Supporters of Egyptian political activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah on Tuesday marked the anniversary of his jailing on charges of illegal protesting by changing their social media profile pictures to the blogger's Avatar (his profile picture on twiitter).
#FreeAlaa was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in the early morning of Tuesday, part of a support campaign launched that day at midnight. Alaa's profile picture is being adopted by his supporters to raise awareness of Abdel-Fattah's imprisonment on convictions relating to the so-called "Shura Council case" is a striking image of his face in red and yellow. The campaign also included posting previous statuses and tweets by Abdel Fatah in his own words and using his profile picture.
In November 2013, hundreds of peaceful activists gathered in front of the Shura Council where the constituent assembly was convening to draft the new constitution. The demonstrators were protesting a clause in the constitution that would allow civilians to be tried in military tribunals.
However, a law had been introduced earlier in November banning protests without prior police authorisation, and an Egyptian court convicted Abdel-Fattah and 24 others of illegal protesting among other charges.
The majority of those convicted in the Shura Council case were released by a presidential pardon earlier this year, although Abdel-Fattah and fellow activists Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, Abdel-Rahman "Kogy" El-Sayed, and Abdel-Rahman "Moka" Tarek were not included and remain in prison.
To mark the anniversary, activists hung up posters reading "still detained despite the pardon," accompanied by drawings of the four in Maadi, Agouza and Ramses.
The awareness campaign was launched by Abdel-Fattah's mother and two sisters. The family also went to the Presidential Palace carrying banners demanding his release.
A counter-campaign has been launched with the trending Twitter hashtag #FreeSmeda by social media users critical of activists like Abdel-Fattah, whom critics feel get unwarranted media attention, with others criticising Abdel-Fattah's strong language regarding the police and army.
Shura Council case
Abdel-Fattah and Abdel-Rahman have been in prison since 27 October last year, and were sentenced in February of this year to five years in prison.
El-Sayed was arrested in April and Tarek was arrested in February of this year, also in the Shura Council case.
Three others received a 15-year sentence in absentia in the Shura Council case, including Wael Metwally and Ahmed El-Attar.
According to eyewitnesses, Abdel-Rahman, who was a security worker, was passing in front of the protest when he saw two activists being attacked by policemen in civilian clothes and attempted to intervene, which resulted in Abdel-Rahman's arrest. A photo of activist Mai Saad being strangled by her scarf and beaten by policemen while Abdel Rahman tried to free her went viral on the social media a year ago.
The activists were charged with rioting, participating in an unauthorised protest, disrupting the lives of citizens and exposing them to danger, attacking a public employee while on duty, as well as thuggery.
The protest in front of the Shura Council was forcibly dispersed by security forces using water cannons and teargas, with videos circulating on social media and local TV stations showing harsh treatment of protesters by police.
In September, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi issued a presidential pardon for 100 prisoners, including 18 of the 25 sentenced in the Shura council case.
Alaa is considered one of Egypt’s pioneer bloggers, along with his wife, Manal Hassan. The pair created their famous political blog Manalaa's bucket in 2004.
A software developer and activist, Abdel-Fattah has supported initiatives that promote social media, freedom of expression and political activism. In 2005, Abdel-Fattah and Hassan won the Special Reporters without Borders Award in Deutsche Welle's Best Blogs competition.
Abdel-Fattah is no stranger to prosecution. In May 2006, he was arrested while participating in a peaceful protest in solidarity with a movement supporting judicial independence. His arrest caused an international uproar, as it was seen as an attempt to crack down on blogging activity in Egypt by targeting one of its most influential bloggers.
Abdel-Fattah was released in June 2006 after 45 days in detention, during which an international campaign was launched on blogs and on Twitter with the hashtag #FreeAlaa -- the same hashtag being used by activists to highlight his continued imprisonment in 2015.
Following that, Abdel-Fattah and Hassan lived in South Africa for four years, developing open-source software for native African languages.
In 2011, when protesters began fighting their way into Tahrir Square during the January revolution, Abdel-Fattah flew back to Egypt just in time for the "Battle of the Camel" clashes, when pro-Mubarak demonstrators and government-hired thugs attempted to storm the square on camels and horseback in what was considered a last-ditch effort to push demonstrators out.
Following the incident, Abdel-Fattah and his wife flew back to South Africa to pack their belongings and sell their house and car. They returned to Egypt to join the 2011 revolution.
Supporters share memories
"In minutes, the 27th of October 2015 begins, and a year will have passed since the day Alaa and Ahmed Abdel-Rahman and the rest of the youth of the Shura Council case went of their own accord to attend their trial session, as they had been released on bail, and the judge arrested them all," Abdel-Fattah's mother Leila Soueif, a university professor and activist, said in a Monday Facebook post.
"Alaa and Ahmed have been in prison for a year now. The pardon did not include them, nor did it include Moka, Kogy, and thousands of innocent others."
Some prominent figures in Egypt have also joined in the campaign. Human rights activist Ragia Omran changed her profile picture to the image of Abdel-Fattah and posted a statement saying, "It is the least I can do in solidarity and to remind people of our innocent youth in prisons, our youth who defended freedom and the right to peaceful protests and to freedom of opinion and expression. Five years since the start of the revolution, huge numbers of participators and believers are now in Sisi's prisons."
Egypt’s star satirist Bassem Youssef tweeted, "A year in jail, and many more [remain behind bars], #FreeAlaa."
American University in Cairo history professor Pascale Ghazaleh posted on Facebook Tuesday morning, "I met Alaa only a couple of times. Once we had a discussion about my research. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I had never met anyone who so quickly grasped what I wanted to understand, or who offered advice with such intellectual sensitivity and acuity. Is it snobbish to say this surprised me more since Alaa is not a social scientist sanctioned by the academy? No doubt. At any rate, I am still thinking of the ideas he gave me during that one brief meeting. He has been in jail for a year today, prevented from sharing his thoughts or working to achieve any kind of social justice.”
Journalist and columnist Tamer Abu Arab made a statement recalling a time when he advised Abdel-Fattah to forget about politics and live peacefully with his son and care for his family. According to Abu Arab, Abdel-Fattah responded, "I am only protesting for my family and my son. If I am silent the corruption could kill my son. He may die in a car accident because the construction worker didn't do his job properly, or get sick and die because he can't find proper medical care. I am fighting to find a better life for my family because the alternative would be to leave my country and I don't want that.”