A family nurtured in rebellion
Friends coming to call at the Seif family’s comfortable apartment in Mohandiseen over the last two weeks were likely to be disappointed, but not surprised. The Seifs, longtime activists who have been familiar fixtures at most demonstrations in Cairo over the years, have been waiting for Egypt’s revolution since the 1970s. When it called, they moved like sailors to battle stations.
Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at Cairo University, organized faculty marches across the central city and set up a camp spot in Tahrir Square. Daughter Mona Seif, 24, helped lead the march on the Egyptian TV building and posted updates on Twitter from her encampment outside parliament.
Younger daughter Sanaa, 17, compiled video for a documentary on the uprising from Tahrir Square. Son Alaa, 29, flew in from South Africa in time to join the melee against pro-government mobs in Tahrir, then helped organize the march on parliament.
Soueif’s husband, lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, was arrested while trying to organize legal defenses for detained protesters, spent two days in the custody of Egyptian military intelligence, then returned to Tahrir to help the younger organizers of the uprising.
The family stayed in touch by cellphone, occasionally finding the opportunity to stretch out sleeping blankets next to one another in the chilly square. It was understood without saying that regular meals would be served again in Mohandiseen only when Hosni Mubarak had left town.
For Soueif and her husband — who cut their teeth as leftist activists battling the military regime of Anwar Sadat — it never occurred to them that the mother of all uprisings would happen and they wouldn’t throw everything they had at it. Son and daughters. Love and health.
Soueif knew well that protests in Egypt can turn ugly. But she knew that in the trenches, with her, was where her children would want to be.
“I remember when I was 17 and I used to go on demonstrations, and my mother would beg me to stay at home, and how angry I used to get at her,” said Soueif, whose booming voice, unruly salt-and-pepper curls and hard-jabbing elbows are as much a part of Cairo demonstrations as placards calling for living wages and an end to police torture. So when it came to her own children, “I simply thought I wouldn’t dare ask them to stay home. I wouldn’t dare.
“First, it wouldn’t work. It would just be me putting extra pressure on them, and they would go down to Tahrir anyway. And I don’t want them to start thinking I’m part of this older Egyptian generation. My younger daughter speaks so disparagingly of them. There was some kind of statement by the opposition leaders and her first remark was, ‘My God, they’re not different from Mubarak. It takes them four days to come out with an essay, rather than a political statement.’ When she talks like that, I know I’m not included in that assessment at all. I want them to be proud of me.”
On a recent day in the middle of the uprising, Soueif lighted a cigarette and passed the pack to her husband, who was on his cellphone. Then Soueif’s phone rang — their apartment, in the few times when anyone was been home, sounded like a fire dispatch center — and Seif picked up where she left off.
“This is the first time for this generation, or maybe the first time for Egyptians in a very long time, to free a zone in which they can react and speak in freedom, without any restriction on their movement and discourse,” he said.
The direction, both parents said, has been set largely by the younger demonstrators.
“I’ve just been backing these young people, whatever they ask for, to help them. They say we need people on the streets, we’re on the streets. They say we need to organize a solidarity campaign among university staff, I do it,” Soueif said. “I phone Mona every morning and say, ‘What’s needed?’ When people ask me, ‘What are you doing?’ I joke and say, ‘I’m following Mona’s orders.’ ”
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To many of those who were in Tahrir Square and to those around the world who were following the events, Mona Seif was @monasosh on Twitter, and her brother was @alaa. Their dispatches chronicled the journey from hope to panic to pride for thousands of followers.
Alaa, whose full name is Alaa Abd El Fattah (in this confusing family, nearly everyone uses a different last name), was already a well-known blogger here when he was arrested at a judicial independence demonstration in 2006 and served 45 days in prison — released, finally, when his mother showed up outside the police station near the pyramids and threatened to launch a demonstration.
After that, he took a job designing software for Africa’s disappearing tribal languages in Pretoria. Mona is a graduate researcher in the cancer biology lab at Cairo University and also works at a nongovernmental organization helping to improve conditions for victims of the 1992 Cairo earthquake who were never able to return to their homes.
“I grew up, just becoming involved. They never taught me. It was just something that became natural,” Mona said.
For years, she said, she has been side by side with her mother in demonstrations all over Cairo.
“My dad is always handling things from the legal point of view. My mom is the fighter,” she said. “You always hear people say, ‘If you’re in a demonstration and Laila Soueif is there, then you are safe.’ Because she is fearless. I mean, she is unbelievable.”
Mona remembers an incident at an early protest over the death of Khaled Said, a young Alexandria man whose fatal beating at the hands of police in June was one of the triggers of the Egyptian uprising. She became involved in a menacing confrontation with one of the female officers, who are notoriously violent with female protesters. Her mother rushed over, bellowing. “She said, ‘This is my daughter. If you put one hand on her, I will take it off,’ ” Mona recalled. “ ‘You can put me in jail, you can put me in prison, but you will live without hands.’ ”
On Jan. 25, the day the uprising began, organizers told Mona to bring a group of 12 demonstrators she was in contact with online to a location she didn’t learn of until 30 minutes before she was to be there. From there, they joined the growing flood from several parts of the city that was rushing toward Tahrir Square.
Mona would e-mail news of the protests to Alaa, the family said, who was helping distribute information on the Internet from South Africa. But when Internet and cellphone service were cut off, he could bear it no longer and jumped on a plane, arriving just as the violence broke out.
“He came right into the battle, really,” Mona said. “All the drama, the horses and the camels and the Molotov cocktails and the shooting — it was an awful night. He was there on the front line, trying to ward off the thugs. He’d throw rocks and rest for a while and go back again.”
Meanwhile, Soueif’s sister, well-known novelist Ahdaf Soueif, was sending out urgent messages trying to call attention to Seif’s arrest at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which he co-founded. “Just saw 8 to 12 people being dragged out of No. 1 Souq el-Tawfikiyyah St and bundled into a civilian micro-bus while a military police vehicle waited nearby. The people were being beaten and the street had been told they were Iranian and Hamas agents come to destabilise Egypt,” the novelist wrote to a blog called the Arabist.
By the final days of the uprising, Mona and Alaa were at parliament, Soueif was going back and forth to Tahrir, and Seif, who had been released but whose diabetes made it difficult for him to go to the square more than once or twice a day, was glued to the television at home and phoning updates to his wife.
After Mubarak’s last speech — in which he refused yet again to resign — Mona joined a furious march on the TV building and got a call from her mother, who was at home showering and changing clothes.
“I told her, ‘We’re around the TV building,’ and she said, ‘OK, I’m coming.’ This was after 10 or 11 at night [after curfew], and she basically walked from home, and she made it there, and it was me and my mother and a friend. We stayed there all night.”
The next day, Soueif headed to Cairo University to organize a faculty march back to Tahrir after Friday prayers. Mona began walking alone from the TV building back to the square.
“All of a sudden, I found people screaming in the street, and everyone was running toward Tahrir Square and yelling, ‘He has stepped down! He has stepped down!’ ” Mona said. “I just found myself surrounded by thousands of people, rushing toward each other and crying, they are laughing and hugging me.... I kept trying to call any member of my family, but of course, all of the lines were completely down.”
Late that evening, they all found their way back to the apartment in Mohandiseen. They talked excitedly, compared notes, had a brief meal. Then they headed back to the square, which somehow felt more like where they belonged.