CAIRO: When Mahfouz Diab and his five friends were arrested for smuggling, their lives appeared to be on the same trajectory as many impoverished young Egyptians.
However, thanks to the power of social media and the intervention of one of Egypt’s richest men, the boys have been given a breakthrough that has warmed Egyptian hearts.
Diab, 16, left his home in Sohag Governorate to travel 700km north to Ismailia to find work.
But when he reached there he was offered work as a smuggler and earned 150 Egyptian pounds ($8) a day.
“How can I possibly live on 50 pounds a day”, Diab said after being caught and referring to the paltry wage he would have earned had he not been smuggling.
The six children were detained on Thursday over the smuggling of foreign goods through Egyptian customs in Port Said.
A video showing a television reporter aggressively grilling the children, after they were caught, was posted on the official Facebook page of Port Said.
The line of questioning as the boys were stood against a wall and handcuffed together triggered an angry response on social media.
One question in particular, where the reporter asks why one of the boys did not go into “investing” instead of smuggling, has been the source of widespread derision on social media.
Instead of vilifying the boys, the video showcased the tough conditions that led them to take up smuggling and their struggle to provide their families with basic needs.
“You don’t feel what we are suffering. Do you expect 50 Egyptian Pounds would feed three girls and their Mother. The conditions are tough,” answered Diab, after the interviewer harangued him for his crime.
The boy turned the tables on the reporter, accusing Egyptian authorities of turning a blind eye to people making millions a day from crime but arresting “poor people working for 150 Egyptian pounds.”
As anger grew over the boys’ treatment, Egyptian billionaire Nagiub Sawiris tweeted on Friday that he was providing legal assistance to the boys.
“I have sent a lawyer to the customs authority for reconciliation and, if possible, to free them and hire them,” Sawiris said.
Later, according to his lawyer, Sawiris paid the teenagers’ bail and offered to employ them starting from Monday.
“He touched my heart and mind,” Sawiris said of Diab in an interview on Saturday. “What he did was wrong, but we all make mistakes. I believe he has a promising future as he is a man and brave.”
Adel Al-Ghadhban, governor of Port Said, apologized for the video and said the police arrest smugglers to protect Egyptian society and prevent manipulation of children in smuggling operations.
While Sawiris, was widely praised for his generosity, some criticized the businessman’s actions as sending the wrong message.
Mohamed Saeed, an engineer, told Arab News, he sympathized with the boys.
“With this level of aggressiveness and spotlight put on those kids I had the feeling that they are smuggling drugs or artifacts… for God’s sake they are just a bunch of kids smuggling clothes,” he said.
However, 28-year-old, Yasser Badran, who lives in Port Said, disagreed.
“I can not believe that we made those smugglers heroes and are supporting them. We are simply telling good citizens we sympathize with smugglers,” he said.
In Diab’s village of Al-Madmar in Sohag, the family and neighbors praised the boys bravery and confidence to argue back with the interviewer. They also said he had shone a spotlight of the suffering of poor Egyptians in the provinces.
“He wanted to feel independent and buy his Eid clothes and a mobile,” the boy’s father Diab Mahfouz said. “He always told me that he needs to be a man and earn money independently.”