|Laila Soueif, an assistant professor of mathematics at Cairo University, is also a staunch civil rights activist|
The limelight of Egypt’s revolution has been defined by heavy reporting on the role of youth, the role of women – predominantly younger women – and on the proliferation of new media.
But the most inspiring revolutionary I met in Cairo is not young, nor is she on twitter; her face is unlikely to adorn the cover of Time magazine.
She’s a trailblazing figure who has dedicated her life to the struggle for freedom and social justice in Egypt. Her tools are not smart phones or new media, but sheer willpower, fearless tenacity and an unshakable faith in her cause. Her name is Dr. Laila Soueif.
Many have spoken about the fear barrier that was broken in Egypt after the fall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. But Soueif is a woman who has never let the regime intimidate her, who has never stopped fighting. And she has paid a considerable cost.
She spent years raising her children alone while her husband, also a leftist activist and prominent civil rights lawyer, was in prison. She has braved police batons at countless demonstrations over the years, while her son was also jailed for his activism.
“30 f–king years”
The first time I spoke to her was at the end of January 2011.
I had been calling from Doha, looking for activists to take live on Al Jazeera English. It was difficult to hear her above the roar of the crowd in Tahrir, the focal point of the uprising in the Egyptian capital, so I had to keep calling, asking her to find a quieter spot away from the square.
After trying a few times to make it work, she told me, “Just stop calling me. I’ve waited 30 f–king years for this moment, and I want to get on with my demonstration!”
I met Soueif in Tahrir 10 days after Mubarak stepped down. The dictator had been toppled, but the structure and institutions of the dictatorship were still largely intact and there were heated arguments amongst Egyptians about how best to push for the other demands of the revolution.
Despite a curfew, a small demonstration gathered in the square around midnight, refusing to go home.
Soueif was there in solidarity with members of Egypt’s Christian minority, angry at the military about an attack on a monastery. The air was thick with a sense of acrimony – whether genuine disagreement amongst those assembled or sowed by suspected regime plants.
Was this the right time for Christians to challenge the army for their rights to be protected? How far was the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to be pressed? What place did direct action have in the post-Mubarak phase of the revolution?
Soueif stayed into the early morning tirelessly engaging protesters in fervent discussion of the revolution’s principles and tactics.
Despite her age, she would think nothing of sleeping on the ground in Tahrir, or plopping herself down on the pavement at a protest to rest. Even indoors she didn’t seem fussed about comfort and would happily pick a spot on the floor, sitting against a wall with her cigarette.
A force of nature
Her children, also activists, have the amusing habit of often referring to her by her full name (eg. ‘good thing Laila Soueif was there…’), even when speaking amongst themselves.
It is as if they are acknowledging that she’s not simply their mother, but a force of nature. And she lets nothing stand in her way. One incident I witnessed illustrates her uncompromising refusal to be cowed by power or violence.
On the night of Friday the 25th of February, the military cracked down on continuing pro-democracy protests in the Nile delta city of Mansura, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where masked soldiers destroyed tents at gunpoint, and at the Parliament nearby, where Soueif was part of a small sit-in.
The chants everywhere included “The army and people are one!”, but at about 2 am, a senior officer appeared and announced that he had been given orders to disperse the crowd.
Two minutes later soldiers began beating peaceful demonstrators and shocking people with electric stun guns. The crowd fled in panic, some were arrested, others were trapped on the ground as soldiers kicked and tasered them repeatedly.
As a small group of us left the scene, some soldiers came up from behind holding a man they had beaten badly. His name was Amr Abdullah, his nose was bloodied, his right eye was already beginning to swell and he was shaking.
Soueif turned around and immediately got in the face of the soldiers. “How could you do this? Look at what you’ve done to him! This was a peaceful demonstration!”
When a military police officer, apoplectic at her audacity, screamed back in her face with blood vessels bulging in his neck, she didn’t blink or back down.
When the soldiers threatened to take Abdullah away again she lunged at them, physically prizing him away.
When the young soldiers demanded her name, she leaned forward defiantly, “My name is Doctor Laila Soueif! I’m assistant professor of mathematics at Cairo University. My ID number is 256050… Is there anything else you’d like to know?”
A short while later we learned that six more people had been stopped and arrested on their way home, including Amr Abdullah. The next day Abdullah was indicted as a ‘thug’, and despite the fact that he was clearly unarmed when the army initially released him, he was charged with having a ‘sound gun’.
Within only a few days he had been tried in a military court, without a defence lawyer, and sentenced to five years in prison.
The campaigning continues
Among her many other activities, Laila Soueif is still actively campaigning for Abdullah’s release, and for the increasing number of demonstrators being tried in military courts.
She is known as someone who will always defend protesters against the police or the military, and several people told me that they feel safer when she shows up to a demonstration.
But when I mentioned this to one fellow activist, she laughed and told me that this hard-headed determination had also gotten them into some hairy situations.
Several years ago, she told me, long before large numbers of Egyptians were ready to rise up against the regime, they had planned a demonstration at the General Prosecutor’s Office.
When only a handful of people turned up and they were surrounded by large numbers of armed state security police, it was suggested that staying looked seriously dangerous. Most wanted to go home, but Soueif, typically stubborn, refused, “You can go if you want to, but I said I would demonstrate from 12 to 2 pm, and I’m not leaving here until 2 pm.”
“Laila Soueif is someone,” the activist told me, “who is driven by her complete commitment to social justice. She has a rock solid belief that this is simply the right thing for a human being to do…to stand for what you believe in, even if you are alone.”