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Remembering Egypt’s sword of the poor, the lawyer of the revolutionaries

Young people will inherit Egypt, so it is time to make way for them

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The last funeral reception I attended was in May this year. He was a young man who passed away – a man who very early on in life had not only touched many people’s hearts, but many different types of people’s hearts. Months later, Bassem Sabry’s name still comes up regularly in conversations with scores of people I encounter – and they never mention him except with admiration for his support of the January 25 revolutionary uprising in Egypt. When they do, I smile and as discreetly as I can shed an uncontrollable tear as I respond to them.

I remember Bassem’s passing, and his funeral reception being exceedingly sad. Of course, he was a friend of mine and the loss was personal. I recall, however, people who were less personally close to him, expressing their sorrow that someone so young, who could have given so much more, was taken from them.

Those young people who came to the Omar Makram mosque to say their farewells to Ahmed Seif and pledge their support for his family are not going anywhere. Their reckoning has yet to be dealt with

H.A. Hellyer

This past Saturday, I attended another funeral reception – that of Ahmed Seif. It was a very different experience, I have to admit. Ahmed Seif was more than double Bassem’s age – and he was far younger than he looked, a side effect of the years and decades of hard struggle he had endured in trying to make Egypt a better and more just country. There was something, I suppose, of a tragedy in the midst of that – the fact that he had passed when certainly, his skills, experience and commitment were needed more than ever.

It was heartrending, too, to see his family – for two of his children were there by the state’s discretion. Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the leftist revolutionary figure and his sister, Sanaa Seif. Alaa is in jail, serving a custodial sentence after having been convicted in “absentia” – I write that in quotation marks because Alaa was standing outside the courtroom, having been held back from entering before being convicted under what numerous human rights organizations describe as a draconian protest law. Sanaa is in prison under the same law. Alaa is 32 years old. Sanaa is 19 years old. Nineteen. Years. Old.

But I did not leave the funeral reception feeling the mood had been utterly subdued and somber. That would have been typical – it is, after all, a funeral. Yet, instead, the overriding emotion I felt in that crowd was something else. Perhaps the best word to describe it was “stubborn.” Obstinate, not helpless. Determined, not defeated.

Throngs of people

The throngs of people that had come to pay their respects to Ahmed Seif’s family meant that the queues of mourners had to wait a very long time indeed. For hours, people continued to wait in large numbers – hundreds upon hundreds. They were saddened by the loss of Ahmed Seif, who is known by epitaphs such as “the poor’s lawyer” and the “revolutionaries’ lawyer,” for his long record in helping those that the state would have preferred be forgotten. But they were also there to lend their support to his family – in defiance. Ahmed Seif’s children are not social outcasts for being imprisoned – rather, the state’s own prestige was damaged in the eyes of these throngs of funeral-goers for incarcerating them.

The pain of loss often makes it difficult to see beyond the hurt – but perhaps because the aching of Bassem’s passing has never truly left me, I’ve grown a little accustomed to handling that kind of hurt. As I looked at the crowds that came to give their condolences, two things struck me, although I expected nothing different when I arrived that night. The first was that truly, Ahmed Seif had defended people from all walks of life. A friend of mine, who had been at the funeral, but whom I did not see due to the immense multitudes, told me the following day, “I hadn’t seen so many of those people in ages – some since the 18 days of the Tahrir uprising in 2011! This crowd is the Tahrir crowd.” That was Ahmed Seif – and that was the revolution of January 25, whose embers still burn in the hearts of some, if not very many, still.

The second thing that struck me was the deep irony. Ahmed Seif was in his 60s – as are many of those who run Egypt and dominate its political establishment, whether in terms of those who uphold the current constitutional arrangement, or those who yearn for the return of Egypt’s previous presidency of Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammad Mursi. Egypt’s rulers decided to allow Ahmed Seif’s children to attend his funeral. But as I looked at the multitudes gathered, I thought to myself – who is imprisoned and who is free?

A young population

Egypt’s population is, by and large, far closer to Alaa and Sana’s age than they are to the ages of Egypt’s ruling elite. It’s a reality that bizarrely, no-one in the corridors of power seem to identify as problematic – or perhaps, even recognizes as existing. Perhaps, one wonders, because that reality is terrifying. When the overwhelming majority of your country’s population is under the age of 25, and your system clearly does not provide a way to satisfy even the most basic of their demands and expectations – well, wouldn’t anyone be forgiven for being rather concerned about what the future might bring?

Is it really Alaa and Sanaa that are imprisoned – at least in the long term? Or is that entire political elite – imprisoned in a bubble that fails to see what kind of prison they may be building for themselves in the years to come? I don’t know. Who knows anymore. After all, this is Egypt – where things change rather dramatically in rather short spaces of time.

But one thing that I do know – the future belongs to those young people who flocked to that funeral, as it belongs to their generation, entirely. As I walked away, having paid my own respects, I felt almost obliged to call out a warning to the security agencies that had brought Alaa and Sanaa to the funeral. “Before it’s too late – get on the side of the youth of this country. Because they will inherit this land, not you.”

And then Shakespeare’s words rang through. Those young people, who Ahmed Seif and his noble wife Laila Soueif produced in the persons of Alaa, Sanaa and Mona, were already cut out into little stars before their father passed away. Those young people who came to the Omar Makram mosque to say their farewells to Ahmed Seif and pledge their support for his family are not going anywhere. Their reckoning has yet to be dealt with. The inevitability of that just seems silly to ignore.

In the meantime, there will be those that restin this world, and in the next. Bassem Sabry and Ahmed Seif, a generation apart, brought together by a love for Egypt’s revolution, have done what they have done and are where they are – may they rest in peace. As for those left behind – oh, woe be to those who would underestimate them. They will inherit this land, whether we like it, or not.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.