Sanaa Seif and a generation that protects the revolution

“Each one of us, after this experience of the revolution, has something to say,” said Sanaa Seif, on February 18, 2011, on Democracy Now, in response to a question by Sharif Abdel Koddous. 

“The march was organized by the family of Alaa Abd El Fattah, and I am one of them,” said the same Sanaa on June 21, 2014, in response to a question from the prosecutor. 

Sanaa, who is 20 years old and a student of languages and translation at October University, belongs to a generation who came to maturity with the 2011 revolution. She is one of 24 people arrested by the police and charged with taking part in the march that headed for the Etthehadiya Presidential Palace on June 21, 2014 to protest against the Protest Law. The Heliopolis prosecutor referred them to an urgent hearing scheduled for today, Sunday, where they will be charged with taking part in an unlawful gathering, possession of explosives, the show of force and use of violence with the aim of terrorizing citizens.

Sanaa is the youngest child in the Seif family. Her father is the activist lawyer, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, her mother is the academic and political activist, Laila Soueif, her older brother is the blogger, developer and political activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah and her older sister is genetics researcher and political activist Mona Seif. 

“Sanaa is 12 years younger than Alaa. He was like her dad and took part in bringing her up,” says Manal Hassan, Alaa’s wife. “He was very keen that she should experience culture and art and was always showing her paintings. She took to Van Gogh and filled her room with his reproductions and she would tell people proudly that this was the ‘Van Gogh Room’.” Manal stops for a moment and then adds, “She didn’t like studying, but she changed a lot when she started going to the camps.”

The Arab Digital Expression Foundation camps are summer camps for Arab youngsters aiming to encourage them to use technology for self-expression. Ranwa Yehia, co-founder and director of the foundation remembers how Sanaa’s personality developed over the years that she took part in the camps. “‘Why can’t we swim at night?’ This was the central point in the first debate we had with Sanaa in 2007; two-and-a-half hours of debate and arguments and skirmishes with a young girl full of energy and life. She exhausted three supervisors and she was 13. She confessed to me, months later, that the whole argument was actually camouflage. Sanaa was affected, during her first camp experience, by the relationships she built with the young people from Palestine. She discovered the meaning of life under occupation through that relationship.”

“‘I want to make films.’ This was the center of her participation in the camps the following year,” Yehia says. “In 2008, she discovered her love of filmmaking. That year she attended every film workshop at the camp. Her relationship to the camp progressed from simple participation; now she owned the camp. That year she came forward with many ideas that were adopted for the work-plan for summer 2009.”

In 2009, Sanaa’s leadership and instigatory qualities come forward. Yehia remembers, “She always wanted more. A signal from her could influence the rhythm of every participant, and they were never less than 100. She could argue to infinity on the principles of relationships and justice in the workgroup. She became more mature and built strong, warm relationships with the trainers in the camps who came from different Arab countries. She never slept and she created a space for herself among the trainers of the video workshops because she added to and enriched the training.”

In the 2010 camps, Sanaa officially became assistant trainer in the video workshops.

In 2011, she was immersed in what was happening in Cairo. 

Rediscovery in Cairo

“Before we went to South Africa, Alaa and I, Sanaa had no interest at all in politics,” Hassan says, “but when we came back during the revolution, and we went down to Tahrir, we found her there. She wasn’t just with the family, she was producing a newspaper.”

In 2011, Sanaa, who was then 17, produced, with her friends, a newspaper that they called “al-Gornal.”  “We thought that right now is the very — it’s the perfect timing to push the borders of freedom further,” Sanaa says in her interview with Koddous just after the January 25 revolution. “So, we thought, ‘Why not? Let’s make a newspaper, and let’s not get permission for that. Let’s just sell it in the streets’.”

Sanaa describes the first issue of the paper, which was “called Voices of Tahrir, which means ‘liberation.’ And well, we thought that the first copy has to be like, each one of us, after this experience of the revolution, has something to say. So we called everybody we know. We called people from Tahrir Square, people from Alexandria, people who have been there doing something in this revolution, and everybody wrote something. And we’re just — it’s like a blog. It’s an open space for people. And other than that, there’s our opinion.” 

“Why do you think it’s important to do this now?” Koddous asked her. And she responds: “I think it’s important to express. It’s always important. And I think it’s very important for us to communicate. But I know the Internet is enough. As I said before, the newspaper is very symbolic, because we want to have this right. We want to make newspapers and sell them. That’s it.”

“This was an impressive project,” Hassan remembers, “not just because the content was so exceptional but because Sanaa and her friends were good at sales and distribution. They connected with some of their friends from the camps and the paper was distributed in Cairo and all the way up to Minya. They were printing around 30,000 copies per issue.” 

Alongside al-Gornal, Sanaa’s relationship with video was continuing and deepening — soon she was an editor on The Square, the film that was nominated in 2014 for the Academy Award for “Best Documentary.” “Sanaa was the youngest and feistiest member of the team,” says Cressida Trew, the DOP and associate producer of the film. “She took how she was in the revolution straight back in to the film: always improvising, challenging, joking, changing-up, focusing people on what really mattered, pushing herself a step further. She edited and filmed guerrilla style and argued through the night when it mattered. She made people laugh and think, and she never let them forget what it meant to tell the story of a revolution.”

But the revolution was not just video and journalism; it was the streets.

The invisible man

“Sanaa was very active in the November/December 2011 sit-in – which ended with the events of Mohammed Mahmoud and Cabinet,” Mona says of her sister. “She knew the groups that had authority in Tahrir, and when they used to detain someone and try to beat him up, because he’d stolen something for example, she would convince them to hand him over to the lawyers to deal with. She really kept an eye on them. She has a special way of convincing the bad guys — winning them over.”

Sanaa’s work on the cases of the detainees from her generation distinguished her. She was one of the most vigilant, for example, in following up the cases of the detainees in the minors prison in Marg. “Sanaa is our first point of contact when we hear of detained children. She’s worked on several cases, particularly cases that were marginalized. She insisted on traveling to Wadi al-Natroun prison – which is really far from Cairo – to visit the people imprisoned there,” Mona says. 

One of the cases that Sanaa followed was of Samer al-Sheikh, 25, who was killed by a police officer in Nasr City. She contacted his parents, organized a campaign and researched information about the accused officer — all despite the sensitivity of the case.

In contrast to Mona and the rest of the family, all well known to the media, Sanaa was generally known only to the people working on the ground and taking part in the events. “Sanaa chose to maintain a low profile and we also wanted to keep it that way. We used to call her ‘The Invisible Man’ — of course her arrest has blown this completely,” Mona says. 

Prison matures you – sometimes

In 2011, when Alaa was in prison following the Maspero events, Manal, his wife, was pregnant and could not perform the functions she had done when he was imprisoned in 2006. Sanaa took over the care of the detained husband/brother. “Sanaa carried the whole thing; she organized the “tableyya” (the daily package for the prisoner), she used to take food and newspapers to Alaa every day and collect his requests for the following day.” Hassan adds that Sanaa learned very quickly how to deal with the complex atmosphere and procedures of prison.

In December 6, 2011, Hassan had a C-Section to deliver Khaled. “Sanaa came with me into the operating theater, she filmed and took photographs and she left the theater, printed out the photos and took them to Alaa with his tableyya. Alaa, in prison, saw the photos of Khaled less than two hours after he was born,” Hassan recalls. 

In June 11, 2014, when Alaa was arrested standing at the door of the court waiting to be allowed in to his Shura Council trial, Sanaa was visiting a prisoner in the Fayoum jail. For the whole day she didn’t know that her own brother had been arrested and sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. Nearly three months earlier, on March 27, Alaa had tweeted: “If your sister is Sanaa Seif, you’ll be okay in prison. How can I explain that to you?”

“Sanaa gives you the impression that she’s a sweetie; fragile, young and perhaps won’t know how to cope. But suddenly, boom, she’s not only coped but dealt with things that you had not been able to deal with.” She goes back to December 20, 1993, the day Sanaa was born: “They woke us up, me and Alaa, to get ready to go to school, and told us that mom had gone to hospital at midnight to have the baby. After school we took the bus home and ran to the house. We went into mom’s room and found her smiling and carrying a very small person, so we bent over to take a look and she made this squeaky,  wavering ‘a-a-a-a-a.’ Alaa laughed and said ‘Oh poor thing, she can’t even cry yet’ and Sanaa screamed in his face so loudly that we both jumped back.”

On her Facebook page, Laila Soueif, Sanaa’s mother, writes, “Sanaa held people, carried people shot by the army and the police when she was only 17. She went with them to the hospitals and fought for them and looked for contacts, connections, strings, friends with money and friends with cars to try and get every injured person the best care she could possibly get. It became so the emergency health workers in Tahrir knew her and would call her to go with them when they were taking out somebody whose condition was critical because she was the one who would know what to do when they got to the hospital.”

“The last birthday that Sanaa celebrated was her 17th, because on her 18th birthday she went into the morgue for the first time to identify the body of her friend, Rami al-Sharqawi, and she stayed with him and his parents until he was released and buried. And from then on the 20th of December was no longer Sanaa’s birthday, but the anniversary of the martyr Rami al-Sharqawi. It’s not just Sanaa who’s like this; this is an entire generation who’s seen death, who’s seen treachery, who’s seen collapse… Do you think after all that’s been done to them there’s anything that can scare them now?”

On the May 20, Sanaa tweeted, “Wake up! Whether we protest in the street or stay at home, it’s all a disaster. We are in danger and frankly, I would rather be pulled in resisting than defeated and staying home.”


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