I spent several months earlier this year trying to interview my friend Mahienour El-Massry, a pivotal Egyptian revolutionary from Alexandria. She had been sentenced in absentia to 2 years in prison in January, but hadn’t been arrested yet. That didn’t mean she was safe – the police could have arrested her from her home any day. Unlike friends of hers, she was refusing to go into hiding – attending meetings, travelling to Cairo, sleeping in her house. But each time I suggested doing an interview, she would deflect, encourage others to speak or argue that her voice wasn’t important.
Sentenced for organising a protest outside the trial of two policemen who killed Khaled Said, Mahienour is a Revolutionary Socialist and a vocal opponent of both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. After the army took power last summer, she set up support structures for refugees – especially Syrians and Palestinians – who were persecuted. Active for years on environmental justice struggles, Mahienour had begun organising with frontline communities in the Nile Delta on climate change.
On 20 May, Mahienour attended her own appeal, along with six of her already imprisoned co-defendants. They lost in a farcical court hearing, and Mahienour was arrested.
Since being imprisoned, Mahie has continued to struggle, organising other inmates in Damanhour Prison and writing letters from her prison cell. During her court hearing on June 28 she lead chants from inside the prisoners cage. [NOTE: At Mahienour’s last hearing on 20 July 2014, her sentence was reduced to 6 months and a 50,000 LE fine.]
Despite her attempts to prioritise other voices, I pinned Mahienour down. But her humility means that this interview is a compilation of several shorter conversations from April 2014, before she was arrested.
Mika: How do you feel about the current context, with Field Marshal Sisi about to be elected as President?
Mahienour: It’s very painful. After all the exhilaration and hope of the last years, it’s difficult to believe that this is happening.
At the same time, Sisi can’t feed the people. He doesn’t have the social or economic solutions to the crisis. And over time, people won’t buy it. Especially the younger generation, who don’t believe in the state. Those over 50 lived under Saadat and Nasser – they experienced a strong state. But the state is unable to control young people’s minds – its discourses can’t hold.
Also, Sisi risks undermining himself with his aggression. He says he’s an ‘annihilationist’, who wants to exterminate the Muslim Brotherhood. But in the process, people feel terrorised. When somebody gets off a shared microbus too quickly, everybody freaks out, afraid that a bomb was left behind.
The culture of fear forces people to back the military. But it also means people don’t trust the state to keep them safe. Ultimately, if you say you’re strong, then people expect you to finish the war.
Mika: Now that both the Muslim Brotherhood and leftist revolutionaries face repression, is it time to make up and ignore past differences?
Mahienour: Definitely not! However leftists interact with the Brotherhood, we mustn’t forget their collusion and co-operation with the state, especially during Morsi’s rule.
There was a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer I knew from the first year of the revolution. Last year, when the Brotherhood were in government, he kept accusing us of all sorts of made-up charges. He was colluding with the police, trying to frame us. Now he got in touch, saying he wants to co-operate. I was furious and shouted at him.
Mika: Are you careful? Are you trying to avoid being arrested?
Mahienour: I’m very careful with what I say on the phone. Before the revolution – we were cautious. We’d take batteries out, put the phone under a pot. But since the revolution started, we dropped the precautions. We didn’t feel threatened. That’s changed now.
But I’m not trying to avoid arrest. My friends tell me not to use my phone or Facebook, but that’s not realistic. I sleep in my house and go to meetings. I’m careful about going to court to support others. I went today, but was careful.
I don’t feel like it makes sense to hide. They could arrest me at any point anyway. If a policeman recognises me, or I’m checked at a checkpoint. And I can’t just wait like this, I need to be doing something useful.
Mika: Was your family supportive of your role in the revolution?
Mahienour: There’s a lot of different politics in my family – everything possible. So I’m careful what I speak about at family gatherings. When I was younger, my father wasn’t happy about me becoming politicised. So I used to take my books on the tram around the city for hours, to read Marx.
As I became more active, my mother would cover for me, so that I had an excuse for why I was out.
Mika: I’ve heard about how you travelled throughout the Nile Delta, meeting farmers whose fields were turning to salt. Tell me about what got you engaged with climate change.
Mahienour: I’m from Alexandria. So I always knew that our city might drown from climate change. We grew up seeing the cement blocks that protect the shoreline.
But it was only while researching climate change and migration with Shora Esmailian that I understood how important this is. I saw the scale of potential destruction, and how the violence of climate change is shaped by class. That the poor, the small farmers – they’ll be affected the worst and have their lives ruined.
Then I remembered that the cement blocks in Alexandria aren’t in poor areas either, like Baheri. All the sea defences are set up to defend the rich. In other places it’s the same, like Dumyat, Ras El-Barr. Protection is built to defend tourist resorts, corporate factories like the oil infrastructure, and military installations. Not where ordinary people live.
Mika: Does it feel like people are mobilising for just and radical ways to deal with climate change?
Mahienour: I hear a lot of people say “This change is coming from outside, we can’t do anything. We just have to put up with it.”
But there are exceptions. Especially near factories. Here people see the role of power and class. For example, the community of Wadi Al-Qamar. They live next to a large cement factory, owned by Lafarge and Titan – French and Greek multinational companies.
The pollution is heavy, and many of the young children get asthma and bronchial diseases. So the community were fighting for years to get filters installed. Lafarge and Titan refused, and wouldn’t provide medical support either. Even though they were getting government subsidies for fuel and electricity.
Workers went on strike in February 2013, demanding medical treatment. The police attacked the protest and set dogs on the workers. Two workers were thrown down two floors, and then arrested. There weren’t allowed to see a doctor in prison, despite broken bones. We had to fight hard to get them out.
Now, the Lafarge cement factory is switching to using coal. That means even more pollution and illness. And much worse impacts for the climate – which affects all of us. Especially here in Egypt. So people in Wadi Al-Qamar are organising to protest.
Mika: Egypt will be fundamentally transformed by climate change in the next 20 years. Nobody knows how exactly, but it’s clear that millions will suffer. Especially small farmers, fisherfolk, and the poor living in the cities. Yet it’s easy to feel powerless, particularly with the crackdown in Egypt and the Anti-Protest Law. Do you have any hope, thinking about the future and climate change?
Mahienour: It depends on how climate change is tackled. Will it be led by the elite? They’re not speaking to the people. Even when they say they are, when they claim to represent the people. Small fisherfolk and farmers – they will be the most affected. But they’re not organised in syndicates or collectively. That makes it difficult for them to exert power, pressure – to demand a different world.
Farmers’ co-operatives do exist. But these are mostly for taking fertilisers, buying materials, not for organising. There isn’t space for politics. There is a new farmers trade union – but people in the [Nile] Delta didn’t know about it when I spoke to them.
After January 25, people had hope. Now, people are afraid to face the regime. Especially as it’s coming back more and more brutal.
Activists have to think about the mistakes we made in the revolution. Like when we all stuck to big slogans. We should have divided ourselves more, to co-operate with workers, farmers, fisherfolk. To grow deeper roots, amongst more people. That could have enabled the creation of a Defence Front. A Defence Front that could stand up to attacks by the state, on all those different communities and groups. Instead, we were isolated, and the military and police could pick us off one by one.
We don’t have enough roots. I hear people say “You’re taking about social justice – you have the right slogans. But I haven’t seen you before, supporting our struggle. And we’ve been fighting for a long time.”
But we mustn’t get stuck in the mistakes. We should think about them to learn what to do better. And then move forward. There is hope. We have to be optimistic – we don’t have a choice.