The Imprisoned Egyptian Activist Who Never Stopped Campaigning for His Country’s Future

In the summer season of 2011, a number of months after the protest-led ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I participated in a program on Al Jazeera’s English-language channel referred to as The Café. The setup was meant to reflect the environment of street-side cafés in Egypt on the time, animated with the political debates and newfound openness that the revolution had caused. Eight of us took half, representing varied walks of life and completely different factors alongside the political spectrum, and we filmed over a number of hours at an precise café some 10 minutes from Tahrir Square. The most distinguished amongst us was Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a blogger, a pc programmer, and an activist who’s presently imprisoned in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison.

Over the previous 10 years, the vast majority of which has seen Alaa (who’s a buddy) imprisoned or on probation, he has been writing—essays, newspaper columns, letters, Facebook posts, tweets—and his works have now been collected in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. The guide affords a kaleidoscopic view of his ideas and pursuits, relating subjects as diverse as the specter of robots taking our jobs, the battle in Gaza, Game of Thrones (he beloved it), and local weather change. His descriptions of jail life previously decade—via all of his starvation strikes, the lack of his father, the imprisonment of his sister, the beginning of his son, the torture and dying of prisonmates—are harrowing, however his guide can also be an vital file of the pivot factors the place the revolution started to lose tack, the alternatives made by a motion that couldn’t preserve a unified entrance. Alaa, who grew up in a household of activists, has been considering and writing about human rights and democracy since he was a teen. But he has additionally written about topics resembling the risks of capitalism and highly effective tech corporations’ affect on residents—all a part of his effort to check what a sustainable and equitable society, constructed on the sturdy foundations of a shared democratic tradition, would possibly appear like.

By 2011, Alaa was turning 30 and had already spent 45 days in jail for taking part in a protest calling for an unbiased judiciary. During our dialog for Al Jazeera, he was cautiously optimistic about Egypt’s future, and had clear concepts about what it’d take to develop a street map for attaining the revolution’s targets (“bread, freedom, social justice”). At the time, Egyptian society was splintering into political events, lots of which shared arguably related mandates however had inflexible and conflicting viewpoints on the best way to obtain them. The Muslim Brotherhood had emerged as a divisive political pressure, and debates over whether or not elections or a structure ought to come first have been so fierce that they have been tearing political events aside.

Alaa believed that the method by which a brand new structure for Egypt could be developed was of utmost significance, and that electing a consultant physique wanted to be step one towards creating an inclusive nationwide doc. He additionally understood that how the structure was conceived would most affect the course Egypt would take. In one of many columns collected in his guide, Alaa asks: “What value is a constitution drafted without genuine popular participation?”

In one other article—a July 2011 newspaper column—he set extra detailed parameters for choosing the constituent meeting that might draft this structure. Among his recommendations have been proportional illustration of “women, youth, and religious minorities, as well as representation from … syndicates, labour and farmers’ unions, seats for activists, rights advocates, artists, and so on.” How this meeting would operate was additionally on his thoughts; its discussions wanted to be public and topic to the enter of civil society. This constant return to the thought of an inclusive authorities and course of set Alaa aside as a political thinker: He understood that pluralism was the important thing to sustainability.

Alaa additionally believed that the road protests, which had galvanized the nation earlier that yr however had waned by the summer season of 2011, wanted to persist. He noticed the protest motion as integral to altering the social order and making a authorities that represented the individuals; as a result of the federal government feared it, it was an vital stress level. I disagreed vehemently with him again then; the protests, which had been ongoing for the previous six months, had didn’t ship on our targets. “Revolution fatigue,” as we have been calling it, had set in, and I assumed that we wanted to prepare, coordinate, and penetrate the system in another way—via appointments to workplace.

Even the tightest of long-standing friendships—in addition to nuclear households—have been being polarized over debates like this. The military was properly positioned to take full benefit of civil society’s disunity, and it rapidly consolidated and entrenched its energy. In October of that yr, a number of months after our dialog for Al Jazeera, troopers in tanks freely opened fireplace on, then trampled, civilians protesting exterior the state-television-and-radio constructing in solidarity with Egypt’s persecuted Christian neighborhood. It was, on the time, the military’s most flagrant assertion towards the revolutionaries.

That night time, Alaa went to the hospital morgue. He knew that there could be our bodies, and that autopsies could be essential to holding the military accountable. Several days later, in an article for the Arabic day by day Al-Shorouk, he recounted the expertise, recalling the bullets, the indicators of trampling, and the autopsies that have been ultimately—because of his and others’ persuasion—carried out. Published in translation in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, the column condemns the morgue stories’ euphemistic language: “Why does the report say they were run over with a ‘heavy vehicle’ when we all know it was a military APC? What’s this ‘explosive projectile’? Why not write ‘military bullets’?”

Because of his specific criticism of the military, Alaa was summoned for questioning by army prosecutors, and on October 30, he was imprisoned once more. The fabricated fees introduced towards him—“unlawful assembly, stealing military hardware, damage to military property, and assaulting a soldier”—may properly have been punished by dying. In his first notice from his jail cell, he wrote: “Does this cell break the record for cockroach density? Abu Malek [my cellmate] interrupts my thoughts: ‘I swear to God if this revolution doesn’t get the wronged their rights, it will sink without a trace.’”

Egypt right this moment is at its most politically repressive level in a long time. Free speech is not protected, residents have been arrested for expressing views on Facebook and TikTok, and protests have been successfully outlawed. Mass executions with out trial have turn into alarmingly frequent, as have arbitrary arrests and detentions. Facts are exhausting to return by, however an estimated 60,000 political prisoners languish in Egypt’s prisons, lots of them with out trial, some with no hint. Among them, in fact, is Alaa, who was detained in 2019 as a part of a widespread authorities crackdown, however solely acquired a proper sentence in December; he was handed 5 years with out trial on fees of “spreading false news undermining national security.” Alaa is within the second month of his starvation strike to protest the situations of his confinement, and final week, wanting gaunt, he stated his goodbyes to his household, not sure whether or not he would see them once more.

Abu Malek was proper; the revolution did sink, and I perceive now what Alaa noticed maybe extra clearly than anybody else. Along with an inclusive structure, the one strategy to obtain an entire restructuring of the federal government would have been via sustained stress, within the type of the protests that he and I so strongly disagreed on. They have been the important thing to accountability and the mandatory unity that Alaa refers to incessantly as “the condition for change.”

Though there have been no indicators of rising nationwide unity for a while now, and no indication that Alaa will probably be freed, he had—till late final yr—continued to problem-solve for the longer term. In considered one of his final articles from 2021, he referred to as, once more, for an inclusive nationwide agenda: “Are we able—under this repression—to engage our minds and our imagination in conceiving a future that brings us together around specific plans to grow the economy, reform the state, develop society, and liberate the individual?” Alaa’s writings from jail, even when they fell on deaf ears, have been his approach of staying concerned, of resisting. But as he has been held in solitary confinement, disadvantaged of daylight in addition to entry to books, pens, and paper, his household has stated that he has nearly reached his breaking level: His starvation strike has turn into his solely technique of resistance. Ours must be to make use of the phrases that we nonetheless should deliver consideration to his unjust imprisonment and proceed the work he tirelessly did.

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