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.
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.
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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.”