Free Alaa Abdel Fattah
On Wednesday 11 June, the Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was one of 25 people sentenced to 15 years in prison for organising an illegal protest last November. Abdel Fattah is a 32-year-old software developer and blogger, and an habitué of Egypt’s street protests, court rooms and jails. He was first detained in 2006, under Mubarak, for protesting in favour of an independent judiciary. Supporters organised a 'Free Alaa' campaign. After being held for six weeks without charge, he was released.
He comes from a family of activists. His father, Ahmed Saif El Islam, was jailed and tortured in the 1980s for his involvement in the socialist movement. Today he heads one of the country’s best-known law centres, specialising in cases of torture and human rights violations. Abdel Fattah's mother, Leila Soueif, teaches at Cairo University and has campaigned against police on campus. His aunt is Ahdaf Soueif. His sister, Mona Saif, launched a movement against military trials for civilians. He met his wife, Manal Hassan, at a summer computer camp when they were teenagers. They launched Alaa and Manal’s Bit Bucket, an award-winning platform for Egyptian blogs. Her father, Bahaeddin Hassan, is one of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates.
In the last years of Mubarak's rule, Abdel Fattah and Manal moved to South Africa, where they started a software development company. Then the uprising broke out and they went back in Cairo. By the time their son was born at the end of 2011 – they named him Khaled after Khaled Said, the young Alexandrian beaten to death by police in 2010 – Abdel Fattah was in prison again.
In October 2011 (when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was running the country) he took part in a protest against religious discrimination led by Christian Egyptians. The soldiers protecting the TV and radio headquarters in central Cairo opened fire, and ran over several protesters with armoured vehicles. TV presenters inside the building said the army was under attack from Christians; young Muslims who lived nearby joined the clashes. The next day, the families of the 27 dead had to fight to get accurate forensic reports from the morgue. Alaa wrote about it all. He was accused of incitement, illegal assembly, stealing weapons and attacking army personnel. He refused to accept the military prosecutor's authority or answer his questions. In 2011 the 'revolutionary youth' still had some leverage. After two months in jail, and another campaign to free him, he was released.
Since last November, it has been illegal to stage any assembly of more than 10 people without police permission (large pro-military rallies are exempt). The day after the law was passed, a small group of demonstrators stood in front of the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house, to voice their objection to the new constitution that preserved the military's vast power. They were dispersed with water cannon and beatings. Abdel Fattah was among them. He and others were charged with organising an illegal protest; he was also accused of stealing a policeman’s walkie-talkie. Abdel Fattah said he would turn himself in. Before he could do so, the police broke down the door of his house and beat him and Manal when they asked to see a warrant.
Throughout his various detentions, Abdel Fattah has spoken about his feelings of 'shame' – at not being tortured, at receiving more attention than other detainees – and, lately, about his doubts as to whether his ordeal serves any useful purpose.
'The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep,' he wrote in a letter to his sisters last December.
I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept. And what is adding to the oppression that I feel, is that I find imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution... You know that I hate the whole ‘You are free and imprisonment will not be able to break you’ tone. Every time I am jailed, a piece of me breaks, just like every time someone else is imprisoned, a piece of us breaks.
The list of prominent young Egyptian activists in jail is long already. Ahmad Maher, a founder of the 6 April youth movement, whose members began protesting against Mubarak in 2008, is serving a three-year term. Mahienour El Masry, a 28-year-old Alexandrian lawyer who helped a neighbourhood organise against forced evictions, was given a two-year sentence last month.
When Abdel Fattah’s trial began, it turned out that he had sued the presiding judge, Mohamed El-Fikki, in 2005, for election fraud. The judge wouldn't recuse himself. Last week, while Abdel Fattah and others were prevented from entering the court, he convicted them in absentia. By Egyptian law, when defendants don’t show up in court, they are liable to the harshest sentence. They can also be immediately apprehended. An Egyptian state newspaper claimed that the defendants were “caught” sitting at a nearby cafe. The whole petty process seems to have been designed to intimidate Alaa and his family, take him into custody again immediately, and draw out the process of issuing a final verdict for as long as possible (he can petition for a retrial, but judges usually take a summer recess so it may not begin till the autumn).
Abdel Fattah has 611,000 followers on Twitter. However mixed his feelings about it, he is a leader. There are many more whose names are not well known who disappear every day. According to the Arabic-language information-gathering site WikiThawra, 41,000 people have been arrested or prosecuted and more than 3000 killed in the months since Morsi’s ouster. Human rights groups have documented the widespread use of torture in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons.
On the day he was taken into custody, Alaa told a friend: 'We can’t afford to hope, and we can’t afford to despair.' His last Tweet was: 'I wanted to finish Game of Thrones #DownDownWithMilitaryRule'.