At 9 pm on Tuesday, May 24, in a Giza prison, an appeal session was underway for 47 defendants accused of protesting on April 25 against the conceding of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.
Families, friends and supporters gathered in front of the prison, each with bated breath, anticipating the court’s decision in the appeal against the five-year sentences and fines of LE100,000 previously handed to each defendant.
After many hours of waiting, the court decided, and there was a palpable sense of relief as the prison sentences were annulled. But not the fines. Cries of joy were transformed to a heavy realization that LE100,000 would have to be paid for each defendant, making a total of LE4.7 million.
The court’s decision was confusing. At first, many thought not paying the fines meant the continuation of the defendants’ incarceration for another three months, of which they had already spent one month in pre-trial detention under the Protest Law. This caused a dilemma among lawyers and activists.
“Prison is horrible of course, and a day spent in there makes a difference, but [by paying], we are saying to them ‘take extortions from us; we are millionaires and we can pay’,” says lawyer Sameh Samir. “May god grant those youth and their families patience. Of course everyone is free to choose what to do, but if I were the one imprisoned, I would prefer waiting two months and not paying a quarter of this fine.”
Others cited injustice beyond resisting the law. “There are prisoners who have lives that will be cruelly unsettled by this, such as being fired from work when they are the main breadwinners,” activist Khaled Abdel Hamid says. “This is not a call to pay or not, it is a call for people to refrain from making choices for other people.”
The issue was debated in cell 22 in the Central Giza Prison.
“After a short discussion, the majority of the 47 prisoners opted to continue their imprisonment for another two months and not to pay the fine,” prisoner Mohamed Nagy explains.
But lawyers pointed out that after three months in prison, the debt would still remain, and the state would pursue the defendants, taking action to freeze their assets and property if necessary.
Cell 22 needed to make a decision.
“We understood that we [would] pay the fine, even if we spent two more months in prison. We held another meeting in which the majority was inclined to pay, especially if we could pay in installments, Nagy says.
The lawyers filed a request for the fines to be paid in several installments, but the court refused and insisted on receiving the full sum at once.
Very few of the prisoners’ families were able to pay. Only five of them left prison in the first few days following the verdict. The discussion among those on the outside became about how to raise the money.
“Some of the prisoners are better known among political activists, requiring little effort to raise the fines for them. But we can’t deal with the issue this way. They are all imprisoned together for one cause. We can’t differentiate between them,” an activist, who asked to remain anonymous, asserted.
Cell 22 came together again to settle the controversy.
Seven prisoners announced they would be the last to leave prison. “The message was clear,” Nagy explained. The donations wouldn’t be gathered for some and not others. “It sends a message, but the amount is large and we will have to decide who leaves first.”
Cell 22 also had an answer to this.
“We discussed the priorities for leaving and it was an impressive debate for me. Everyone was competing over being at the end of the queue. Everyone said, ‘I’ll leave last.’ In the end, we agreed that those who will leave first are not more or less prestigious or heroic,” Nagy said, explaining there were four criteria set for making priorities: education, supporting family, work conditions and health conditions.
Nagy Kamel, one of the prisoners, was in charge of talking to each to establish their priorities and draw up a list of the order in which the releases would take place. The list was sent to comrades outside.
This is how cell 22 drew up a map of solidarity and support in the face of what seemed like an impossible situation.
“This is the first time in the last 20 years that I’ve taken part in a donation campaign with a target of almost LE5 million and a deadline of less than 10 days,” one of the campaign organisers, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, adding that the deadline for getting the prisoners home was the start of Ramadan.
“The issue is bigger than everyone. Everyone needs to work on it,” one of the campaign leaders said, explaining that a broad umbrella of support of as many political factions as possible was necessary to protect the campaign. “On a sheer practical level, this will provide us with legal protection and an answer for how we can gather so much money without any institutional support, and will shield us from being accused of illegally gathering money,” he explained, preferring not to be cited by name for fear of repercussions, as with many of the campaigners.
“I was afraid in the beginning of being accused of corruption, given how big the fines are,” another campaigner said. About 3,000 people donated LE2.7 million. “That’s why we needed to look for a framework that guaranteed transparency and provided us with legal protection,” he added.
One of the campaign members explained there was a suggestion to give political parties in solidarity with the case responsibility for collecting donations through their bank accounts. Suggestions included the Social Democratic Party, the Dostour Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance and the Karama Party. They initially welcomed the idea, the campaigner recounted, “but the following day we were surprised when party representatives apologized for not being able to do so,” fearing legal accountability.
Another proposal was to form a committee of five or six public figures and representatives from prisoners’ families, as well as a recently released prisoner. This committee would be present at a certain time every day in party headquarters to gather the donations. “The idea was that it would be costly for security to target a committee like this. But the proposal failed, after many of the public figures refused to take responsibility, with the exception of former Ambassador Maasoum Marzouq,” the campaign member explains.
“We didn’t know what to,” another campaign member says. “I was very enthusiastic and wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to start. The amount was large. Who should we go to and how much should we ask for? I asked a colleague these questions and he said there is no way out. We have to do it ourselves. We will do Facebook calls. We will call our acquaintances, friends and friends of friends. We will do everything we can.”
And this is what happened. Calls for support were made, both on and offline. “We weren’t sure if this would work, but we didn’t have another option,” the campaigner adds.
Everyone involved in the campaign Mada Masr spoke to said the first three days of collection were slow. But the moment the first batch of five prisoners was released, on May 28, things accelerated.
“A certain hope was born in people, a hope that their contribution would make a difference and free a prisoner,” a campaigner says, adding that people generally understood the purpose wasn’t to free their friends, but to free everyone.
But there was also fear of being caught. “An old woman called me to tell me, ‘I am worried I will be arrested.’ She suggested we meet in a big supermarket branch in order to be among a crowd,” one of the collectors recounts.
Asked what motivated people to donate, a campaigner says, “Many people who donated didn’t seem to care about politics it seemed, it was mostly out of empathy and a rejection of oppression. Others were motivated by their rejection of the handing over of Tiran and Sanafir islands. A third group was angry at the oppression of the state.”
Many of those who donated were middle class, another collector estimates. They have fixed wages and were generally supporters of the January 25 revolution, but don’t have tools to express this support. “Maybe this donation became such a tool,” he speculates.
One campaign organizer received 168 messages from people of all ages, vocations and cities in one week, with donations ranging from LE200 to LE15,000. “Some contributors made me feel as though I was doing them a favor,” he says, laughing. “They were saying to me, ‘thank you for giving us a chance to contribute’.”
One donor, who gave LE15,000, said he had collected the amount from 17 people.
The campaign expanded and transcended the small network from which it started. “When I asked a friend with nothing to do with the issue to collect money from a contributor living close to him, he started to collect from other people on his own,” another campaigner recounts.
A large chunk of the donations came in small amounts of LE100 and LE200. “Sometimes I’d take a taxi and pay LE30 to collect a LE100 donation, but I was happy to do it,” he adds.
Another campaign member says she received a letter with LE200 and a note reading, “We are with you and god willing, they will spend Ramadan in their homes. This is my savings and that of my sister.”
Donations also came from outside Cairo and Egypt.
“I got donations from Alexandria, Minya, Gharbiya and other places. Someone called me and said, ‘I am a student in Fayoum, I collected LE100 with my friends. It’s a small amount, but we want to participate’,” one campaigners says. Another recalls receiving an envelope with LE1,507. “I wasn’t sure how the LE5 and LE2 came about,” she adds.
“We received LE85,000 from Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia alone,” a campaign member says.
Families also seemed to approve of their childrens’ desire to donate.
“A girl called me asking to donate and we agreed a place to meet. When I arrived, her father gave me the money and apologized that she couldn’t make it. ‘God be with you, he told me’,” a campaigner recalls. Another says, “I met a friend to give me a LE1,500 donation. She had her two nine and 10-year-old children with her. When they heard our conversation, her 10-year-old daughter took out LE10 and the son LE15. They became our youngest donors.”
Stories like these of how the money was collected are numerous.
All of those from cell 22 have now been released, except Syrian national Hesham Zoheir, who may face deportation.