In January of this year, the tenth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution passed by unceremoniously. A decade on, 60,000 political prisoners remain in jail, a reminder that Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s current regime is still terrified of its memory. Throughout the decade that has elapsed since the revolution, the prospects for the Left in Egypt have not been favorable. Widespread suppression of opposition has meant that critical voices against the regime have not been able to organize politically.
Within this repressive context, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, author of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (YHNYBD), has been one of the most persistent and high-profile critics of Egypt’s authoritarian state. In YHNYBD, Alaa Abd el-Fattah attempts to defend the legacy of the revolution against its detractors and to bear witness to his government’s continued use of violence to suppress opposition.
Of the 60,000 political prisoners currently in the custody of the Egyptian state, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, colloquially referred to as Alaa, is undoubtably the most famous. A staunch critic of all of Egypt’s postrevolutionary governments, he has spent the better part of the past decade in jail. Alaa has been imprisoned by the three successive governments of Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, and al-Sisi. His confrontations with Egypt’s authoritarian governments have garnered him support across the world, and in Egypt the hashtag #FreeAlaa has been a constant presence on social media since 2006.
To understand the significance of Alaa, one must situate him within the context of the over half-century long decline of the Egyptian left. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Egyptian left has not recovered from the country’s 1967 defeat to Israel in the Six-Day War. The defeat symbolized not only the end of pan-Arabism, but more importantly Arab socialism.
After the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s third president, initiated the Open Door policy, or Infitah, a project that led Egypt to adopt free market principles and US-friendly foreign policy. This new geopolitical realignment included signing a peace treaty with Israel, adopting the structural adjustments recommended by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and building closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This last step change resulted in the infiltration of Wahhabism into Egypt and the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood, who sought to oppose Nasserites and the Egyptian left. Regardless of what one sees as the structural causes for this decline, it is indisputable that, when Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981, the Egyptian left was substantially fractured.
Mubarak’s political project continued the pro-capitalist policies initiated by Sadat. Mubarak built stronger ties between Egypt’s business elites and the ruling class but continued to suppress political parties. On January 25, 2011, the Egyptian people succeeded in deposing Mubarak after occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo for eighteen days. When Mubarak fell, there were no existing popular parties or democratic mechanisms to fill the void.
While the 2011 revolutionaries were experimenting with democratic expression in the square, the Muslim Brotherhood — the only organized party allowed to exist — took power. Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012, after a rushed and contested election. In the summer of 2013, Morsi was removed in a popular coup. The same problems remained: Counterrevolutionary forces were able to outflank opponents of the regime who, despite having the resolve to confront the state, were unable to overturn the old power structures.
It is under these incredibly unenviable conditions that Alaa has risen to prominence as one of the most perceptive and persistent critics of the Egyptian state.
A Radical Upbringing
The uniquely online nature of Alaa’s politics makes sense once one takes into consideration the nature of the current Egyptian state. The web has provided activists with community and anonymity, two weapons against a state quick to suppresses opposition. Within this world of online activism, Alaa has staked a claim for himself as one of the Egyptian state’s most insightful critics.
Often described as a “digital revolutionary” by his supporters within and beyond Egypt for his efforts to promote citizen journalism online, the software engineer Alaa first made his name as a blogger and political activist. For a whole generation of Egyptians that have come of age in the postrevolutionary era, Alaa has been an emblem of political dissent. He famously documented the January revolution by posting videos on social media and blogging about the myriad of protests that took place in its aftermath. Despite being arrested numerous times before and after the revolution, Alaa would continue to write and share information about the abuses carried out at the hands of the Egyptian state.
Since September 2019, Alaa has been held in the maximum security wing of the Tora Prison complex. He is being confined in remand detention on trumped-up charges of belonging to an illegal organization and spreading false information. The Supreme State Security Prosecution renews his detention on a routine basis. The conditions of his current imprisonment are the worst of his multiple detentions dating back to 2006. Alaa does not have access to reading materials, sunlight, or reliably clean water.
Alaa comes from a family with a rich history of activism and dissent. His father Ahmed Seif el-Islam, a human rights attorney, was arrested in 1983 for dissenting against the government and was imprisoned for five years. His mother Laila Soueif is a political activist, a professor of mathematics at Cairo University, and the sister of the renowned Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Alaa’s sister Mona Seif is also a political activist who uses her platform to point out her government’s human rights abuses. It is through Seif’s posts on social media that Alaa’s supporters are able to receive updates on his condition. His other sister, Sanaa, is a filmmaker and activist currently serving an eighteen-month prison sentence.
The entanglements between Alaa’s familial and political life are the source of the deeply personalized way in which he writes and speaks about resistance. In a 2006 interview, he said:
The word activist is meaningless. It was invented as part of a grand conspiracy to divide the world into groups of those who care and those who don’t or something. I believe that there are not activists and nonactivists, there are only acts of activism and degrees of commitment, and in that sense, yeah, I was raised to be an activist. I think before May 25, my political involvement was just an excuse to spend time with my mum. The anti-war protests of 2003 and 2004 were actually a great way to see my mum and dad share something. Somehow the time spent together there was more private than in the big family meetings.
Alaa’s way of describing political events is to always situate himself in relationship to his family. It is as if he saw political protest itself as a family affair to which he could not relate dispassionately.
Documenting the Revolution
YHNYBD is a collection of Alaa’s essays, blog posts, interviews, and social media posts, assembled alongside his public statements to the state prosecutor. It is a testament to a life spent in opposition and, as the title suggests, a plea against despair. The writings in the collection range from prison blogs, reflections on 2011, statements of solidarity with Palestine, and commentaries on the state of technology and surveillance.
A substantial number of the essays in this book — originally published in the Egyptian left-wing newspaper Mada Masr — were smuggled out of his prison cell, and translated into English by his family and friends to be republished in this collection. Very few of the accounts of 2011 that have emerged over the past ten years capture the emotional intensity of the moment and the tragedy of its aftermath as perceptively as Alaa does in YHNYBD. These essays are necessary reading for anyone who wishes to understand the last decade of Egyptian politics.
Ostensibly, the collection seems to be narrowly concerned with Alaa; however, his perspective serves as a lens into contemporary political life in Egypt. As the title suggests, YHNYBD is an attempt to encourage us to look beyond defeat as a framework for interpreting the events of the January revolution:
I don’t know if the revolution is over or not. The revolution is a historical process. When I say defeat I mean in the sense of in a battle. But we’ll continue to exist, and since we’ll continue to exist, there will continue to be other struggles.
It is as an attempt to instill in readers the fortitude and strength for these future struggles that Alaa’s collection should be read.
Alaa was one of the first people in Egypt to start using Facebook and Twitter for what would later come to be known as citizen journalism. Political commentary through article-length Facebook posts, statements to the state prosecutor, and consecutive tweets are collected in this edition alongside his longer-form articles. The latter were originally published in Egyptian outlets such as Al-Shorouk and Mada Masr as well as English-language newspapers like the Guardian before being reprinted in this collection. The boundaries between personal diary, official statement, and journalism are therefore blurred in YHNYBD.
YHNYBD is really a book about January and its aftermath. Not in the form of a straightforward journalistic recording of events, but an attempt to convey the passions and the frustrations that the moment made possible. Throughout the chronologically arranged essays, the reader gets a sense of how Alaa’s voice changes as his imprisonment continues and the world around him appears even more impervious to change.
The focus on the personal is therefore not simply a quirk of Alaa’s style of expression; it is testament to the fact that, in Egypt, the boundaries between the personal and the political are not respected by political authorities. It is, for example, not uncommon for Egyptian police to stop people in downtown Cairo and ask to see their Facebook accounts.
The Memory of Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square was both a collective and a personal experience for Alaa — this is the central tension of his book. Alaa often writes and speaks in a self-deprecating way about his own personal involvement in Egypt’s opposition movement. For instance, in November 2013, he tweeted, “Déjà vu, I’m about to hand myself in to the authorities again on Saturday. My ever-imminent arrest is now a running joke in Egypt.”
Alaa’s relationship to his own history of imprisonment is a complex one. In the early postrevolutionary years, he embraced a somewhat romantic view of the value of confronting the establishment. In his characteristically emotive style, he wrote in December 2011:
We go to the square to discover that we love life outside it, and to discover that our love for life is resistance. We race toward the bullets because we love life, and we walk into prison because we love freedom.
Compare this statement, brimming with optimism, to another made by Alaa three years later: “What is adding to the oppression that I feel is that I find that this imprisonment is serving no purpose. It is not resistance, and there is no revolution.”
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once quipped that “for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” Alaa is proof of the truth of this dictum. It is not that he has in anyway relinquished his homeland. Rather, the hollowing out of the extraparliamentary opposition to the Egyptian state following the revolution has left radicals without a source of political community. It is impossible to understand what is unique about Alaa without recognizing this basic fact.
To conflate Alaa’s writings with solipsistic musings would therefore be to miss the point. He is at his best when writing about the brutality of the Egyptian state. In “To Be With the Martyrs, For That Is Far Better,” published in October 2011, he documents the horrific Maspero massacre. Three hundred Egyptians were injured and thirty, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed by police, who mowed down the protesters with armored personnel carriers close to the Egyptian Radio and Television Union building.
At the time, the incident was ignored by state media, which continues to deny the military’s involvement in the killings. Alaa’s account is bone-chilling precisely because he does not attempt to hide his emotions. The loss was collective, but it was also personal. Mina Daniel, one of Alaa’s Tahrir comrades, was killed in Maspero. Shortly after, Alaa was arrested for his involvement in the events. His wife was eight months pregnant at the time and gave birth while he was in jail.
For Alaa, international struggles across the Global South remain firmly in view. Palestine in particular features constantly in his writings. Alaa reminds us how closely intertwined the Palestinian cause is to the anti-regime movement in Egypt. In a March 2014 Democracy Now! interview, he compares the tactics of the Israeli and Egyptian militaries:
It’s almost as if they’re copying from the Israelis. They actually uproot olive trees, demolish houses. When an attack against the military happens, they go and demolish the houses of the families that are related to the people they accuse of the attack.
In 2018, the New York Times published an article exposing covert operations between the Egyptian and Israeli military. Such revelations show that the comparison between the two regimes is not superficial.
Alaa, we should not forget, is the product of the social and historical conditions in Egypt that render collective action and political organization impossible. This means that resistance increasingly takes the form of singular heroic acts. Within this context, it is understandable that a figure like Alaa could have risen to prominence both in Egypt and across the world as a symbol of opposition to authoritarianism.
Alaa is in no way naïve and recognizes this tension himself. In the collection’s titular essay, he writes:
What am I to do with a political self — torn from its ordinary physical and human context? How do I live as a symbol however iconic it may be. . . . Alaa Seif, Alaa Abd el-Fattah was a role I played in the public sphere. Now . . . I don’t know.
As remarkable a figure as Alaa clearly is, socialist politics cannot proceed by lionizing individuals. The task for the Left within Egypt and across the world must be to build a movement bigger than any one individual, to create a form of resistance that is not reliant on martyrdom. We should not read this book to make an exception of Alaa. At his best, he attempts to speak to, and to bring into existence, a movement bigger than himself.
Free Alaa, free Sanaa, and free all of the other prisoners whose names have gone unheard.