In April 1977, a number of mothers of missing people met at the Plaza de Mayo, located in front of the presidential palace in the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires and demanded that the destiny of their sons and daughters— detained or killed after failing to obtain any information through ‘legitimate’ channels— be revealed by the government.

In April 1977, a number of mothers of missing people met at the Plaza de Mayo, located in front of the presidential palace in the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires and demanded that the destiny of their sons and daughters— detained or killed after failing to obtain any information through ‘legitimate’ channels— be revealed by the government.

They staged regular protests named ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’. They were the most prominent protests before Argentina’s military dictatorship was finally toppled in 1983. It is said that these protests contributed greatly to toppling the regime at the time.

People thought that these practices ended with the demise of the oppressive military regimes in the 1980s. In Egypt, however, decades later, a revolution would topple a dictatorship in 2011 and another revolutionary wave overthrew an Islamic regime in 2013 –  the phenomenon of missing citizens resurfaced. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms identified 340 cases of forced disappearance between August and November 2013, in addition to scores of cases, one or two years prior to that.

The terror and confusion faced by the families of these citizens led them to establish an association to look for their loved ones and organize activities to pressure the government for revealing their  relatives’ whereabouts, and whether or not they were alive.

Disappearance of a husband

There were numerous protests as well as formal, individual, or collective, and legal complaints. Some of those missing people were detained due to fabricated charges and others were killed while the majority is still missing. These include Ashraf Shehata, an independent lawyer and businessman, who disappeared 26 months ago. Maha Makkawi, his wife, led a tireless pursuit to find her husband. Unsuccessful in securing his return, she now devotes her time to helping others like herself.

Makkawi became a familiar face at the trials of accused people including Islam Khalil who was arrested on terrorism charges after having disappeared for months. Khalil gave her a scarf on which the word ‘Freedom’ was written. She attended a conference to protest the decision to close El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, participated in protests that demand the release of detained journalists, and sit-ins with candles and flowers to commemorate the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni who was a victim of torture.

Makkawi’s difficult journey started on 13 January 2014 when Rafat Faisal Shehata, also known as Ashraf Shehata, went to his private school on Safad Al-laban Kerdasa road. He went outside to answer his phone, but he did not return. Since then, all his phones were shut off.

Before he left for work, he told his wife that he was summoned by State Security for a coffee and that he would return at lunchtime. He said it while leaving so she did not worry. They were not afraid as it was not the first time he was summoned. The first time was in 2010 when a Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh was the Imam of his father’s mosque. The State Security officers did not want him in that position. Shehata finally told them, “If you do not want him, do not allow him to be the Imam.” Makkawi and her husband were not worried since they were not involved in politics.

They had been members of the Dustoor Party and had taken part in the January 25 Revolution “like all the others,” as well as in the June 30 events. They assumed her husband would be asked about some Muslim Brotherhood members in their neighborhood Kerdasa. Makkawi did not mention this fact in the media as she received threats. Now she has nothing to hide. The State Security officers did not wait for Shehata to arrive to the arranged appointment; Makkawi believes that they kidnapped him at the school’s gate after persuading him to get out.

Media campaign

The next day, Makkawi went to the Kerdasa Police Station to report the disappearance of her husband but no investigations were ever conducted. After ten days, she was informed that he was detained at the State Security Center as he was accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood member, and her source confirmed that he would be released in few days. Other sources informed her that he would be released after some investigations and asked her to wait until the presidential referendum and elections were finished.

In April 2014, Makkawi went to a lieutenant colonel at the presidency. She gave him a report of her missing husband and he told her that her husband would be released as long as he did not commit a crime. He visited him at the State Security Center in al-Nasr City and told her that he could not see him as the center’s director was not there, but he reassured her that her husband was well and was being treated well. He brought him a doctor and clean clothes and promised to visit him again when the center’s director was back.

However, he later phoned one of her relatives and informed him that Shehada was not there at all and the center did not have any detainees. She doubts that the matter is related to a partnership with a sister of a former prime minister under Mubarak’s regime; that she and her brother detained him there. Makkawi explained this in her complaints and to the minister of interior’s assistants, but they did not take it seriously on the pretext that Mubarak himself was imprisoned and his regime had no power. 

Makkawi resorted to the National Council for Human Rights and filed a complaint to the Ministry of Interior and then launched an intermittent media campaign. It started in October 2014 through several TV interviews and establishing a webpage aiming to know Shehata’s whereabouts. The Ministry of Interior only started its investigations when she appeared on the media. When she met the minister of interior’s assistant and Abu Bakr Abdulkarim— the ministry’s spokesperson— the latter swore that her husband was not detained and the accusations leveled at the ministry were groundless. After the disappearance of Shehata, Makkawi’s time was divided between making visits to legal departments and centers and the school’s administration as Shehata was absent, following three children and launching a media campaign to search for her partner whom she married 25 years ago. Despite the difficulties, she continued tirelessly. “I am not looking for a missing suitcase. When someone calls me at midnight saying he has information about my husband, I go out at once.” 

Makkawi has not heard about the forced disappearance before. The first time she entered a police station was when she reported the disappearance of her husband. Shortly afterwards, personal problems surfaced. Disagreements with her husband’s family increased and her financial conditions grew difficult. Shehata was running all the matters and knew very well how to manage his financial affairs and those of his family. Despite having a power of attorney, Makkawi could not sell her husband’s land or his share of the school to provide for herself. Therefore, her mother sold a piece of her land to pay the high fees for her children’s tuition as they were enrolled in the American University and the International School of Choueifat. 

A ray of hope 

On January 18, she was told that the name of her husband appeared on a list of forced disappeared people issued by the National Council for Human Rights based on information published by the Ministry of Interior. However, it turned out to be a mere name confusion. It was a hard day for Makkawi who immediately accompanied the lawyer to the Department of Prisons. However, they did not find his name. An official there told them that since he was not there, he was a political prisoner at the State Security Center. It turned out that the person whose name appeared on the list was not at the Zakaziq Prison as was mentioned in the list and that he was moved to the Wadi el-Natrun Prison and he had been imprisoned for three years, meaning that the information provided by the Ministry of Interior in the list is not updated.

She had doubts as her husband’s nickname rather than his real one was mentioned in the list, so she had to make sure. After the name confusion was clarified, she went to the Ministry of Interior where she was told that the name was not found. She waited for Abu Bakr, the minister of interior’s assistant. She met him along with Halim Henish, a lawyer, and Mona Hamed, a doctor at the Nadim Center. He told them that the Ministry of Interior is not to blame for this mistake but the National Council for Human Rights. Makkawi collapsed at the Ministry of Interior. She woke up at Kasr al-Aini French Hospital. She did not understand exactly what happened. However, she told her two friends, “I will stand. I should be strong. The breakdown will do me no good. I will go on until I find Ashraf.”

Makkawi writes to her husband everyday on his Facebook page. They used to talk about everything in detail. She feels that he reads what she writes. When she posts photos of her and her husband together, she feels that he reassures and strengthens her. As for her personal problems and those of her children’s and family, she sends them in private messages as it is inappropriate to go public with them. Makkawi will remain strong thanks to the people’s good wishes. They stop her in the streets or at the sit-ins she takes part in and tell her, “We support you and pray for you.” Shehata’s case became well-known thanks to his wife’s efforts. Even her little daughter, during her field trip in Al-Hussein and while her teachers were calling her name, she heard two police officers wondering whether she was indeed the daughter of Ashraf Shehata. She was afraid but her mother assured her that neither she nor her father did anything wrong.

Ordinary citizen with activist rank

Maha is no longer only concerned about husband alone. She now helps and supports all the victims of injustice. She and her children have no provider now. Makkawi wishes that her husband would have re-appeared, even with charges to face.

After she took part in the protest, commemorating Julio Rigini who was tortured to death amid doubts that the security forces were involved in the incident, she received threats telling her to ‘calm down and fear for your children and brother’ and to stop appearing on the media. Her mother also received similar messages. They told Makkawi, “How come you cry about an Italian man?” However, she said she cried involuntarily. She pitied the poor young man and imagined herself in his shoes. She does not believe that they can harm Shehata because of her political activities. They will either reveal him or keep him hidden.