In Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s Prison Writings, the Flame of Egypt’s Revolution Still Burns

Alaa Abd el-Fattah is a leading Egyptian dissident, today held in a maximum security jail in Cairo. His prison writings express the living thought of the Egyptian revolution, defying the Sisi government’s attempt to extinguish it.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah sits with his family and supporters in a waiting room at Cairo's High Court prior to a hearing on March 26, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. (Ed Giles / Getty Images)

In an early chapter of his notebooks, mostly written in prison, Egyptian dissident and writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah tells of how he used his country’s brief window of democracy following the 2011 revolution. After the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in 2012 and eased the blockade of Gaza, he visited this Palestinian territory, crossing a border that would soon be resealed, as it remains today.

There, invoking a common description of Gaza as a sort of open-air prison, he writes — with typical care neither to romanticize nor trivialize — that in life, it is prisoners who best understand freedom. Only because this sentiment flows from Alaa’s own pen does it seem acceptable to suggest that even from a jail cell in Egypt, he has a freedom of mind that many in the West do not possess even outside of one.

The Canadian writer Naomi Klein writes a foreword to a new US edition of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated in which she makes the assertion — hard to contest — that in this book you are reading living history. Klein also touches upon the point that perhaps the most important word in the book is the first one — the opening to its superb, vital title: You.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah is today kept in the maximum security Torah prison, just outside of Cairo. One of the most prominent thinkers and writers of the Egyptian revolution, Alaa comes from a political family, and has the unfortunate distinction of having been imprisoned or persecuted in each phase of Egypt’s recent political history: under Hosni Mubarak, during the brief period of elected Muslim Brotherhood rule, and — in the backlash after its failure — the present, probably most brutal government, under former army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

From his cells, Alaa has done a monumental service to people anywhere concerned with the destiny of democracy, as he sketches the contours of political change at its most urgent. He has lived, and thus writes of, circumstances where physical violence is so acute and political expression so oppressed that you cannot be made to shy from the urgency of reform by the frowns of polite society or the false prophets of false equivalence.

Alaa’s political references fluently range from South Africa and the African National Congress to the monopolistic pitfalls of Silicon Valley and startup financing. For him, these global ideas clearly sit — as they often do not — side by side his own struggle for democracy at home.

Not Giving Up on Humanity

In an early episode in the book, the reader is offered a telling moment in the midst of revolution. A low-income Coptic family, never served by the Egyptian state, are persuaded to compromise their religious observation upon the death of their son, so that an autopsy might be performed, police brutality proven, and justice done. Alaa describes the act of transcendence in such a moment; the poor and unjustly bereaved are persuaded to believe in a justice and a politics that has never been present — and to place the fragile promise that this might indeed be possible above the tradition and faith that is all they have ever had.

Alaa’s large heart and eloquence allow him to outline the meaning of such a moment with a clarity that most writers, journalists, and political thinkers could never have done. Indeed, it seems that his Western counterparts often earn their platforms and pay precisely on condition that they could never do so.

In other moments, Alaa recounts the anger of a game of football between another new intake of dissidents into the prison. The match is played to an undercurrent of resentments and uncertainties based on who has been in which prison, for how long, and who has been tortured on his way there. In this instance like so many, Alaa shows his colossal determination always to insist on humanity, with all its blemishes. By his service of simply caring enough to write it all, he gives the reader a chance to process and act on the information and analysis, without the trauma of those forced to experience such brutality.

To say that You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is an important book is not to do it justice. Again, that opening word — You — is needed to give this book the impact it deserves. It would be impossible to read this work only as the sort of cultural product that some political and even notionally radical writing can take on, but it would also be a sin to read it and not at least be fortified in steadfastness against the frowns of a polite-but-corrupted society that still resists the imperative of material change in either Egypt or among its Western backers.

Ever self-aware, Alaa contrasts the relative privilege and lesser tortures reserved for known dissidents such as he, compared to the poor, or the people of Sinai, or many of those from the Muslim Brotherhood. Among the lesser forms of torture he notes are smear campaigns, trivialization of serious issues, and character assassination. If it would be wrong to directly compare the suffering of those in jail to those outside, it would be equally mistaken not to draw the parallel with the methods of soft repression inside the West’s managed democracies, and to steel yourself with Alaa’s fortitude.

In keeping with this global calling, Alaa’s train of thought is relentlessly universal. He references Vodafone’s infamous decision to cut communications to protesters during key moments in the run-up to the Egyptian revolution (while using footage from the revolution to advertise the service they had supposedly provided). But he is also realistic in his assessment that — in true “banality of evil” style — whoever took the decision or drew up the contract allowing Hosni Mubarak’s government such power may not even have been aware that they had done so. Alaa references Vodafone’s political lobbying for “competitive” tax policy in the United Kingdom, pouring rightful scorn on the idea of corporations as politically neutral bodies. But more than that, this is one of many examples demonstrating how deeply Alaa’s words cut right to the heart of the Western world, which he often seems to grasp more fully from a Cairo jail than many political commentators in London or Manhattan.

Closer to home, Palestine is a consistent feature of the essays, along with an awareness that — particularly in Gaza — Palestinian liberty has been sacrificed to the Israeli government even more assertively than other Arab populations were subjugated beneath their own despots and cronies. Clearly Alaa must be released, and the Sisi government — which enjoys no internal legitimacy but much US funding — cannot go on. But Alaa asserts more directly than most how integrally these goals now also relate to progress in ending Israeli apartheid in Palestine, which even in the West ever more people are coming to understand as the knot from which so much regional tyranny unravels.

Western Guilt

Sisi is doubtless the principal culprit in the detention of Alaa. But in reading his essays, it is hard not to consider two Western figures who have been pivotal to the situation that has seen Alaa, his sisters, and up to a hundred thousand other Egyptians made into political prisoners.

First among them is Barack Obama, with his administration’s decision not to declare the 2013 killing spree at Rabaa Square — when hundreds and possibly a thousand Muslim Brotherhood members were massacred by the Sisi government — as part of the coup it so clearly was. To do so would have legally barred the United States from continuing the billions of dollars of military aid that still flows to Cairo, and which helps lock in the violence by which Sisi wrested Egypt from democracy back to dictatorship.

If we are generous, Obama can be granted some allowances in that those few precious months of Egyptian democracy were chaotic, marked also by state violence. During them, the Muslim Brotherhood foolishly did much to undermine the democratic revolution they had just helped win. This should not obscure the role of the tens of billions of dollars given by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to help Sisi and his goons take power, nor the blind eye Obama turned toward this. But perhaps, just maybe, something of that sinister label “complex” can at least be applied to his approach.

No such mitigating factor exists for French president Emmanuel Macron, who by a callousness that can only rightly be called evil saw fit as recently as 2020 to pin a Légion d’Honneur to Sisi’s bloodstained breast. Macron has many Bonapartist tendencies and vanities, but in no other instance has this slight politician truly been so small, nor shown himself so lowly an opponent of democracy anywhere on earth, particularly where practiced by either Arabs or Muslims.

Without indulging the increasingly common EU practice of raising white, European lives to higher values, the tyranny in Macron’s blessing of Sisi was only compounded — to the fury of many across the Alps — by his ability also to overlook the Sisi government’s torture and murder of Italian labor researcher, Giulio Regeni. Macron got a large-ish ($4.5 billion) order of fighter jets from Sisi for his troubles, but the total shaming of the entire French state, and its highest “honor,” might have been thought to be worth more.


Although Alaa doesn’t spare the Muslim Brotherhood criticism for its failure to immediately pull down the structures of the Mubarak government, he refuses to throw it under the bus of despotism. Whatever their obvious political differences, he honors the lives of thousands in the Brotherhood who were killed as the Sisi government brutalized its way into office and then labeled the group a terrorist organization. He does not — as nobody should — obfuscate the fact that the horror of Rabaa Square is the monstrosity from which at some point Egypt and its democracy will have to be rebuilt.

It is this determination, and Alaa’s determination to stand with everyone in pursuit of Egyptian democracy — the poor, the Muslim, the Coptic Christian, the trade unionist, the urban liberal — that gives his words their force. In them he creates a political map that can be replicated elsewhere, particularly in places where politics is not throttled by denial of rights to the extent that Egyptians suffer. Here, often it would only take a fraction of Alaa’s courage and — equally important — clarity of thought.

In an essay toward the end of the collection, Alaa draws strength from learning of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli attacks in the summer of 2021. With his signature inability to disconnect his experience from the outside world, he writes that “the tragedy I am living is but my share of yours.”

The line is a beautiful invocation of perhaps the most recurring theme in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated; namely, the assertion that indignity and injustice cannot be confined only to those who suffer it, without also inducing guilt, shame, and even a weakening for the perpetrator, the complicit, the silent and indifferent.

Wherever they are now to be read, his essays will have a liberating effect that has to be internalized, perhaps particularly in Western readers, who must now return this favor, to Alaa and to Egypt. Free them all.