The cruel optimist
Haytham Mohamadeen

Haytham Mohamadeen is not happy. He has caught — or rather, been given — a cold.  

“It was the district attorney who did it!” he proclaims, nasally.

The labor lawyer and activist was pulled off a microbus on his way to Suez to talk to workers earlier this month, and kept for three nights in a police station. There, he met the district attorney, and the district attorney’s vicious air conditioning, and was interrogated for hours in temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade, having only minutes before been locked up in a balmy 6 x 6 square meter police cell with another 22 men. Hence the vitriol against the district attorney.

There are still charges against Mohamadeen, who is accused of heading a secret group known as the Revolutionary Socialists, attempting to change the government using terrorist means and creating a group (again, the Revolutionary Socialists) with the aim of “making one class dominate the others.”

A day after his release Mohamadeen was back in downtown Cairo, still sporting his distinctive 1970s Abdel-Halim Hafez haircut, an unruly beard covering his face.

He spoke to me in the offices of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence, a group of doctors and lawyers Mohamadeen works with who have been battling the state for three decades, seeking redress for acts of torture, murder and other horrors.

Since childhood

Workers’ rights have been part of Mohamadeen’s life since early childhood. Born 30 years ago in Takhan, a village in the Saf area of Giza —  one hour and another world away from Cairo — he is the son of a labor leader from the legendary Helwan Iron and Steel Factory, a hotbed of industrial action.

Mohamadeen’s earliest memories are of workers’ meetings in the family’s living room, and Ramadan iftars attended by workers from factories — the stuff of labor activism legend.

His father, Fawzy Mohamadeen, was “well-loved” in the village, despite the fact that “everyone knew he was a communist and didn’t pray” because of his labor activism, the lawyer says. Many of Fawzy’s neighbors also worked in the factory, and his reputation spread. But he also paid a heavy price for it in 1989 after a strike in the Helwan Iron and Steel Factory. Police officers and soldiers raided the family home and arrested Fawzy as a young Mohamadeen watched.

As in many other economically deprived areas of 1990s Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was the biggest political influence in Takhan. Mohamadeen attended lessons in physics, math, history and religion given by the group in the village mosque.

“Most pupils who attended these lessons eventually joined the Brotherhood. They inevitably influenced our own religious ideas, and they had a huge effect both on our ideas and on the Brotherhood’s ability to recruit members,” Mohamadeen says.

Burgeoning political consciousness

It was in university that the foundations of Mohamedeen’s socialist ideals were shaped. He joined Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, although not by choice — “I had been thinking about studying philosophy or psychology,” he remembers. His father died on the day prospective students had to submit their high school grades to the office that decides to which faculties they will be admitted.

Devastated by the loss of his father, Mohamadeen left the university paperwork to family friends at the funeral.

“These were bad, panicked days,” Mohamadeen recalls. Already grief-stricken, the family discovered that they would have to wait seven months before receiving the father’s pension because of problems with their paperwork. So, as they had since Mohamadeen was a youth, he and his two younger brothers worked seasonal jobs in agriculture, painting and decorating to support the family.

On top of all this, Mohamadeen had to wait for a place in university dorms, meaning a two-hour commute to college. And once he had a room, he was promptly evicted in his second year for taking part in demonstrations in solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada in 2001.

Demonstrations such as these were instrumental in opening up public space in Egypt for protests about domestic issues; at this time, vocal expressions of dissent against former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime were virtually unheard of. Mohamadeen discovered that the organizers of the intifada protests — the Muslim Brotherhood — wanted to keep it that way.

“The Brotherhood never made a link between Zionist aggression against Gaza or the West Bank and the Mubarak regime. They never attacked Hosni Mubarak, and when they wanted to attack him or criticize the Camp David Accords, they would give the microphone to someone from a leftist group. Nor did they talk about social issues or link these issues with American hegemony in the region. All they talked about was religion and a fight between Muslims and Jews,” Mohamadeen says.

The activist’s burgeoning political beliefs were further shaped by a chance discovery among his father’s books on Lenin and Marxism. It was a book on the current Labor Law (then still a draft) and the disastrous effect it would have on workers’ rights. Later, at a student fair, he came across a book on how the draft law would indirectly affect students by undermining the job security of their parents. The book was at a Revolutionary Socialists stand.

“I started chatting with the student running the stand, and joined the movement shortly afterwards,” Mohamadeen explains.

Army conscription in 2004 took Mohamadeen away from politics for a year and three months, at a time of flux. In the summer of 2004, the Kefaya movement circulated a petition demanding constitutional and economic reforms. Then in October, Judge Tareq al-Bishry made a public call for civil disobedience. Kefaya’s first rally was held in December 2004, laying the groundwork for things to come. But Mohamadeen was stuck in Sinai in the Second Field Army, under constant threat of being deployed to the streets to police the protesters.

His experience in the military was crucial in shaping his ideas about the army: “When Mubarak fell [and the Armed Forces took over], I celebrated with everyone else; but I was never under any illusion that the army does anything except protect the regime.”

In practice

Mohamadeen learned labor law in the offices of Nabil al-Helaly, mentor to some of Egypt’s most prominent leftist labor lawyers.

One case Mohamadeen worked on resulted in the imprisonment of four policemen who assaulted a retired army general, Adel al-Shaer, in 2010. Shaer lost hearing in one ear as a result of the beating. Mohamadeen cites this as one of the cases most important to him, but says, with a touch of sadness, that he has worked on dozens of labor cases.

“The media is not interested in covering them, though,” he says.

Also key was the trial of 49 men from Mahalla in an Emergency State Security Court after the April 6 2008 factory uprising, during which three people were killed and hundreds injured.

The trial started and dragged on, both too slow and too quick. Mohamadeen and other members of the defense team shuttled back and forth by train or microbus between Cairo and the Delta town of Tanta where the case was being heard, and I went with them to cover it.

Conscious of the need for media coverage, Mohamadeen went out of his way to help me get into the courtroom when the police at the door decided to ban media. While waiting for the court session to begin, and during breaks, he patiently explained the case’s legal nuances, or told stories about his days in the army, chain-smoking all the while.

It was the first time that Mohamadeen argued before a court. He and the lawyers knew that the verdict would be politicized; the whole point of Egypt’s exceptional court system is to deliver made-to-measure verdicts.

For Mohamadeen, the case was important for its political, and not legal, significance. He regarded Mahalla as “the beginning of a widespread popular uprising different to the downtown Cairo protests.”

The repression the state used to quash the uprising was, Mohamadeen says, a sign that it was “terrified of this type of event.”


Mohamadeen had a glimpse of the state’s fear at its pinnacle on January 25 2011. He was arrested at a demonstration in Shubra two hours into the day, and taken to a Central Security Forces camp with over 500 other people.

“I was interrogated by three State Security Investigations officers. One was on the phone, and it was clear from his face that he was panicked. When he hung up, the others asked him, ‘What’s wrong, basha?’ ‘It’s spun out of control,’ he replied. They were terrified. They knew that the street would rise up on Friday. They comprehended this more than we did.”

Unable to hold the number of people they had detained, Mohamadeen and others were released in the early hours of January 28, the Friday of Anger. He took to the streets again, and by late afternoon — after hours of doing battle with the security forces — he reached Tahrir Square.

“I stood for a moment and contemplated the fact that, for that second, nobody was ruling Egypt. I looked around myself: the Interior Ministry had been destroyed, people were on the streets. There was no one ruling Egypt. The masses were ruling Egypt just for that moment — until the tanks arrived, and then I woke up,” he recalls.

Three eventful years later, and Mohamadeen is still optimistic about the revolution, although he feels that it is currently “going through a crisis.” It was most acutely in danger, he feels, when former spy chief Omar Suleiman, the “ugly face of the Mubarak regime,” attempted to nominate himself for president, and when thousands of Islamists took to Tahrir Square in July 2011.

Mohamadeen watched the protest from a tent in Tahrir.

“It wasn’t a nice scene, and I don’t mean because of the way they looked, beards and so on. The idea is that sheikh so-and-so came, and behind him were 5,000 [followers]; Sheikh Mohamed Hassan came, and behind him 10,000 … the chants … the identical clothing … the posters. For the first time, we felt like strangers in Tahrir Square,” he explains.

The protest bewildered Mohamadeen in part because Salafis “historically were never politicized,” he says.

“We used to call them God’s people. Everyone always knew that the Brotherhood was always involved in politics, but [Salafi groups] did preaching work. They had no relation with politics.”

Mohamadeen concludes on this basis that security bodies were involved in mobilizing the protest in order to turn Tahrir Square into a place of fear, and “send a clear message to the US that Tahrir Square is full of Osama Bin Ladens.”

The factors that ignited the January 25 revolution — “social injustice, the narrowing of political freedoms, Interior Ministry repression” — still exist, and Mohamadeen thinks this will create a “new anger.” But the danger to the revolution now comes from groups that have allowed themselves to be fooled by the “smokescreen of war on terrorism,” he cautions.

“All the leftist forces that have been fooled by this slogan are, in my opinion, involved in a disaster and stupidity of historical proportions. [The Revolutionary Socialists] have as much enmity as other groups towards the Brotherhood, but we are not allowing ourselves to be fooled by a smokescreen called the war on terrorism, behind which Mubarak’s state is reinstating itself and revolutionary gains swept away,” he argues.

“Today, Brotherhood members are being locked up arbitrarily; sooner or later, that will spread to other political forces.”

At the end of the interview, I ask him to clarify whether he was in a microbus when he was arrested in Suez, or in a private car as had been reported — a very un-Haytham-like mode of transport.

“Of course I was in a microbus,” he responds with a wink. “Do you think I would be doing this job if I could afford to buy a car?”


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