How Egypt’s most famous jailed couple celebrated Valentine’s Day

It’s not unusual for a woman to receive a bouquet of roses from her husband on Valentine’s Day.

What is unusual is to receive them in a court holding cell after a couple has spent months apart in separate jails.

The wife and husband in this instance are Aya Hegazi and Mohamed Hassanein, the founders of the Belady Foundation, an organization that works to rehabilitate and educate street children in Cairo. The pair, perhaps the Middle East’s best-known jailed couple, are awaiting trial on  what many activists have described as unfounded charges of child abuse.

Hegazi, 29 , an Egyptian American citizen, graduated from George Mason University in Virginia with a degree in conflict resolution. According to her brother Basel Hegazi, she had always been “passionate about change,”  had volunteered for many initiatives and had resolved to return to Egypt after completing her studies to “help the country.”

Hassanein shared her values. After falling in love and agreeing to get married, the two decided against a traditional lavish wedding. Instead, they spent their savings to launch the Belady Foundation and invited friends and family to contribute instead of giving them wedding gifts.

The couple’s troubles began in May 2014 when the police raided the foundation. A man had complained to the police that his missing son had been held against his will at the organization’s headquarters near Tahrir square in downtown Cairo. Police searched the office without a warrant and arrested Hegazy, Hassanein, 17 children and two other volunteers.

The couple has spent more than 22 months in pretrial detention. A group 25 civil society organizations recently issued a statement describing the case as an example of the “continued suppression of volunteer action and the quashing of youth and civil society initiatives” in Egypt.

The case has caused a furor in the Egyptian media. Hegazi has been described as an American foreign agent sexually abusing vulnerable Egyptian street children and sending them to pro-Islamist rallies.

But her attorneys say any accusations of sexual abuse were forced from the children under duress. A government forensic report revealed that there were no signs of sexual abuse during the time they were at the shelter.

“I was always afraid of street children, but Aya showed me how love could change everything,” said her friend Mona Nader, one of the organizers of the social media campaign in support of the couple.

Saturday was the scheduled date of the fourth trial session for Hegazi, Hassanein and their volunteers. Hassanein had not seen his wife for three months. In the holding cell, he gave her the bouquet — of paper roses. He had made them himself.

The image of Hassanein handing Hegazi the flowers spread widely in Egyptian social media.

“They usually send each other gifts, and my mother and his mother meet up to exchange the gifts. This time was the first time for him to get her flowers, since it’s Valentine’s, and he thought it would be a romantic idea to do so, especially that they don’t see each other often,” Basel Hegazi said.

The court session was postponed till Feb. 17.

U.S. Embassy officials are aware of the case and, according to Basel Hegazi, “visit Aya every once in a while.” Family members have also written to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

In December, Hegazi wrote a letter from prison that included a plea: “Do not leave us here in the jails and forget us, do not let us lose hope in justice and humanity.”