Campaigners internationally have welcomed the news that human rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry and trade unionist Moatasem Medhat were released from an Egyptian prison on 16 January.
They had both been jailed in November 2017 for allegedly breaching Egypt’s repressive anti-protest law, for “insulting the president”, and for thuggery during the protests over the transfer of Egyptian islands Tiran and Sanafir. The charges against the duo were dropped after an appeal, while three other activists were tried and charged in absentia.
Mahienour, winner of the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, is renowned in Egypt for her work defending activists, trade unionists and refugees.
This is not her first stint in Egypt’s rotten prison system. In 2015 she was sentenced to one year and three months imprisonment on charges of “assaulting security forces”, among others.
Her fellow defendant, Moatasem, was a founding member of the independent trade union at a shaving equipment factory in Alexandria. He also plays a key role in the Permanent Conference of Alexandrian workers, a regional federation of independent unions. He had been jailed despite providing evidence that he was not at the protest that the trial was based upon.
The jailing of the duo had sparked an international solidarity campaign. Trade unionists were encouraged to post “solidarity selfies” onto the Free Mahienour Facebook page. Solidarity actions took place in London, Paris, Dublin and elsewhere. In Leeds activists took the news of Mahienour’s imprisonment to striking workers.
Since Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi’s military coup in 2013, which removed President Morsi, and Sisi’s own election as president in 2014, tens of thousands of activists have been jailed.
Amnesty International has detailed how Egyptian authorities use “mass arbitrary arrests to suppress demonstrations and dissent”. Once in jail detainees are subject to horrific conditions.
Her sister wrote of the conditions Mahienour had to endure while awaiting trial: “[She] is in a very overcrowded cell with 31 women, each of them gets a space of around 50cm width to sleep in. They ended up dividing sleeping hours among them, so Mahienour manages to sleep for only two hours a day.”
Yet their release reflects increasing unease within the Egyptian regime about continued economic crisis, and rising protests against the cost of living.
The transfer of the Egyptian islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia in early 2016 provoked some of the largest protests Egypt had seen in years. More recently thousands have joined protests against cuts in subsidies and against gentrification.
Last year a strike at the giant state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving factory in Mahalla pulled thousands of workers into action and led to mass demonstrations in the town. Mahalla has played a historic role in driving struggle in Egypt. In 2006 mass protests erupted there against Hosni Mubarak, paving the way for the revolution which followed.
The recent strike was the longest dispute in the history of the works. In the past, management and security forces had been quick to brutally suppress the protests, but felt unable to do it this time. In the aftermath of the strike key organisers have been victimised, but the length of the strike and the regime’s reluctance to confront it directly suggest growing confidence on the side of sections of the Egyptian working class, and anxiety among Egyptian rulers about the growing anger they face.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian activists remain in el-Sisi’s jails. With a crooked presidential election on the horizon, and the continuation of “structural adjustment” on behalf of the International Monetary Fund, millions of Egyptians are set to be plunged further into misery.
Yet the release of Mahienour and Moatasem shows that there is hope for those who are fighting to shape Egyptian society for the millions of workers and poor who are its beating heart.