“It is a day of celebration for the mothers, because after 35 years we managed to get the killers into prison. This is our achievement,” Heba de Bonafini said during a march to mark 35 years since the first gathering of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.
On April 30, 1977, during the peak of political repression in Argentina, a dozen mothers whose children had been forcibly disappeared gathered at Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential headquarters in Buenos Aires to demand the return of their abducted sons and daughters.
Since then, mothers in white scarves have continued to gather every Thursday at the Plaza de Mayo. The white scarves, often embroidered with the names of their lost sons and daughters, have become an iconic symbol against the military dictatorship.
On the other side of the world, in Egypt, ties have been forming among families queuing to see their loved ones in front of prisons, courts and police stations. Does this mark the beginning of new small, decentralized social movements that could influence decision-makers, or merely forums for venting about and representing their own suffering and that of their imprisoned children?
These micro movements have a feminine character, as they are formed primarily of the mothers and sisters of detainees. The women involved didn’t meet in one of Cairo’s fancy hotels; on the contrary, they met while desperately waiting for permission to enter various prisons. They met sharing their pain at being separated from their kids and the economic hardship of coping as their breadwinners sit beyond prison walls, or their loved ones await trial or serve sentences for breaking the Protest Law.
And when the visits finally happen, they part ways for a while and come back together again afterwards to share their news, which is often more bitter once it has been fueled by stories of their loved ones having been attacked, beaten by police, or stripped and forced to endure another cold night in prison.
These informal associations haven’t been officially established and declared, like unions or those in the headquarters of political parties, they have been formed on the sidewalks, in front of police stations and courthouses and in the Tora Prison complex. They have been formed as mothers wait for their kids to appear from trucks bringing them to court, and as they wait for lawyers to emerge and announce their guilt, innocence or release.
These small associations decided to share their personal experiences with society, their stories of rejection and how they are treated as they wait for their visits, and of what happens to their children beyond prison walls.
They began taking part in press conferences, communicating with human rights organizations, appearing on television and the radio, and creating Facebook pages. All of these moves, despite the relatively small and limited effect they have had to date politically, represent larger gains on a personal level for the relatives of political prisoners.
These groups have benefited from digital technology, mostly utilizing Facebook pages to communicate. If you search on Facebook for “family associations,” you will get a list of various groups, their names varying between the geographical locations and the names of prisons, such as the associations for the families of Aqrab, Suez and Beheira prisons.
These groups have now also been joined by associations of relatives of those who have been forcibly disappeared.
In May 2014, I had a meeting with the relatives of a disappeared family member. I met with Mohamed Abdel Salam, whose son, Abdel Hameed Abdel Salam, went missing during the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013. Abdel Salam reported the case to the attorney general.
“I lost connection with him during the dispersal of Rabea,” he told me. “When I looked for him, I found other families coming for the same reason — to submit reports about their loved ones who had gone missing during different events. I found out through talking with them that they met each other through the process of submitting reports and searching for their sons and daughters in different prisons.”
Through this shared process, families have come together to communicate with human rights organizations, public figures and the press. They gather on a weekly basis to submit a report to the attorney general, or to attend press conferences organized by various organizations.
I attended one of these conferences in September 2014, at the Journalists Syndicate, in which twelve families from Upper Egypt, the Delta, Alexandria, Suez and Cairo took part. The “Hanla’ihom” (We will find them) conference, co-organized by the campaign, “Egypt searches for her lost children,” was about all those who have been forcibly disappeared since January 2011. The families talked about their suffering, physical exhaustion and financial troubles.
These groups present no strategy for achieving political power, because their sole aim is to draw attention to their cases in order to influence decision-makers — much like the mothers in Argentina.
This raises a question as to what would happen if such associations become organized with more centralized leadership and start more actively campaigning. Will they be able to find their children? If their children are in jail, is it too much for them to ask to know their whereabouts and to insist that they are treated humanely?