Yassin Mohamed will turn 23 in a few days. He will spend his birthday as he has spent much of the last seven years of his life in Egypt: in prison.
If you had seen Yassin as I have seen him, you probably wouldn’t guess that he’s been jailed, beaten, tortured, electroshocked. From the almost four years I lived in Cairo—both before and after the 2013 military coup—my memories of him revolve around the cheap and seedy cafes of downtown: cracked and canting chairs, antediluvian waiters in soiled slippers, the slack hoses of water pipes trailing around tables like very sickly cobras. Here, on any given night, real veterans of the revolution gathered and smoked and talked, along with graffiti artists, would-be actors, musicians, middle-class students slumming from the suburbs, and a few clumsy, walrus-like police informers.
“Downtown” in Cairo, shabbily resistant to successive regimes’ attempts to gentrify, was less a matter of real estate than a faintly unreal exception to whoever ruled. In its crumbling spaces, rigid mores relaxed a bit, as did the cops’ nightsticks that usually enforced them. Social classes could mingle, young men unspool their long hair, and single women drink stale beer. The point of being there was mostly the pointlessness itself, the sense that, late at night, you could imagine a different tomorrow, free from the pressures and repressions: a day, even, when the police would go away.
Yassin was almost always there, in this decrepit atmosphere. He didn’t go home much, partly because there was often a standing warrant for his arrest. He looked incongruously childish, small, with bright eyes and a constant smile, and he liked to laugh while others glowered. He had a quality of innocence that led even older revolutionaries to regard him as a kind of totem, a figure of hope, a good-luck charm when you were facing the security forces with their savagery.
Some nights, Ahmed Harara, a blind activist, made the circuit of the cafes, led slowly on a friend’s arm. Harara had lost one eye to police birdshot on the fourth day of the revolution, January 28, 2011 (the “Friday of Rage”); security forces’ rubber bullets shot the other eye out that November, during protests against the military junta on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. (The police aimed deliberately for demonstrators’ eyes; they prefer their citizenry unseeing.) Harara was 15 years older than Yassin. Yet the two greeted each other with great dignity, like hardened veterans, not all their wounds visible on their bodies.
There are some 60,000 political prisoners now under the Egyptian dictatorship. Yassin became one of them again almost a year ago, in October 2016, serving a sentence at Wadi Natroun prison in the Western Desert. His story is much of Egypt’s story in the last seven years.
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To be honest, I don’t know a great deal about Yassin’s pre-revolutionary background or family history. He was a middle-class kid, in a country where being middle-class—coming from educated, professional parents—increasingly means “poor.” In the intervals between prison terms, he worked odd jobs, in a furniture store for instance; he talked often about wanting to travel, but he never had much chance.
I do know that the first time Yassin was arrested, he had just turned 16. It was 2010, a few months before the revolution started. As he described it, sitting in a café years later, he saw a policeman beating a 10-year-old child (the police also pay great attention to the moral education of the very young) and intervened to stop him. Two policemen then tortured Yassin severely, and he spent about a month in jail. “After that humiliation,” he told a journalist a couple of years ago, “I learned a certain coldness about being beaten.”
He needed it. The revolution came in January 2011. Yassin was arrested repeatedly. More and more protests in Egypt were in defense of the right to protest itself. Post-revolutionary governments kept constricting this. The military junta that took power from Hosni Mubarak answered demonstrators’ chants with bullets and tanks; the Muslim Brotherhood, with less control over the security forces during its brief year in power, used its own thuggish militias. The government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the former general, employs both methods, coupled with the most repressive laws against demonstrations that Egypt has ever seen.
Today, a handful of protesters assembling peacefully in any public space can get three years or more in prison—or get murdered. (Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a poet, labor lawyer, activist, and mother, was shot dead by police while on her way to place flowers in Tahrir Square on the eve of the revolution’s fourth anniversary.) For Yassin, I think, the struggle for public space stood for a deeper freedom, the hope for a day when you could move as you pleased without the state’s constant stone weight on your flesh: the freedom to have your body to yourself.
In November 2013, nearly five months after Sisi seized control in a military coup, Yassin was arrested outside the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament. A hundred and fifty people had gathered to protest a new decree against demonstrations, and the continuing subjection of civilians to military trials. Police seized dozens of them; women, dragged to police vans, had their clothes torn off, and Yassin—so his lawyer and other protesters affirmed—was grabbed when he tried to defend them. Freed on bail, he was arrested again a couple of months later in another anti-military demonstration, calling for the release of prisoners. That time, he said, security forces tortured him with electrodes on his genitals. They held him in prison for 42 days. He was sexually assaulted. When I saw him after his temporary release, his hands kept shaking uncontrollably. A friend of mine, a seasoned demonstrator himself, shouted at Yassin in a café: “Why do you keep getting yourself into this? Stop it! You’re a child!” Instead, Yassin joined a hunger strike to protest the detention of others. In a trial that autumn, a judge sentenced him to 17 years.
Yassin served more than a year, between Tanta prison—which he called a “slaughterhouse”—and Tora prison, the massive military-run heart of Egypt’s gulag for political detainees. He told a journalist later that he had contemplated killing himself, though a cellmate talked him out of it. In September 2015, he was released as part of an annual presidential amnesty.
The next January, he went to another demonstration, in the heart of Cairo, again calling for the release of imprisoned protesters. Again he was arrested, and this time, according to his lawyer, Mokhtar Mounir, of the heroic Egyptian Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, they held him for three months before freeing him on bail. He promptly attended other protests, including one in April 2016 against President Sisi’s decision to give two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia—a reward to one of the few regimes that furnishes the dictatorship with regular financial support. Police tortured him again, then freed him again while keeping a case against him open.
After that, Yassin went into hiding. He posted periodically on his Facebook page, trying to explain what it meant to be an activist in an Egypt under a draconian regime more severe than Mubarak’s had ever been. “I know you see us happy and laughing, and some of us work, some study, and some are successful, but we all lie to ourselves,” he wrote in mid-2016. “The truth is, we are exhausted and we no longer feel able to accomplish anything, and our incapacity lies in our innocent ideas. We are afraid…but we are unable to say we are exhausted—because it’s hard to change one’s principles.” In a video he posted that summer, looking worn and trembling, he said, “Don’t call me a hero. I’m not; I want to be normal and live a normal life. I am isolated and afraid. I can’t even see my parents.” And he added, “I’d turn myself in, but I’m afraid people would say that I enjoy living in jail.”
In October 2016, Yassin finally handed himself over to the police. By this time he had two outstanding sentences against him, imposed in absentia: two years with hard labor for the protest in defense of detainees, and five years for demonstrating against the handover of the islands. Six weeks ago, his lawyer got the latter sentence suspended. Yassin is still likely to remain in prison for up to another year.
As the years have passed, Yassin has seemed to grow even more boyish, less straitjacketed by the stringent codes of Egyptian masculinity. He has, after all, no need to prove his manhood anymore. Precisely because of that vulnerability I worry, about not just his legal fate but what is happening to him daily. Occasionally, he’s smuggled messages out of his desert prison for his friends to post on his Facebook page. “I hate the sun’s rays,” he wrote in one, published this May. “I turn my eyes away, so that I won’t fall in love with it.” Now the page is shut down.
The military dictatorship of the medal-encrusted Sisi devours Egypt’s young. A generation has been battered, lost. Most of my friends have left, or are trying to leave; those who remain keep fighting less to stop the state machine than to stave off despair. It’s not as though hope has died in Egypt. It has hidden itself in memories, though; it glimmers in the legacy of people like Yassin, who showed that standing up against overwhelming power, even as a lone 16-year-old, was possible.
Meanwhile, police have closed most of the downtown cafes where long-haired dissenters met, along with shuttering NGOs and blocking news websites. Security forces kidnap and kill dissidents. Mounting poverty reinforces political agony. In 2016, the United States and Europe helped impose an IMF loan on Egypt. Its austerity conditions included a massive devaluation of the currency, in a country dependent on imports to survive. In the last year, basic foodstuffs and medicines have kept vanishing from the shelves. A ramshackle marketplace in Cairo now hawks scraps and garbage that restaurants throw away. Those are all many families can afford to eat.
Amid many Americans’ Trump-motivated nostalgia for the recent past, it’s vital to remember that that the Obama administration, for all its high-minded rhetoric, never gave a meaningful damn about anybody’s human rights in Egypt. It openly supported whatever regime it thought could provide stability. It tacitly forgave whatever imprisonments or killings it supposed stability might require.
Obama’s opportunism was blind, shameless, and staggering, a constant betrayal of Egyptians who fought for freedom. He steadfastly refused to call Sisi’s military coup a coup—defying both human-rights advocates and the obvious facts. He played with a few cosmetic delays in delivering Egypt lethal weaponry, and with short-lived sham talk of a “freeze.” But the $1.3 billion in yearly aid that the United States gives directly to the Egyptian military, the country’s oppressors and exploiters, was effectively never touched.
Donald Trump has repeatedly praised President Sisi and his security forces, saying the dictator does a “fantastic job.” In fact, though, last month US diplomats suspended $300 million from Egypt’s annual gift basket. Of course, the Trump administration has no foreign policy. It has foreign paranoias and foreign infatuations, gloomy rumblings punctuated by ecstatic shouts, like a mean drunk reaching the danger point. The reasons given for the cuts were ambiguous and conflicting. State Department officials alluded to unspecified human-rights “concerns,” while outside analysts as well as others in Foggy Bottom suggested they were punishment for Egypt’s military cooperation with North Korea. Jared Kushner promptly sped to Cairo to reassure Sisi, and Trump phoned the dictator personally to voice his “keenness” to “overcome any obstacles”—presumably a reminder that two-thirds of the cuts were mere Obama-style delays that could readily be restored. Still, the incident shows that American largesse to Egypt can change, that the romance with repression really can falter.
A few members of Congress, from both parties, have made human rights in Egypt a priority: Democrats Patrick Leahy and Chris Murphy, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham. But, after the decades of damage the United States has inflicted on the Middle East, it is folly to suppose this country can “save” Egypt. Still it can, at least, deprive the military of some of the money and weaponry it uses to slaughter its own people.
Indifference is the main barrier. The post–Arab Spring landscape has become too confused for most Americans to comprehend. Meanwhile, Trump threatens to turn the left inward, absorbed in a domestic struggle so demanding that the global consequences of US policy (unless nuclear war is in the offing) shrink into the shadows. Often, speaking about the disaster that is Egypt, I feel myself in one of those dreams where you have to deliver an urgent warning, but the words come out backwards, tangled in gibberish. Still, I keep shouting about Egypt, because I owe Yassin Mohamed a little of what he gave me: hope.