Dedicated to Abolishing War, Establishing Justice, and Fighting Climate Disaster

Dedicated to Abolishing War, Establishing Justice, and Fighting Climate Disaster

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated

Originally published at Counter Punch

In 2011, during the early days of the Arab Spring, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, 29-year-old software developer, blogger, and activist, made history as one of the leading architects of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, which led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak. This year, on November 18, Alaa turned 41 in one of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s notoriously brutal prisons, convicted of “spreading false news.”

One of Egypt’s estimated 60,000-to-65,000 political prisoners, Alaa has spent nine of his last ten years in prison, isolated from family, friends, his political work, and often subjected to torture. Because Alaa’s life is about connecting people-ideas-countries-political movements, the Sisi regime has severed him, for years at a time, from the outside world – no internet, radio, paper, pencil, music, books, no access to the written word. Last April, because he wanted out one way or another, Alaa began a hunger strike.

One of Egypt’s estimated ~65,000 political prisoners, Alaa has spent nine of his last ten years in prison
Hoping the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh would draw attention to Alaa and Egypt’s thousands of other prisoners, Alaa’s family and supporters ramped up a global campaign for his release. In fact, “Free Alaa” became more newsworthy at times than the climate crisis. If you followed COP27 coverage, you’ll know about Alaa’s fast: how he began by taking 100 calories per day; how, on November 1, he stopped even those calories; how, on November 6, COP27’s first day, he began refusing even water. Because Alaa has dual citizenship with Britain, UK Prime Minister Sunak and other world leaders, including President Biden, have made – apparently unsuccessful – attempts to free him.

COP27 is over now; the cameras have left and news of Alaa Abd El-Fattah is harder to get. After a near-death experience, Alaa has stopped his hunger strike, but may well resume it. At the time of this writing, he seems to be alive. His mother and a few family members have been able to visit Alaa, through a glass barrier, but the Sisi regime shows no sign of releasing him.

Living History

While Alaa was in the world, he wrote articles, gave speeches, posted on Facebook, and tweeted some 290,000 times. Inside prison, when allowed the materials, he managed to write — and smuggle out ­– letters, reflections, political analyses, and essays for Mideastern outlets like Mada Masr and al Shorouk, and Western papers like The Guardian.

In the midst of world wars and climate emergency, we need to pay attention to one lone man
Luckily, the editors at Seven Stories Press are onto this. They’ve combed through Alaa’s writings to assemble some of his most prescient work, and got Naomi Klein to write a rather spectacular Foreword (“The text you are holding is living history…”). The result is You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, a powerfully original book, that explains why, in the midst of world wars and climate emergency, we need to pay attention to one lone man who’s bartering his life to win back a little justice – and probably losing.

Of the Egyptian revolution, Alaa writes, “We have been defeated, and meaning has been defeated with us.” This is, in fact, a profoundly disturbing statement. It forces leftists and progressives in less authoritarian countries to ask: How willing are we to countenance our own losses; our own loss of meaning? What does Alaa’s defeat mean for us; what do our defeats mean for movements like the Arab Spring?

I Regret Not Escaping to Gaza

Underlying the Arab Spring, of course, are centuries of losses that the Middle East suffered, due to colonizing Western powers. When liberation movements – Pan-Africanism, the Bandung conference, Che Guevara’s “Two-Three-Many Vietnams” – battled to turn these losses around, there were great successes; there were also great defeats. Alaa – his 21st-century software expertise and cyber-activism notwithstanding – comes by this battle honestly.

His father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam, was a dedicated communist who worked in Lebanon with the Palestinian resistance and earned two law degrees inside Egyptian prisons during the Mubarak years. In his essay, “Palestine on My Mind,” Alaa writes:

My earliest childhood memories are of our family hiding out on the Mediterranean coast. … [My father] spent five years in prison. When he came out he had the option to leave the country, but he picked up his life and resumed the struggle. When he died he was buried in his homeland …. He never regretted the decision.

Alaa’s mother, Laila Soueif, has been a political organizer since at least the Anwar Sadat regime, and is a noted feminist and mathematics professor. Alaa’s younger sisters, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif, are human rights activists who have both spent time in Egyptian prisons. But Alaa’s family, formidable as it is, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; they’re among millions who want and have worked for some kind of pro-democracy revolution.

In fact, the specter of “revolution” haunts nearly all of Alaa’s texts, whether it’s the speech he gave in Silicon Valley at the 2011 RightsCon, addressing a bunch of cyber-nerds on human rights (“What needs to happen is a complete change … we’re not trying to control our users, we’re not complicit with governments…”); or a few months later, in

The specter of “revolution” haunts nearly all of Alaa’s texts
Egypt’s Torah Prison, when he’s over the moon at meeting his newborn son, Khaled, whom he was allowed to hold for half an hour (“My God! How come he’s so beautiful? … Now I understand … my happiness is resistance, holding Khaled is continuing the struggle…”).

Alaa’s deep study of the South African anti-apartheid freedom movement informs much of his work, especially his hopeful, early essay on rewriting the Egyptian Constitution, and his thoughts on Palestine (“I regret not escaping to Gaza … we are Arabs and Palestine’s always on our mind.”)

Because the cyberworld offers infinite prospects for international human connection, Alaa’s revolution seems more lateral and spontaneous than the top-down, Marxist-Leninist models of his parents’ generation. “The key to shaping the new world,” Alaa writes, is “information technology,” free and open software that can help stem global monopolies. Politically, we haven’t lost if we can connect:

We connected our criticism of the negative effects of intellectual property rights in software with its effects on the pharmaceutical industry, and found ourselves engaged with social issues, like the right to healthcare. We connected our criticism of corporate monopolies to criticism of neoliberal globalization, and found common ground with a broad spectrum of activists around the world…

Lucky Us

Given the fact that Alaa Abd El-Fattah and thousands like him spend years behind bars, convicted on absurd charges like fake-news-mongering, it’s easy to slide into a warm bath of gratitude for how comparatively lucky we in the West are to live in democratic bastions of free speech. Here, in the United States, we’re allowed to show up on our own streets – albeit inside ever-tightening barricades – to call for equality, justice, even revolution. But it’s probably this very “luck” that makes us insensate to the fact that we’re losing, too.

Fighting corporations, cops, imperialism, we love to show pictures of ourselves, protesting. Raised fists, clever hand-lettered signs, open mouths shouting defiant words, crowds of us demanding Justice – as if the act of protest, in itself, is some sort of victory.

What comes after those photogenic uprisings?
In 2011, we looked at the photos of the thousands protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and called it a revolution. But after Mubarak came Morsi, then Sisi. Now, on the streets of Iran – maybe China – there are more revolutions. What comes after those photogenic uprisings? How do we keep tabs on things after we’ve stormed the Winter Palace? Read Alaa’s book for the strong suggestion that we on the left would do well to define ourselves by our defeats as well as our ideals; else we lose sight of how our ideals fade over time.

For example, the United States holds political prisoners. A fraction of Egypt’s number but, along with Leonard Peltier, there are aging Black Panther and Black Liberation Army members languishing behind walls, also younger Water Protectors and climate activists. These people represent movements that call for a new world of justice, equality, liberation – bland words in themselves, but the changes they demand are radical. These days, however, our most radical demand has become simply asking the government to let our people out of prison. How does a loss like this, over the years, downsize political vision?

Even After Defeat

Weakened as we may be, seeing what we’ve lost simply means we’re still alive and thinking. “Nothing will constrain the strong,” Alaa writes, “nor shape the margins of freedom and justice, nor define spaces of beauty and possibilities for a common life except the weak, who clung to their defence of meaning, even after defeat.”

Finally, lest we in the States feel too lucky, there’s the fact that our country, where many of us experience societal privileges that thousands of Egyptian prisoners would give an arm for, is responsible for regimes like Sisi’s imprisoning them in the first place. Asked if US arbitration could release her son, Laila Soueif told Democracy Now: “You train their police officers… The helicopters they use to track people in the desert, this is U.S. This whole Sisi thing is a U.S. security operation.”

Freeing Alaa Abd El-Fattah wouldn’t bring on the revolution. But, given that everything is connected, it might free us all, a little. “One thing I do remember,” writes Alaa,

One thing I know, is that the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

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