Putting the State on Trial

Tom Stevenson

There used to be a joke in Cairo that Egyptian presidents had two stock responses to an emergency: close the central Sadat metro station and arrest Alaa Abd El-Fattah. An activist in the Tahrir Square movement in 2011 (as well as the son of an important communist dissident), Alaa first experienced Egypt’s prison system in 2006 as a result of his street activism. After the 2011 uprising he was arrested again. Since the military coup in 2013 he has spent most of his time behind bars. He was today sentenced to a further five years for ‘spreading false news’.

Egypt has thousands of political prisoners, but Alaa has become something of a symbol of the popular uprising. One measure of his importance is that the state prosecutor used to issue warrants for his arrest through the national media rather than over normal channels. Yet despite near constant incarceration, over the past decade Alaa has been a prolific writer. Fitzcarraldo Editions recently published a new collection of his work.

Alaa’s writing is a record of radical thought from the Tahrir occupation, through the violent counter revolution of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (‘a revolution so fragile a stray bullet could end it’), the brief collaboration between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, the 2013 military coup and its attendant massacres, and the extrajudicial executions of the Sisi regime. There is cutting criticism of the state written from prison cells with ‘record breaking cockroach density’. His speeches in court display the rare bravery of a man putting the state on trial at his own hearings.

The Tahrir movement was quickly outflanked by the army. It was the generals who jettisoned Hosni Mubarak in 2011, ruled after his resignation, and continue to rule with such brutality today. An essay entitled ‘Graffiti for Two’ combines Alaa’s political analysis with poetry by another high-profile political prisoner, Ahmed Douma. The two men composed it by shouting between their prison cells. Alaa reflects on the defeat of a movement that believed in a myth of youth salvation by ‘young officers’. All revolutionaries, he writes, ‘attempt and fail to return to a time of innocence and childhood, and end up in a state of late adolescence’.

In an influential book on the Arab Spring, Asef Bayat observed that the movements took the form of reformist uprisings rather than revolutions in the twentieth-century sense. Most of the demonstrators set their sights short of an attempt to seize power. Instead they demanded that the state ‘carry out meaningful reforms on behalf of the revolution’. A class-based political movement did not develop in Egypt. The landlords were not deposed. The uprising created a revolutionary experience among committed activists, but it did not produce even thwarted revolutionary outcomes.

Bayat also argued that ‘no visionary intellectual current seemed to accompany the Arab Spring.’ But Alaa’s writing is clear evidence of such a current. He regrets that the revolutionaries, and he himself, were guilty of ‘the crime of lack of rigour’ at the critical moment. But it was the Egyptian military regime and its international supporters that suppressed radical political formations wherever it found them. While President Sisi hosts royal visits from Britain, and Western weapons companies continue to arm the junta, the work of Alaa and other Egyptian dissidents remains an example of intellectual creativity and moral integrity.


  • 29 December 2021 at 2:57am
    nlowhim says:
    Thanks for the recommendation, looks like another book I'll have to read. Been wanting some more details on this revolution betrayed. All one gets in the US is something like twitter "helped" at the start, then things went array. The amount of blindness to what the dictator is now doing doesn't surprise me anymore, it's yet something else to be numb to.