From the revolution, we learned to be united

February 16, 2018

Mahienour el-Massry is a lawyer in Egypt and member of the Revolutionary Socialists. She was recently released from her most recent term in prison, after being arrested several times for her participation in resistance against the military regime led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and her support for labor and civil rights. El-Masry has continued to support and assist political prisoners, whether in or out of prison.

On the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, El-Masry was interviewed by journalist and researcher Giuseppe Acconcia about the experience of the January 25 Revolution in 2011 and the period that followed the military coup in July 2013 that toppled President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and brought el-Sisi to power.

EGYPT'S ATTORNEY General Nabil Sadek has begun an investigation against 13 oppositionists, claiming their call for a boycott of the presidential election in late March is an attempt to "overthrow the regime." What do you think about the election?

YOU CANNOT call it an "election," but a referendum. Thus, we will boycott it. There is no other candidate other than el-Sisi. You know what happened to all those who wanted to run for president against el-Sisi--they gave up.

Two were coming from a military background: Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister at the time of the revolution; and the second was Sami Hafez Anan, the former chief of staff of the armed forces under 2012.

Most of the army is backing el-Sisi, but a small group is engaged in an internal conflict within the army. In addition, there have been thousands of people who have been paid to support el-Sisi. And the elections will take place under emergency law.

IS THERE going to be a figurehead for an opposition candidate or will el-Sisi be the only presidential candidate?

Opponents of Egypt's military rulers fill Tahrir Square in November 2011
Opponents of Egypt's military rulers fill Tahrir Square in November 2011

EL-SISI, the dictator, would like to be the only player in these elections. His idea of a "democratic election" is to have a second candidate who wouldn't threaten him. For example, a few days ago, the liberal pro-state Wafd Party encouraged El-Sayyid el-Badawi to run against him, but he then withdrew, because Wafd is backing el-Sisi.

Meanwhile, Hesham Geneina, the former top auditor, was arrested. He has denounced all the money lost in Egypt through corruption. As a supporter of the Anan campaign, he was beaten and is in the hospital in very serious situation.

El-Sisi doesn't have any kind of opposition, not from the revolutionaries, nor from those who are part of the state itself. I have been working for the Khaled Ali campaign for a while, before he withdrew his candidacy as well.

I discovered that people who gathered support for el-Sisi's election registration papers are generally very poor. They did it to get 50 Egyptian pounds. However, during the registration process, they told us that el-Sisi is a thief and a dictator.

El-Sisi's popularity has dropped and is now at a low point. The situation is one of the weakest that the Egyptian state has been in since June 30, 2013. This is an opportunity for change.

THIS IS the seventh anniversary of the January 25 Revolution in Egypt that brought about the end of the Mubarak regime on February 11, 2011. Can you elaborate on the meaning of those days for you?

IT WAS one of the best moments to ever happen to the Egyptian people.

The lack of space in formal politics and the repression of street protests since 1952 left an apolitical environment in the Egyptian society. Therefore, in 2011, people were fed up with the Mubarak regime, but they didn't have a political alternative.

For this reason, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was in power for more than a year after Mubarak fell, and most of the initiatives submitted by the revolutionaries were not adopted. The first elected president, Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, the only major organized political group at that time, didn't win with a great majority.

When you look at the 2011 Revolution, the Egyptian people were great at mobilizing, but when you consider what should have been done afterward, the people were lost. We did not have a clear vision--we were divided. People preached the idea of the revolution but no one was thinking that this would actually happen during their lifetime.

DID THIS make it easier for the army to regain power with the 2013 military coup against Morsi?

ACTUALLY, THE Muslim Brotherhood divided the revolutionaries. They don't really believe in the idea of democracy. This paved the way for the July 3 coup, launched by the army and the remnants of the Mubarak regime.

What happened after July 3, 2013, has been the worse time Egypt has ever witnessed, even compared to before the revolution.

But the coup began with the idea of dividing the people. For example, among those who called themselves leftists, there were those who supported the army--they were kind of Islamophobic and very afraid of the practices of the Muslim Brotherhood--and others who were totally against what happened after July 3 and considered it a coup against the people's will.

The most horrific moment was the Rabaa massacre. Since then, all the public spaces have been closed down, and the army proved el-Sisi's will make it clear that no power would be allowed except the army itself. After the Rabaa massacre, there has been a huge crackdown of the civilian political movements. After they finished with the Muslim Brotherhood, they started targeting group after group.

WHAT DO you think of el-Sisi's comment that "Western human rights" are not applicable to Egypt?

HE DOESN'T not believe in human rights. He said we should talk about education or health care, as we are poor, and not about human rights--as if education wasn't part of human rights as well. This is how the army works.

El-Sisi said that he is fighting terrorism, so there should not be any voice calling for democracy, the opening of public spaces or human rights. This is how he treats Egypt--as if the main enemies are human rights and the Egyptian people calling for their rights.

YOU WERE released from prison a few weeks ago. Tell us more about your last experience in prison.

I WAS imprisoned this last time for only two months. I went to the al-Qanater prison and to Damanhour prison.

It was the first time I was in Damanhour prison, where conditions are more and more degrading. They had been bad since my first time in detention, but now they were even worse. The number of women in each cell is around 32, in a cell that is 6 meters-by-4 meters. Every person has around 30 centimeters, a very small space to sit and sleep in. The prison conditions are very bad.

The number of detained people in Egypt has increased in the last few years. Since the last years of Mubarak, there had not been people executed, despite being sentenced to death. But after the July 3, 2013, coup, the number of executions and people sentenced to death have both been larger and larger. We aren't only talking about political prisoners, but even about ordinary prisoners who have been executed.

Of course, health care in prison is awful. A woman died because they din't allow her to go to the hospital. She fainted in the night after the doors of the prison closed.

In addition, there is this awful idea of solitary confinement for political prisoners. This happened to Sarah Hegazy, a girl arrested for raising the rainbow flag during a concert in autumn 2017, and she has been in confinement for a while now.

The number of women political prisoners is getting even higher now. We fear that even those who have been acquitted--or, like four men in Cairo about a month ago, released on bail--but they are still in prison. This shows how things are going in Egypt.

THERE HAVE been strikes by workers in El Mahalla El Kubra and Alexandria. Are the workers' movements still active in this context of repression?

THE REGIME is closing public spaces, but the workers' movements didn't stop. In Mahalla El Kubra and Alexandria, the workers are trying to win their rights.

But the regime is very brutal toward them. Amendments were made to the law on trade unions, banning independent unions last December. A number of workers are facing trials. In Alexandria, we have 21 workers facing military trials for their participation in strikes at the Alexandria shipyard factory.

The police are very harsh against the workers' movements. There are attempts to arrest all the workers' leaders and liquidate the independent trade unions, which are the best option for any worker who is calling for labor rights.

YOU WERE arrested for your participation in the movement around Tiran and Sanafir, two islands in the Red Sea that the el-Sisi regime handed over to Saudi Arabia. Can you tell us if the demands criticizing the el-Sisi decision in this case are over?

The Tiran and Sanafir movement has been very important. It was an exceptional moment for the opposition to show that el-Sisi is a traitor. The army and el-Sisi argued that the Muslim Brotherhood was supported by Qatar--however, this case showed to the people that el-Sisi is the real traitor.

For one of the first times after the January 25 Revolution, the people took to the streets again. But this has been kept as a judicial case. We didn't use it to talk to the people about state policies and the neoliberal agenda that el-Sisi is implementing.

But I do think that this generated a small crack in the Egyptian regime. If people thought that the Egyptian army at least was protecting the unity of their land, they had to change their minds because of the Tiran and Sanafir case.

We have to start to think that Tiran and Sanafir was part of a big plan to normalize the relations with Israel. We could have built more on this movement. Khaled Ali's decision to run for president was related to this. As a lawyer. he has been defending the idea of the unity of the Egyptian land.

WHAT'S YOUR opinion of the cuts in government subsidies due to the requirements of the IMF's loan to Egypt, and what does this mean in terms of mobilization in Egypt?

BECAUSE OF the IMF loan, there have been austerity measures. The idea of cutting any kind of subsidies, while the prices of oil and gas go higher and higher, is causing a huge turmoil in Egypt. People are suffering so much.

This is taking away el-Sisi's popularity. Many people consider themselves to have been betrayed by the regime. El-Sisi is losing his allies, like many entrepreneurs who were against the revolution. They are now suffering from the high prices.

El-Sisi's popularity has been decreasing in all Egyptian sectors, even in the sectors considered pro-state. However, when we were commemorating the revolution last year, people didn't have the same feelings as this year. There was melancholy. This year the Egyptian people are thinking about how to organise themselves again, to stand against the al-Sisi regime.

THERE HAVE been renewed protests in Tunisia and other North African countries. Do you think that this can trigger new social movements starting in Egypt as well?

WHEN THE protests broke up in Tunisia, people here were thinking: "This will affect Egypt." I disagree, but I think that the Egyptian people will be moving soon.

The state has a firm grip on the society, and people are afraid of the army reaction against any kind of opposition. On the other hand, people are fed up with the regime. They want to move and to have a clear alternative.

They tried with the 2011 Revolution. Our duty now is to make a united front. The people will be moving, and the state reaction will be violent and brutal. We will pay with our lives defending the things that we believe in. But a new society with a new social structure is coming.

An abbreviated version of this interview was published at

Further Reading

From the archives