A letter from prison in Alexandria

June 9, 2014

On May 20, a court in Alexandria, Egypt, upheld a two-year jail sentence and $7,000 fine against Mahienour el-Massry, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, for the "crime" of holding a protest without permission from police.

Mahienour is one of the best-known women activists in Egypt. At the age of 26, she is a human rights lawyer and widely respected for her fearless opposition to police abuse and tyranny. Here, we reprint a letter, first published at the independent Egyptian news website Mada Masr, written two days after she was placed in the Damanhour women's prison.

I DON'T know a great deal about what is happening on the outside since I was sentenced to prison. However, I can imagine that it is pretty much like we usually do when somebody we knew was imprisoned. The online world is flooded with slogans like "Free this or that person," or "We are all so-and-so."

However, ever since I set foot in Damanhour women's prison and was placed with my fellow inmates in "Block One"--the cluster of cells assigned to those accused or convicted of embezzlement--only one thing has been on my mind, and I repeat it like a daily mantra: "Down with this classist system."

Most of my fellow inmates have been imprisoned for defaulting on the payment of installments or small loans. They are loans taken out by a mother buying some desperately needed items for her bride-to-be daughter; or by a wife who needed money to afford treatment for her sick husband; or a woman failing to pay back a $280 loan on time only to find herself slammed with a $420,000 fine in response.

Prison is a microcosm of society. Those who are slightly more privileged than others find ways to get all they need inside, while the underprivileged are forced to work to meet their basic needs.

Mahienour el-Masry
Mahienour el-Masry

Prison is a microcosm of society. Prisoners discuss what is happening in the country. You can find the whole political spectrum here. Some of them support Sisi in the hope that upon becoming president, he will issue pardons to all those who have been imprisoned for defaulting on payments. Others want him to become president, believing that he will take a strong stance against "terrorist protests" and rule with an iron fist, even though they sympathize with me and feel that I am probably innocent.

Others are pro-[Hamdeen] Sabahi, as they see him as one of their own. "He promised to release prisoners," they say, only to be bellowed at by other inmates who say he only promised to release prisoners of conscience. And there are those who see the elections as a farce, which they would have boycotted if they had been free.

Prison is a microcosm of society. I feel I am amongst family. They are all giving me advice about focusing more on my career and my future, once I'm out of here. In response, I say Egyptian people deserve much better, that justice hasn't been served yet, and we will keep on trying to build a better future.

AT THIS point, news reaches us of Hosni Mubarak's three-year sentence for charges of widespread corruption, embezzlement of funds, and financial fraud in the presidential palaces case [the day after Mahienour was sentenced, Mubarak was convicted of embezzling funds for remodeling the presidential palaces].

Cracking up, I ask them, "What kind of future do you expect me to have in an unjust society, in which the regime thinks that Umm Ahmed, a woman incarcerated for the past eight years with six more to go for signing a bad check worth no more than $7,000, is a more dangerous criminal than Mubarak?" The same Mubarak who supports Sisi, whom they see as their savior.

Here, they speak of this classist society and dream of social justice without complex theories.

We should never lose sight of our main objective in the midst of this battle, in which we have lost friends and comrades every other day. We should not turn into people demanding the freedom of this or that person, while forgetting the wider needs and anxieties of the Egyptian people who merely want to survive hand to mouth.

While chanting against the Protest Law, we should be working on abolishing this classist system; on organizing ourselves and interacting with the underprivileged; on speaking out for their rights and building a vision for how to solve their problems. We should be chanting, "Freedom for the poor," so that people don't feel we are isolated from them and their problems.

And finally, if we have to hold up the slogan, "Free this or that person," then let the slogan be, "Free Sayeda," "Free Heba," and "Free Fatima," who are three girls I met at the Security Directorate, accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of committing murder, among other things. They were randomly arrested and have been incarcerated since January without trial.

Freedom for Umm Ahmed, who hasn't seen her children for eight years. Freedom for Umm Dina, who is the sole provider of her family. Freedom for Niamah, who agreed to go to prison instead of someone else, in return for money to feed her children. Freedom for Farhah, Wafaa, Kawthar, Sanaa, Dawlat, Samia, Iman, Amal and Mervat.

Our pains compared to theirs are nothing, as we know that there are those who will remember us, say our names from time to time, proudly mentioning how they know us. Instead, these women, who deserve to be proudly remembered, will only be mentioned in family gatherings at most.

Down with this classist society, something we will never accomplish if we forget those who have truly suffered injustice.

Mahienour el-Massry
Damanhour women's prison
Block 1, Cell 8

Translated by Radwa El Barouni

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