The Family That Revolts Together

The Seif Family

In the storied lexicon of Egyptian dynasties, the curly-haired Seifs of Cairo will go down in history. Ahmed Seif El-Islam, the family patriarch, spent much of the 1980s in prison for his participation in a communist cell; today he heads the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an organization that takes on human rights cases — involving Islamists, homosexuals, victims of torture — few others dare touch. His wife, Laila Soueif, teaches mathematics at Cairo University, where she leads a movement for reform in universities across Egypt. You may know their children, Alaa, Mona, and Sanaa, from Twitter, where they spend a great deal of time. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a software developer and activist, along with his wife Manal Hassan hosted some of Egypt’s first blogs in the early aughts, back when the Internet was still a novelty. Mona Seif, who works in a cancer research lab, leads the charge against military abuses in the aftermath of the revolution of January 25th. And Sanaa Seif, the littlest Seif, just seventeen, launched a newspaper in the midst of said revolution called Gornal with likeminded friends. (She insists on calling them “colleagues.”) As we go to print, she is struggling to finish high school. Confusingly, everyone uses a different name, but occasionally the family converges, like the tentacles of a fast-moving… octopus? At demonstrations, like the ones that shook Cairo this past winter and spring, it is a wonderful sight to see.

Mona: We almost don’t agree on anything.

Alaa: Our father is more tolerant than the rest of us. We say we want to ban the NDP.

Mona: He says we can’t ban any political party.

Alaa: I say it’s not a political party: it’s a mob!

Mona: We say, let’s attack families of the officers who killed Khaled Said. Dad says, why bother the families?

Alaa: Who would weep if we killed Osama Saraya?

Bidoun: The editor of Al-Ahram?!

Alaa: He looks like a TV villain.

Manal Hassan: We need to raise the price of torture… like the price of tomatoes and eggs.

Alaa: Egyptians consider this violence! [Laughs]

Bidoun: How did the events of the past weeks change you guys?

Mona: The revolution changed you [to Sanaa]. You weren’t that interested, for example, in talking about images of torture. Next thing we knew, you went to Lazoghly, to the state security headquarters, and tried to beat up some people.

Laila: There isn’t a single person who is not changed.

Alaa: But Sanaa, it’s true. She became an activist against the state security. You know they were buying German technology for spying. Like the tear gas canisters that were made in the USA.

Mona: The one that completely fucks up your eyes is made in the USA. One of the images I’ll never forget from this revolution was people in Imbaba throwing onions from balconies. It was like the Coco-Cola tip from Tunisia…

Bidoun: Who saw this coming?

Alaa: Everyone involved in the movement knew the regime was weak. When Tunisia happened, we all knew it was khalas. Maybe September would be the time…

Mona: I believed the 25th would be different. I went to the streets on January 25 expecting three to four thousand people, like for the demonstration for Khaled Said.

Manal: Or the demonstrations for the judges a few years ago.

Alaa: I was here during the last day of the Tunisian revolution and we made a joke that the Qatar World Cup would be in a free Arab world. But we thought the catalyst would be elections. A revolution can’t happen with a Facebook event! We know doctors who came to Tahrir on the 25th with medical equipment. They knew.

Laila: What we learned is that the people wouldn’t stand for less. But still, I wouldn’t have dreamed. I’ve known for the past years that something would happen, maybe some kind of violent eruption, but this was so peaceful. So focused.

Bidoun: What were you doing that day?

Laila: That evening a friend, a younger colleague, called me and asked me to come to Tahrir and I joked, listen they’re calling me to the revolution. We went on the 25th thinking, the kids are mad! They’re making a revolution by appointment! Suddenly you had thousands and thousands and thousands and then again on the 28th. That is when we knew that something would give. I told Alaa, don’t come from South Africa until they give us the internet back. Well, he came anyway and they gave us our internet back…

Bidoun: He made it come back.

Alaa: I came straight from the airport to Tahrir…

Laila: I’m happy he made it back. It’s time for everyone to come back—there’s a lot to be done.

Mona: You know, when you think about what happened, you won’t find that there was one moment or one individual.

Bidoun: Who were the most unlikely activists involved?

Mona: Take, for example, the soccer fans, the “ultras.” They played an instrumental role in the first few days.

Bidoun: How did that work?

Mona: They’re fan associations outside of the soccer clubs. They’re sort of critics of the club system.

Laila: Before the revolution they had experience fighting the police. So they translated that experience into the square.

Mona: They were spider men! On the 25th a fire truck approached the protesters and the ultras jumped on it until it retreated… there were activists having secret meetings with them. I want to marry one.

Alaa: There were ultras in Tunis, too. Everyone is reinventing themselves—“during the Tahrir era” has become a theme. The Gabha, Al Ghad, Kifaya, all of them are taking credit…

Bidoun: What do you make of that?

Alaa: The only traditional force that played a role is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bidoun: Were some leftists in the square against the Brotherhood taking part?

Alaa: No. Tahrir was magical. Those sensitivities melted away. So did any idea of sectarianism.

Bidoun: Tell me about when you knew something would give, that there was no going back.

Alaa: Mubarak fell on the 28th. People hit the streets without mobile phones and without email — it was when communication was cut.

Bidoun: No Facebook, no Twitter, no social networks…

Alaa: The people are the social network. On the 28th the people beat the police. The process was rapid. There was news that the police were collapsing… we were all surprised when people burned their police stations first or destroyed Ahmed Ezz’s office. It was so telling.

Mona: These people need to be tried.

Bidoun: The Ahmed Ezzes of the world?

Alaa: Yeah, but I think the Egyptian people are very tolerant.

Bidoun: What if we end up with a Mubarak regime without Mubarak?

Laila: It won’t ever be the same regime.

Bidoun: Do you know anyone who wasn’t involved in the revolution or who was explicitly against it? I imagine that’s rare in your milieus.

Sanaa: I know people who are still pro-Mubarak… some of the kids at school, their parents were in the NDP. The day Mubarak fell we were dancing in the streets and I saw one of them and he said, “You will regret this.”

Laila: They’re still all around. The Dean of the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University is from the NDP.

Bidoun: That’s where you teach.

Laila: Yes. So he spent the days around January 25 writing about how we’re all foreign agents, paid by foreigners. He can’t expect students who have been in the revolution to come back and accept him as their dean.

Bidoun: What’s the strategy?

Laila: Some of our students have gone on a hunger strike. We’re demonstrating in front of the faculty. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. You keep pushing and you make their life hell.

Bidoun: And?

Laila: And if you’re me, you get arrested. One week ago the military police came into the university during the strike and broke up the sit-in by force. They put some of us in a security truck for thirty minutes and—[Father, Ahmed Seif El Islam, enters]

Alaa: [Laughs] Mom and Baba are both very good at getting arrested. I remember being a kid and getting dressed up to go see Baba in prison. They had workshops in the prison so I would get these nice wooden boxes and necklaces… it became quite normal.

Laila: Ahmed is very social. He made friends with everyone. I used to get these requests for sports shoes, like someone in prison needed shoes! Prison is a mini-world, it’s a reflection of society.

Alaa: And then later, when I was in prison, I met someone who had been a guard in my father’s cellblock back in the 80’s…

Laila: He came out with more friends than we could dream of. He taught literature to other prisoners…

Alaa: Plus, every few years Dad donates a laptop to the government. You know they took one again from him during the revolution.

Ahmed: I’ve given two to state security, one to the thugs, and one to the mukhabarat. Soon I’ll retire and use a pen and paper…

Bidoun: How did you experience this past year?

Ahmed: Something happened last year and that was Khaled Said. Of course, before that there were torture cases all over the country, but people’s reactions were very limited, very local…. This was the first time that there was a movement across the country. Even the people in the middle class, the ones that go to America, use Facebook, are highly educated. They wouldn’t stand for it any more.

Bidoun: What happened?

Ahmed: I don’t know but you saw the change take place from the start of the 25th till the end of that day. In one day! People went out targeting Habib el-Adly and the regime of torture in the morning and by the end of the day the demands had shifted to Hosni Mubarak and the fall of the regime. What happened we know, but what will happen we don’t know.

Bidoun: What will your role be?

Ahmed: The problem with me is that my ambition is limited and I’m tired. I didn’t expect this to happen. I’m not a bad guy, but I didn’t expect this… up until now, I’ve wanted to withdraw from public life. It’s time for younger people to….

Bidoun: What was your experience of the protests?

Ahmed: I went to the square most days. On the 2nd of February, at about 11am, I was arrested. Thirty-two people got arrested from our office. It had become a gathering point for clothes, medicine and information and so on. Three or more military police came and searched everything, took my computer… by 5pm they took us by bus to the HQ of the military police in Heliopolis. There they photographed and took our names, threatened us, moved us to Nasr City. We were held till the 5th… though there were no formal charges in the end.

Bidoun: What did you do when you were released?

Ahmed: I went home, changed my clothes, and returned to Tahrir. Alaa, Mona, Laila, and Sanaa were all there.

Ahmed: Like Alaa said, it was magical. Young people kept the place clean. There were functioning bathrooms near Omar Makram Mosque, when entering the square people checked bags for security… there was no lack of food or water. Or even cigarettes! I always had cigarettes. One day I left my coat and came back the next day and found it in the very same place. No one had touched it.