Defying defeat

Political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s collection of writings are a powerful and evocative reminder that democracy in Egypt remains a bleak prospect.

Alaa Abd El Fattah. Image credit Gregor Rohrig via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Activist, software developer, and devoted father Alaa Abd El-Fattah became a vital force of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution after he brought his many years of experience protesting and challenging Hosni Mubarak’s regime to the Tahrir Square protests. Having established himself within the radical, free speech vanguard of the Egyptian blogosphere, he was arrested in 2006 for demanding judicial independence. Egypt’s courts are notoriously partisan and pro-dictatorship, and this was the first of many such arrests. In 2011, Alaa was among a group of political bloggers who created an online space to organize against and challenge the Mubarak dictatorship. After the toppling of Mubarak in February 2011, Alaa was active in speaking out against the military junta, which led to him being summoned to Cairo’s C28, the headquarters of the military prosecutors. He was arrested and charged with inciting violence.

Over the past decade, he has been in and out of detention on an array of spurious charges, suffering abhorrent conditions and countless rights abuses. In March 2019, Alaa was released under restrictive probation requirements, but was rearrested in September 2019 in the wake of a small wave of protests in Egypt. In this time, he has witnessed the arrests and releases of both of his sisters, as well as experiencing the birth of his son, Khaled, and the passing of his father, human rights attorney Ahmed Seif El-Islam. In December 2021, Alaa was charged with producing “false news undermining national security” and sentenced to five more years. In April 2022, Alaa started a hunger strike that has now surpassed 200 days. Around the same time, Alaa was also granted British citizenship while in prison through his mother, Laila Soueif, who was born in London. While this allows the #FreeAlaa campaign to put pressure on the UK government, Alaa still remains in detention at the time of this writing.

Egypt has been under Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s leadership for ten years, and the authoritarian regime continues to be upheld with an iron fist. In 2019, Sissi won a constitutional referendum that expanded his executive powers and dramatically extended his term in office until 2030. Human rights organizations have condemned the regime’s excessive use of censorship, violence, and imprisonment, including against peaceful critics such as human rights lawyers Ezzat Ghoneim and Mohamed El-Baker. Sissi’s government has weaponized a narrative of continuous national security threats to justify an ongoing crackdown on civil liberties. Concurrently, Egypt suffers from desperately high rates of poverty, which, according to the World Bank, are on the rise and are exacerbated by a currency declining in value against the dollar. Despite these economic pressures, the regime is pushing forward with large scale infrastructure projects such as the New Administrative Capital and the building of a commercial strip on the Nile in the heart of Cairo. There is evidence of some underlying discontent with current sociopolitical realities, as demonstrated by protests in September 2019. However, as a result of the strangulation of civil society, there remains a dearth of viable alternatives to the current regime. As such, prospects for democracy remain bleak.

In the last year, a team of unnamed editors selected and translated interviews, articles, tweets, notes, and letters by Alaa to publish a book titled You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. The 400-page book is made up of 59 chapters. In addition to their brief introduction, the editors add commentary throughout the collection that helps to situate the reader and offers a desperate plea for support from his family. Complementing the editors’ introduction, activist, author, and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaks powerfully and emotionally about her relationship to Alaa in her foreword. Klein writes that the strength of this collection comes in part from the remarkable difficulties that were overcome to create it, since many of the essays had been smuggled out of prison.

Starting with the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated traverses a decade. As times and circumstances change, Alaa’s perspective is altered in profound ways. The collection explores the brief period of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi’s rule, which ended with his removal after a coup. The many specificities of the Egyptian context are brought to the fore for an international audience as Alaa hones in on some of the most consequential moments in the past decade, including Maspero, in which a peaceful Coptic protest in 2011 was attacked by the state, killing 24; the 2013 Rabaa Massacre, when security forces raided a camp of Morsi supporters on Sissi’s command, killing over 800; and the Abu Zaabal deaths, in which police officers killed 37 prisoners by firing a tear gas canister into a packed and overheated prisoner transport van.

A talented orator and writer, Alaa uses language deliberately and powerfully, weaving in  metaphor, prayer, odes to lost comrades, and the reinterpretation of revolutionary slogans to build a rich literary tapestry. The collection also includes some poignant verses from poet, activist, and fellow inmate Ahmad Douma. The book offers snapshots into Alaa’s thinking on a vast array of topics, together producing a rich piece of contemporary philosophy that grapples with many of society’s most pressing questions. Through this collection, Alaa confronts climate change, the occupation of Palestine, the global economic system, Egypt’s future, and the future of democracy more generally. In doing so, he presents a compelling case that all the current political, economic, social, and ecological crises faced across the world are inherently linked. Building upon this universality, the core of this book is a call to action: for us to creatively reimagine our ambitions and build the necessary broad coalitions to strive for a more equitable future.

Alaa’s narration reveals the devastation that the family members of the departed have experienced: the procedural coldness as well as the dehumanizing impact of violent policies. These accounts, usually hidden from the public eye, challenge the propagandist state and media versions of events that deny and obfuscate regime wrongdoing, in addition to acting as a reclamation of the narratives of Egypt’s recent history. From the ruins left by these watershed moments, Alaa ponders how our society needs to change to first respond to these injustices, and then to prevent their recurrence. While many of the practicalities that Alaa offers to achieve a more just society evolve throughout the collection, pursuing accountability and justice for Rabaa, Maspero, and Abu Zaabal remain a constant demand.

As time passes, and Morsi’s volatile leadership crumbles and is replaced by security-oriented repression under Sissi, the collection captures Alaa coming to terms with the failure of the revolution. Reconfiguring the future again and asking what it should look like, he grows to accept that Sissi’s regime may not be ended by revolutionary means. He offers honest reflections on why the revolution failed: the naivety of those who committed themselves to the Tahrir Square protests; the ideological, religious, and class divisions within Egypt; the insidiousness, strength, and adaptability of the regime’s tentacles stemming out of Mubarak’s era.

Alongside disappointment and despair, however, he presents a treatise to achieve effective and substantive change in Egypt. Unity, he insists, is the most significant building block within this effort. Consistently challenging the divisions that segment Egyptian society, Alaa advocates for a common humanity that promotes a diversity of views and experiences. It is this ability to include all in his vision for the future that allows Alaa to compassionately call for justice for the victims of Rabaa while criticizing the violent excesses of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. His conceptualization of unity is deeply rooted in the togetherness and uncontained potential that Alaa experienced in Tahrir Square. Throughout the collection, he speaks of the “square” as the amalgamation of imaginings and hopes of those present, referring to something both physically bounded and metaphysically unlimited. His prescriptions, therefore, come from at once holding onto the beauty and purity of these memories, while also learning from the pragmatic constraints that condemned them.

While much of the focus is placed on Egypt, this collection is truly internationalist at heart. Alaa draws upon inspiration from South Africa, Tunisia, and Palestine to show the interdependence between political struggles. Palestine in particular resonates with Alaa on a personal and emotional level. After journeying to Gaza and thinking through many of his misconceptions, he continually returns to Palestine in his imagination by visiting its beaches and streets while trapped in a prison cell. Though solidarity with the Palestinian cause is indeed romanticized, it also is something that is instinctual and reflexive for Alaa.

From the depths of his incarceration, Alaa advocates for democracies around the world to be buttressed and protected without being subsumed by either neo-imperial efforts or consumerism. Alaa makes several direct calls to action to pro-democracy factions across the world. In the 2017 letter that gives this collection its title, Alaa addresses RightsCon, stating, “Unlike me, you have not yet been defeated.” Moreover, he repeatedly expresses finding power, strength, and purpose in working-class movements. For example, in his thoughtful critique of Uber and the Silicon Valley financing model, he presents an economic ideology that insists upon labor representation in technological development. In his view, the world is not going to be saved by tech billionaires like Elon Musk or Bill Gates; the responsibility is instead on publics to mobilize and organize. Championing the demands of the people against the interests of the economic elite also comes into play in the chapter titled, “The Weight of the World,” which addresses climate change. Alaa argues that to generate purposeful and actionable solutions, we cannot just be united by the threat of impending crisis, and instead need to “meet around a hope in a better future, a future where we put an end to all forms of inequality.”

Many of these essays were smuggled out of prison. Alaa wrote in his cell while exposing, in stark terms, the horrors that he witnessed and experienced in Egypt’s detention infrastructure. He criticizes the world’s fleeting attention to the treatment of prisoners and makes explicit demands for carceral reform. Alaa describes how the carceral institution slowly degrades will, fosters hate, and impacts the ability to express oneself. Prisons are a space of isolation and desperation, compounded by the already insufficient healthcare and visitations quota during the COVID-19 pandemic. Making a radical and globally transferable case for abolition, Alaa laments the depressing reality that this is a distant dream; we currently cannot even imagine a world where the victims of crimes are not the ones being arrested.

Alaa’s deeply personal writing is powerful. He listens and engages with everyone in his vicinity, from fellow prisoners to political opponents, showing that inclusion is not just a political project but a personal practice. It is also evident that his family, and particularly his son, are the focus of his pain, joy, fear, and love. The birth of Khaled inspires Alaa, the father, to evocatively write: “Love is Khaled and sorrow is Khaled and the square is Khaled and the martyr is Khaled and the country is Khaled.”

Alaa also writes about his relationship with his own father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam, a revolutionary of the previous era who trained to become a lawyer while in prison and spent his life fighting for human rights. Alaa includes cheery anecdotes from childhood while also reflecting on his father’s incarceration at significant points in the family’s life, such as during the birth of his sister, Mona. Alaa frames his time spent incarcerated as a form of intergenerational trauma passed on by his father. He describes being imprisoned as an “inheritance” that creates a sense of inevitability. Alaa’s desire to emulate the bravery and wisdom of his father radiates from the pages.

Tackling struggles from the personal to the global, Alaa’s ability to reflect in an accessible and compelling way means that this collection promises to inspire and solidify revolutionary spirit, democratic projects, and abolition movements across geographical boundaries.

Further Reading

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