Trials of Spring: Hend Nafea and a revolutionary story

Trials of Spring: Hend Nafea and a revolutionary story
7 min read
28 August, 2015
Feature: Hend Nafea tells al-Araby al-Jadeed about her fight with Egypt's brutal regime, in one of the most inspiring and iconic stories of the Egyptian revolution documented on film.
The story of Hend symbolises the plight of Egyptian women (al-Araby al-Jadeed)

Imagine being pulled by your hair through the streets, on your way to be stripped and tortured.

Hend Nafea does not have to imagine, only remember.

Such experiences leave scars, for those who survive are the strong. Unencumbered by battle fatigue, Nafea spoke exclusively to al-Araby al-Jadeed about her revolutionary path and the documentary featuring her, Trials of Spring.

Nafea's story provides a crucial window into four years that changed the course of Egypt's history.

Egypt is where it lurks now, on the edge of an abyss, because of the regime's continued body blows to revolutionaries such as Nafea. Hauntingly innocent eyes tell a complex tale, offering hope, anger, pride, fear and bountiful perseverance.

An unexpected visitor

She told al-Araby about a notorious visit she was paid on December 19, 2011, as she lay in Kobri al-Koba Military Hospital. The then-head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Mohamed Hussein el-Tantawi, had to come to see her.

"I started to scream, it was a nervous breakdown," she said.

"What are you doing here?" she said she asked him. "You gave orders to your soldiers to kill those who died at the sit in, to hit us, beat us and torture us and bring us here."

The determination darting through her energetic eyes, nearly four years after the faceoff, is one of the prime reasons that Nafea has managed to survive her personal ordeal with a state ruled by the military.

     The audience [are transported] to the daily travails of a stubborn, sometimes broken, but always passionate woman

She was tortured, then sentenced in absentia to life in prison, along with 229 co-defendants.

The documentary, Trials of Spring, paved the way for a journey from Egypt to the US by way of Lebanon. Structured not as vignettes but rather as interwoven tapestry "trials", it tells the story of three powerhouse Egyptian women.

Khadiga el-Hinawi, aka "Mama Khadiga" - a maternal figure in the revolutionary camp, Mariam Kirollos, an Egyptian revolutionary feminist endowed with political realism, and Nafea - the one who stood up and shouted down the bully - are the protagonists.

Lending a megaphone

The documentary is "not a personal statement", but rather "a message to the international audience who mostly only receive the image the regime wants it to see", asserts Hend animatedly.

While no artwork can claim to be a holistic time capsule of such an explosive phase in any nation's history, the documentary equips itself well by lending a megaphone to the voices of those whose voices are not always heard - the women of the revolution.

"Women were, at least, 50 percent of the revolution", proclaims Khadiga - via the non-intrusive camera of director Gini Reticker. Yet, in the conundrum that is Egypt, the film subtly shows that it is these very women who, less than a month after the revolution, were sexually harassed and shouted down on International Women's day in the very square where they fought a winning battle.

With one glaring omission - the scene with Tantawi, which brought Nafea into the public limelight as a fighter for the cause of those fighting military rule - the documentary manages to transport the audience to the daily travails of a stubborn, sometimes broken, but always passionate woman.

Fighting on all fronts

From the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, where she documents the regime's abuses from the time of Tantawi onwards to Mohamed Morsi and through to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to her home in the countryside where she wages more personal battles, you sense a human being simply searching for dignity in every stage of life.

Our protagonist didn't commence on her trip of political enlightenment through an interest in politics, per se, but rather through "an anger, a socially based anger… there were limits, everything was forbidden", she said, pointing at Egypt's conservative countryside.

Even when it came to her personal career, she remembered, she wanted to study journalism - but her family, as with many Egyptian families, wanted her to study engineering or medicine. So studying mathematics was a choice powered by those pressures.

Nafea's political awareness was a growth process seared by fire: the infamously corrupt parliamentary elections of 2010.

"I saw a National Security directorate officer stuffing the ballot," she recounted. From there, her familiarity with local politics, through her college's student union, only increased before that fateful day, January 25, 2011.

She continued to be one of the many toiling in the revolutionary halls during the tumultuous transitional period that followed, until the young woman was young no more.

A time of torture

She was arrested by the army.

"On the 17th of December 2011, we [Nafea and nine other women] were tortured and molested from 8:00am until 1:00am," Nafea said, showing no emotion. Further revealing the depth of corruption, she explained how, in the Shura Council's torture chamber, the daughter of a VIP accidentally arrested with them was treated with kid gloves by one of the generals in charge of overseeing the operation.

"What brought you here among these low lives and thugs? You are the daughter of someone very important, and all hell is breaking loose, I will release you now but I never want to see you here again," Nafea overheard the officer say to the detained girl.

For Nafea and the others, there were beatings, electric shocks and seemingly endless insults.

One officer, named by Nafea as Hossam El-Din Mostafa, aka Khabalana, threatened to cut her face. Nafea found his name while researching him after her release.

Near midnight that night, an Egyptian TV journalist, Shehat Mabrook, was brought in by the general, along with an officer named Ahmed Mansour. Mansour, in turn, instructed the women to follow him and admit to all concocted accusations - or they were to be "buried alive where they stand".

The women, indeed, followed instructions under threat and the "confessions" were broadcast by the ministry of interior on national television. Nafea, bloodied and deformed by 17 hours of torture, was not put on air.

Only when she fainted that night did the women's screams ensure that she received medical attention. To hear this story told with unswerving resolve is to come face to face with the embodiment of strength.

     To hear this story told with unswerving resolve is to come face to face with the embodiment of strength.

Family shame

But instead of breaking her, the ordeal served to transform the experience into Nafea's personal Trial of Spring.

Upon returning to the family home ensconced in the quiet village of Ikyad Digwa, Qalyoubia governate, there was no innocence.

On the contrary, her pro-regime conservative family imprisoned her in her room for a further 55 days.

"I went to the second battle at home," said a smiling Nafea. But the stubborn spirit, the documentary reveals, would not wilt.

Rather, towards the end of her home imprisonment, self-made posters adorned her room declaring her own personal revolution. Her family were very angry, scared and "they received threats". Denied all means of communication, including internet and phone, her response was a "revolution of the mind".

Posters were her weapon: "Hend wants to break the siege," one shouted. In response to her family expression of shame "I'm not a shame, I am not dishonour, I'm one of the revolutionaries."

"Prison can never contain an idea" was one of the slogans seen in one of the documentary's many moving moments.

Winning for the future

But the road travelled by Nafea, and countless others, in a police state such as Egypt, is not adorned with the fragrant rose of freedom, but filled with the thorns of oppression.

In this battle, the regime insists on the steepest of prices for revolutionaries.

Let us not forget this is a regime that has made it a high priority to put many heroic revolutionary Egyptian women in jail - Yara Salam, Sanaa Seif, Esraa el-Tawil and Mahinour el-Masry to name but a few.

"I consider my presence here, outside of jail, a victory for me and a defeat for the regime," said Nafea. Her Twitter handle, Steadfast until victory, says it all. 

"Five hitting you and 20 touching your body," a tearful Hend recounted in a video from the hospital, where she was incarcerated, after her brutalisation by security forces during the so-called "cabinet clashes".

"I will not leave Egypt because Egypt is the best country in the world," she says in the clip.

But in the end, the uniformed men ruling Egypt forced Nafea out. She will not be denied her eventual return, however. She continues her fight from a new home - for now.