CAIRO — After Asmaa Hamdy's release from prison, where she spent three years, she began the desperate search for her fiancé who had disappeared shortly before she was let out.
A dentistry student at Al-Azhar University, Hamdy was one of the students arrested by police following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. She was arrested with four others in December 2013, and two months later, they were sentenced to five years in prison and fined for charges such as belonging to a banned organization, violence and taking part in illegal protests. Having served three years of the sentence, a successful appeal led to her early release last December. Instead of celebrating her freedom with her fiancé, Ibrahim Ragab, as she had planned, Hamdy embarked on the uncertain journey of trying to locate him.
“He was the only thing that made prison seem bearable,” Hamdy says, sitting in her bedroom in the northern city of Zagazig, with a photo of her and Ragab behind her.
Hamdy and Ragab, a journalism student, met just a few months before she was arrested but she says she got to know him better after her imprisonment. She was moved by his unwavering commitment to her. “He didn’t miss any of the court hearings even the ones he knew for sure I wouldn’t be present,” Hamdy says. “When he was sometimes denied visitation rights, he would wait outside the prison walls waiting to hear my news.”
“He was the one I saw the most during these three years,” she adds.
That was the moment I knew it was real.
During a family visit the week before her release, Ragab did not come. When Hamdy asked her father where her fiancé was, he replied: “Only God knows.” Hamdy broke down but it was nothing compared to the pain of the moment when she got out of prison and could not find him, she says.
“I cried in my mother’s arms and I said I want to see Ibrahim,” she says. “That was the moment I knew it was real.”
Hamdy and Ragab had long imagined the moment of her release. “He told me he’ll take me in his car to give me my first ride home. He said he wasn’t going to wait years to let someone else give me that ride. The first thing I wanted to do when I was free was go to the beach and he had arranged with my mother that he would come too. Everything was planned and he was part of everything I planned for,” she says, struggling to hold back her tears.
The pain of Ragab’s disappearance was more than what she endured in prison, she says. “During those three years, I had a lot of problems with the government, prison administration, prison guards, prisoners and even with others on the same case. But with time, I was able to deal with it and learned how to deal with these problems. Ibrahim’s disappearance is the only thing that I cannot deal with. He gave me the support I needed to cope with prison, he supported me in staying alive.”
“During every visit, we’d agree on a nice thing to do for next time. We would have breakfast together, eat something sweet, or sing a song,” she recounts, smiling.
Now facing the reality of forced disappearance — a practice that she knew very little about as she was unable to follow much news during her three years in prison — she speaks to Mada Masr three weeks after his disappearance.
While many of those who forcibly disappeared reappeared months after their abductions, others have gone missing for more than a year. Forced disappearance has become a common phenomenon in Egypt since 2013, with hundreds of reports of people missing only to be found later in police custody. A campaign to end forced disappearances documented 916 cases of forced disappearances since 2013, with the practice has been intensifying in 2015.
One moment of hesitation equals three years in prison
Hamdy was 19 when the January 25 revolution took place. She says she never missed any of the major protests. Although she was imprisoned on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, she protested Morsi during his rule. Hamdy says she did not participate in the June 30 protests that called for the removal of the Brotherhood-affiliated president. The violence that ensued following Morsi’s ouster pushed her to join the pro-Morsi Rabea al-Adaweya protest camp, she recalls. She witnessed the violent dispersal of the protest camp during which over a thousand people were killed, and which she described as one of the most horrifying experiences of her life.
Students faced security forces in several universities during the academic year that followed the dispersal. Al-Azhar University was a particular flash point, with several violent campus protests and large numbers of students investigated by disciplinary committees. At the time, the Brotherhood were largely in control of the student unions at the university, and alongside the student body and staff who were largely sympathetic, faced off with a state-aligned leadership backed by security forces. The tension increased nationwide, in what was described as the worst period for campus freedom in the last few decades, with almost 20 students killed, hundreds suspended, and thousands jailed.
Recalling the repressive atmosphere, Hamdy says that “any girl who dressed conservatively would be accused of belonging to the Brotherhood. At this time, I decided to take part in demonstrations in support of these students.”
When asked if she was participating in one of these protests when she was arrested she answers, “Unfortunately not.”
She says the day she was arrested, she should have listened to her fiancé’s advice not to attend class. She went anyway as she had an exam. As she approached the university gate, a friend warned her that students were being rounded up. “I hesitated, I did not know whether to leave or run to hide in my class.”
Hamdy paid three years of her life for this moment of hesitation, as she was arrested immediately.
Having participated in major events of the revolution, Hamdy says she had knowingly risked injury and even death but never imagined that she would be imprisoned. She was in a state of disbelief during the two months of pretrial detention believing that she would be released any day. It was when she was given a five-year prison sentence that she understood that “this was real.”
Isolation in prison
Hamdy spent the first six months of her sentence in Qanater Women’s prison in Cairo until the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president in June 2014.
Hamdy believes that with Sisi’s election, there were orders to intimidate political prisoners. One night that month, Hamdy says a prison guard harassed one of the political prisoners. When others gathered to see what had happened, the guard brought in a number of well-built criminal inmates.
“It was like the movies. We were assaulted, beaten, bitten, pulled by the hair, humiliated and insulted,” Hamdy says. “Even my engagement ring was thrown on the floor. It ended with riot police storming the prison cell.”
I felt like God was consoling me
Following the assault, all political prisoners were sent to different prisons across the country. Hamdy, along with the four other students in her case, were moved to a prison in the Delta city of Damanhour, where they spent the rest of their sentence but did not share a prison cell.
Beaten and humiliated, and with her personal belongings stolen, Hamdy was separated from her colleagues, and settled in a cell with women serving sentences for murder and drug dealing, she says.
Although scared, Hamdy found some consolation when she saw that the inmate in charge of managing the cell was prepared to take care of her. “She enabled me to shower, gave me her shampoo and shower gel, and gave me new clothes. I felt like God was consoling me. This was a woman who did not know me. I had no money and nothing to offer her but she helped me.”
Upon her request, Hamdy and her colleagues were moved to another prison cell after submitting a request to the prison administration.
Although they were able to support one another, Hamdy’s interaction with them was often tense. “They weren’t like me, the only similarity was that we were involved in the same case. They rejected the fact that I protested against Morsi, and they did not like that I had male friends. My lifestyle was unacceptable to them,” she explains.
It was around this time that Hamdy met the activist Mahienour al-Massry, who was detained in the same prison in another protest-related case. “She was different, like me, and we got close.” Upon her release after serving a 15-month sentence, Massry became Hamdy’s lawyer.
Getting back to life
Now out of prison, Hamdy suffers from health problems. “Before prison I barely knew what a headache was like,” she says. “Now I know high blood pressure, arthritis, and back pain.”
Hamdy is planning to enroll again in the same school where she was arrested, which she doesn’t believe will be a problem. “Prison made me not care about many things, it made me better able to handle many problems,” she says.
Most of the time, Hamdy speaks about her missing fiancé. She repeatedly writes about him on social media, mentioning their memories together and praying for his release. She published a video of herself after 48 days had passed since his went missing. “Isn’t 48 days enough?” she says.
Ragab’s family have submitted reports about him to the general prosecutor, the Interior Ministry, and the National Council for Human Rights, to no avail.
Hamdy now does not know how to live the normal life she has long desired.
“I really did not wish for myself that I would be sitting here doing this interview. I wanted to go have a picnic with Ibrahim or sleep in my grandmother’s arms,” she says.
As part of the final procedures for her release, Hamdy knew she was going to be taken to the National Security office, where officers would instruct her to stop activities that landed her in prison. She had planned to tell the officers she wanted to live a normal life. But this was before she knew her fiancé had gone missing. Now, she planned to tell the officers that she was going to continue searching for her fiancé. Upon entering the office with her colleagues, the officers sarcastically asked the girls not to commit any of the crimes they committed before. When Hamdy’s colleagues said they were innocent and had not committed any crime, the officers replied: “Then do not do the things you did not do.”
Surprised by their answer, Hamdy remained silent.