights,” he says.

The families of Toson organized 52 protests, some lost their lives, others were arrested, many were forced out of their homes by the demolitions and had to find alternative living, but by January 28, 2011, three days into the uprising, a court ruled in their favor.

“This was the beginning of revolutionary change in the street. It began in Toson,” says Ebeid.

Mahienour joined the protests and sit-ins, took photos, wrote about it, and informed the media. “She was the voice of Toson families, when they didn’t have one,” Ebeid said.

But eventually they would find their own voice, and Ebeid credits Mahienour’s activism, kindness, and self-sacrifice for that, saying she never did it for personal gain but for people.

“When we protested in front of the courts, she brought boxes of biscuits for the children and let them become revolutionaries and leaders. Even our chants she came up with, and a four-year-old become one of our best chanters,” he says.

“We suffered a lot,” says Ebeid. “But, between hope and despair there was Mahienour.”

Mahienour made a conscious choice to go beyond protesting to create change, and became actively involved with workers’ problems in 2008, after she participated in protests by the April 6 Youth Movement, says Maysoon, her 26-year-old sister. April 6 was one of the key youth groups that paved the way for the 2011 uprising, and it began with a solidarity call for a labor strike in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla.

In February 2013, the workers of Alexandria Portland Cement organized a sit-in to demand job security through permanent rather than temporary contracts after working there for years. Police used dogs to forcibly break up the sit-in and many were injured, says Mohamed Ika, who founded the company’s independent union, and was present at the sit-in. Many of those who participated, including Ika, were dismissed from their jobs.

“She never left our side before and after the sit-in was broken up. She created a working team and started collecting donations for the families of those who were participating in the protests,” he said. “She’d tell people that if there was anything you need, to just let her know.”

“She wouldn’t incite strikes, but let people know that there were alternative means for negotiations,” says Ika. “Her concern for people made you feel, she was one of us.”

Whether conscious of it or not, her activism has created a loyal support base. The workers she helped have gone on to join her in the many other causes Mahienour supports.

Mohamed al-Shafey, a worker who was dismissed from the Faragallah food company after protesting for a permanent contract, was at the Khaled Saeed protest that Mahienour is in jail for.

“Of course I would be there. She is one of the people that stood by us to demand for freedom and social justice. So I need to stand by her,” he says.

He was also one of 15 people arrested for a few hours during a protest last month in Alexandria in support of Mahienour.

Mohamed Hanafy, a worker who was dismissed from the Pharco pharmaceutical company after being part of a protest demanding better wages, recalls a day when Mahienour and her sister Miral drove out to the sit-in protesters to give them food, because company management was preventing food and drink access. Mahienour climbed a wall to give it to them.

He also recalls, as do others, her constant availability. “Call her up at 1 am, and she’d pick up,” says Hanafy. “Her revolutionary work had no schedule, it was constant.”

For all the seriousness of her public work, her family says she is a cheerful, fun-loving person at home, always playing loud music, watching Indian films, drinking lemon juice, and going out with her friends.

“Watching Indian movies is the best anti-depression remedy ever … so much colors, songs and happiness,” Mahienour wrote on her Twitter account in August 2011.

Her mother, Azza, said it created an important psychological balance in her life.

The two people who influenced Mahienour most growing up were her aunt, Sanaa, and her father. Sanaa was a political activist and writer till her death in 2001.

Mahienour’s father, on the other hand, was against her political work. He even dragged her out of a protest once, and friends thought he was one of the informants known to follow Mahienour, her sisters recall. He died in 2009.

“I’d like to thank both of them,” Mahienour said in a 2012 video, “Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution.”

“The one who feared I get influenced by these ideas, has actually pushed me towards them. And the one who never tried to convince me of these ideas, but practiced them in a very humane way, made me feel they are the solution.”

Mahienour lost sight in one eye after an accident when she was two. She had been watching television that was on a glass table and the glass corner scratched her eye. After a botched operation, the eye was permanently damaged.

She loved reading as a child, took part in student protests at school and university, was passionate about the Palestinian uprising in 2001, joined the “Kefaya” (Enough) movement in 2005 against suspected attempts to hand over the presidency from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal, as well as against corruption in the country, was one of the first people at the police station after Khaled Saeed’s death in 2010, and has joined numerous causes since then.

Her sisters say that after the 2011 uprising, she no longer felt she needed to lead the people. “She’d say now people don’t need others to protest and chant on their behalf. They are the ones who are chanting, and our role is to walk behind them,” says Maysoon. 

Mahienour has been arrested a few times before, but this is her longest prison sentence so far. She is also on trial in the Raml police station case, in which she is accused along with 12 others of damaging and storming the police station, and injuring policemen. The next session of the trial is scheduled for June 16.

While Tarek Mahdy, Alexandria’s governor, said he knows of Mahienour and hears she is an important activist in the city, he said he is not clear on her case.

He does however defend the Protest Law under which she was arrested.

“Your freedom ends, when others’ freedom begins,” he told Mada Masr, “On a personal level, I believe any law should maintain this and protect you.”

Among the last initiatives Mahienour was working on before prison were the anti-coal movement in Egypt, and the Save Alex campaign against the destruction of the city’s architectural heritage sites.

“If you want to know about problems in Egypt, look for Mahienour and you’ll find her there, defending people’s rights,” said Ebeid, of Toson. “She loves this country.”

“Every oppressive regime that comes into power, knows the real threat comes from revolutionaries,” he added. “They’re the match that lights the flame and get people moving in the street, like Mahienour. She’s a street leader with a heart like Gandhi and Mandela.”

Nadine Marroushi 

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