Alaa Abdel-Fattah: Poster child of a revolution on hold

Amira Howeidy, Saturday 24 May 2014

Disenchanted with the failures of the revolutionary forces, prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah is readying himself to go back to prison amid a widening clampdown on dissent

 Alaa Abd El Fattah
Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah speaks with others at the American University in Cairo, Tahrir Campus, Oct. 24, 2012. (photo by Facebook)

There's something disconcerting about reading Alaa Abdel-Fattah's steady flow of daily tweets. They are gasping for life outside the prison walls where he languished for 115 days until March. During the past two months, following his release on bail, Abdel-Fattah, who emerged as one of the most prominent faces of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, has lived each day with the certainty of an inevitable return to prison.

The surprise arrest of Mahinour El-Masri, a prominent activist in the coastal city of Alexandria, last week followed by the sudden summoning of Abdel-Fattah himself a day later to appear in court tomorrow -May 25- only confirmed his fears. He’s not excluding the possibility of his arrest in court.

“Since my release from jail, I’ve been trying hard to be a normal human being, to work and raise my son,” Abdel-Fattah wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday where he has close to 140,000 followers in addition to 600,000 on Twitter. “But every day, by midday I pause and ask myself how am I supposed to be normal in these conditions? How can I work when I don’t know if I’m going back to prison after weeks, months or years?”

Such is the frustrating life and ordeal of the 32-year-old software developer, political activist and outspoken critic of Egypt’s past three consecutive regimes. And, since the removal of president Mohamed Morsi last July, an incessant target of the new military-backed regime.

On 28 November 2013, an armed security contingent broke through the door of Abdel-Fattah’s Cairo flat to arrest him, just a day after he and other activists were summoned by the prosecutor general for questioning for their role in inciting protests — a violation of a new law issued by the interim government that same month. He denies the charges.

Because of a legal loophole, Abdel-Fattah languished in Tora Prison on the outskirts of south Cairo for four months without being tried. By the time he was finally referred to trial, it was to a new special chamber created to deal with terrorist offences. He was released on bail and the court adjourned the case to 6 April when Abdel-Fattah’s lawyers presented a recusal request. The Cairo Appeal Court rejected the motion 17 May and a few days later the Cairo Criminal Court decided to resume the on Sunday, 25 May — just one day before the presidential elections that ex-Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is likely to win. Twenty-four defendants will stand trial with him tomorrow.

Although he had seen this coming, the speed by which his case is proceeding and its political context left Abdel-Fattah clearly perturbed. “I better buy the blue jump suit (prison uniform) then because it seems they’re planning to jail all of us before the elections,” he wrote on Twitter the day he received the court’s notification.

A series of desolate tweets and Facebook posts followed. “Since our dream to live life as life proved to be rather ambitious, can we struggle the way struggle should be done?” he asked. “Can we really resist or is it our destiny for everything to be messed up?”

It’s a question that many young revolutionaries are grappling with almost three years since the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular youth-driven revolution that promised everything.

“There’s a prevailing sentiment among this age group that we’re in a disaster,” says veteran left-leaning journalist Mona Anis, “and they have the honesty to admit this reality in order to change it when so many people are falsifying it.”

“The future that seemed to be brightening up [during the uprising] has been rendered very dim and very bleak.”

The controversial law regulating protests penalises unauthorised demonstrations with up to seven years in prison. Critics of the regulation say because of its pervasive use that it’s a tool to silence dissent. The speed and frequency by which hundreds of activists and students have been tried and sentenced in accordance with the law has sent a chilling message across revolutionary circles: protesting could cost you years of jail time.

At least three prominent activists from the 2011 uprising are serving three-year prison sentences for organising an unauthorised protest. The authorities have come under fire from human rights groups for “wide scale repression” in the words of Amnesty International, and “extra-judicial killings” of Islamists and mass arrests according to Human Rights Watch. Critics also accuse the government of linking its clampdown on public dissent with its war on terrorism and the insurgency in Sinai.

Abdel-Fattah believes that when he was referred to a court dealing with terrorism offences, without much of an uproar, “[the authorities] decided they have an opportunity for the first time in history to hand us prison sentences and to quash us. Even Mubarak didn’t go that far.”

Abdel-Fattah was detained in 2006 under Mubarak then in 2011 following his ouster, under the then de facto military rule that succeeded him. He was questioned by the public prosecutor during Morsi’s one year in power but wasn’t detained, though he was put on a travel ban that hasn’t been revoked. He can’t remember the total number of times he was arrested or summoned for questioning.

“Each regime thinks I’m a leader, that I’m central and important,” he says, holding his glass of fresh guava juice in a café he “dislikes” in Downtown Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street — the site of a bloody battle between protestors and security forces in 2011. Although he doesn’t move masses, nor does he claim to have a constituency, Abdel-Fattah is an inspiration for many youth, despite — or because of — his often maverick views. He never joined a political party and maintains his independence. In his yellow English-Arabic "Meedan" t-shirt and long black curls, he fits the image of the secular anti-state anarchist his pro-military critics like to project of him.

In fact his mix of fiery, defiant and humerous tweets are often the subject of lengthy comment and attacks in the top daily TV talk shows and in one occasion the military spokesman issued a statement denying what was practically a joke Abdel-Fattah made on his timeline.

Politically active since his early 20s and one of Egypt's first advocates of open-source software, Abdel-Fattah represented a new and rising breed of young tech-savvy political activists who fueled the dissent movement against Mubarak almost a decade ago. The blog he maintains with his wife, Manal, also served as a news aggregator and was one of the primary sources for information that never found its way into the mainstream media. It was the peak of Egypt’s famed vibrant blogosphere in 2005 and Abdel-Fattah — a savvy computer geek since his early childhood years — who was already one of its stars, ridiculed the attention he was getting as mere “fetishism” with Egyptian bloggers when the more important work was happening on the ground, not in cyberspace.

A year later he was detained for 45 days with dozens of activists for participating in a peaceful protest in solidarity with a group of judges demanding the independence of the judiciary. The judge presiding over his case tomorrow was accused of electoral fraud in a complaint submitted to the minister of justice in 2013 by two lawyers, including National Council For Human Rights member Ragia Omran.

Abdel-Fattah’s bitterness at those who were “once” his comrades, intellectuals and opposition figures in general comes second only to his loathing of the “repressive” system. The revolutionary stream “was too sluggish in understanding the magnitude of the threats [facing them] and reluctant in taking the decision to resist it. That’s what hurts the most.”

He says that the past two months since his release were an opportunity to make noise and cow the authorities into suspending this and other cases, “but the comrades didn’t [seize it] and assumed things will clear up on their own.”

Lately Abdel-Fattah has been discussing arrangements regarding the possibility of his arrest tomorrow or later with his family of activists. He says his two-and-a-half-year-old son, Khaled, lost his speech because of post-traumatic stress conveyed to him by the extreme state of depression that befell Abdel-Fattah and his wife last year as they saw the return of military rule coming, three months before Morsi’s overthrow on 3 July 2013.

“Everybody except Morsi and the Brotherhood could see what was coming as early as January 2013, but they were blind, too busy being petty and filing complaints against me,” he says.

There was an overt call by the people to summon the military to take over, which is what he believes 30 June was about. And yet he “reluctantly” participated in the massive protests against Morsi that day, but as part of “what we jokingly called the infantile left’s demonstrations against both the military and the Brotherhood,” which didn’t work and was swallowed by the sea of police and military cheering protestors.

Their attempt, he says, was futile, but not a mistake. “It’s naïve to think that a single act in one day led to where we are now. It was a path and an overall mentality by the Brotherhood that made us walk that road. There’s also a view shared by a sector of secularists that clearly wants the military to be in charge.”

But this wasn’t inevitable, he says. Secular forces could have done something, but “they were unwilling and decided that there’s no difference between the Brotherhood and the military, so why step in?” Abdel-Fattah says that attempts to form two revolutionary blocs to counter the polarisation as early as January 2012 were deliberately sabotaged by some Nasserists.

Today, Abdel-Fattah thinks the only role revolutionaries can play at this volatile juncture is, ironically, to “seek stability” and act as the “breaks” to the “obsession by society’s conservative forces to wipe out the other and aggravate infighting.”

This is hardly the life he imagined for himself and his wife when they moved to South Africa to live with a “victorious” nation six years ago. After three years of living there he came to appreciate the achievements that were made after the initial disappointment at the goals that were never met in the post-apartheid country. “I knew then that revolutions don’t triumph but they make an important difference.”

He returned to Cairo a week into the January uprising with cautious expectations. “I knew that the ceiling of our revolution wasn’t high, that there was going to be compromises, but that didn’t mean I compromised the dreams in my head,” he says.

That was then. Now Abdel-Fattah is dominated by prison thoughts. “Muslim Brotherhood [prisoners] write ‘You are the group even if you are alone’ on the prison cell’s wall. This time around I’ll write: ‘You are alone even if you are part of a group.'”

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