Alaa Abd El Fattah is a writer, programmer, community organizer and activist who constantly generates new meanings to the notion of activism. He has been in political detention during the Hosni Mubarak era, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces interim rule following the January 25 revolution, the military-appointed government in July 3, 2013 and the ensuing rule of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He was threatened with arrest during the short-lived rule of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.
Abd El Fattah’s last imprisonment in November was on charges related to the protest law. After being released in March, he was re-arrested in June after being handed a 15-year prison sentence in absentia even though he was present outside the court the day of the hearing. In September, he was released pending the case, following the judge’s retreat from the hearings.
In those last four months in prison, Abd El Fattah saw his sister arrested, his father die, and an escalating hunger strike campaign among political detainees in which he took part. Even though his last detention was the continuation of a struggle, it was also different in some ways. In this conversation with Lina Attalah, he speaks of resistance in the midst of despair, of taking the fight to the very basic site of life, the body.
[Alaa was imprisoned again shortly after conducting this interview.]
Please find the transcript of the interview below the player. The interview includes three parts that you can click on separately.
From his work with children on using Facebook to ridicule their teachers in the Arab Digital Expression Camps, to his work with pro-democracy activists on using blogs to mobilize thousands of Egyptians against their government in the Kefaya movement, Alaa just loves helping people use ICTs to stick it to the man. By day he works as a free and open source software developer, by night he dons his mask and cape and patrols the streets of Cairo, jumping from campaign to campaign, building websites, providing support and training, looking out for activities in need. He likes to pretend that his work on the Egyptian Blogs Aggregator helped bring in a new era of citizen journalism and usher in a new generation of digital activists, while the rest of the world acts as if his blog is relevant. In 2004, he founded the GNU/Linux users group, a collective for open source software techies and activists. In 2008, together with his wife and long time partner Manal, he founded Arab Techies, a collective of developers, programmers, designers, bloggers and journalists from across the Arab region, who use ICTs actively for social and political change. After moving to South Africa in 2008 to take on a job in software localization, he came back to Egypt in 2011, right in the midst of the occupation of Tahrir Square, and ever since got entangled with Egypt`s unfinished revolution.
Transcribed by Samantha Brotman
Alaa Abd El Fattah (AA): We have made a decision, this time we will be with the fact. The first time, people were still stuck in the progress fallacy. Since we had the revolution, anything that is happening is progress. I felt it is important to express despair. You know, you feel despair anyway when you go to prison. It is enforced clinical depression. For the first time I felt that the correct posture, the correct ruling, the correct tone that I should adopt is one of despair, I guess. So that people stop the treating the state of emergency as temporary, people stop thinking that, "we must be must be moving forward, just because we are moving." But the conscience between what the situation between what the situation looked like in November when I was arrested and in March when I was released for the first time, and then the fiasco that happened around the elections, made me feel this moment has passed. Not that we are strong or the revolution is back, [but] the regime is very weakened, [and likewise], people have stopped using this language of progress or sabr [(patience)], there is more consensus that [30 June] is a catastrophe not a triumph of the masses or [something like that]. I have started growing tired of the discourse of despair, even if I still felt it inside. So we decided that this time we would fight on more regular terms. And we went to weddings and danced and we actually planned a campaign around a solution, and we planned to do our farewell party in Tahrir [Square]. We planned to attend the drawing of the graffiti that is going to be about us as detainees with the rest of my colleagues in the case. So, there was determination within myself, within the family, and within the colleagues that this was going to be a fight.
Well, actually, my father`s decision to do the operation was related to this [because] this is going to be a long-term one so it does not matter that he should be standing in court for every single session and it is more important that he gets his health together. And then they took these two weeks away from us, and almost immediately after we have reached a decision. I do not know if it is related but since they also listen, we thought maybe they are not ready for a confrontation. So, you make sure to agree on these confrontational measures, and this attitude and secure meeting rooms and communication channels and [things like that]. So that we give the message, "if you are not ready, then delay this. Give me three months, so that I can put my efforts together. And you put your efforts together, and then, you know, the fight is going to happen anyway.” That was the mentality. But when they stripped away, when they stole these two weeks from me, it became confusing. There were long moments when I was convinced [that] I would be sentenced to five to seven years. And then I spent one year in prison and they let me out through appeals. And I was resigning myself to this. And I guess I was doing fine in prison. It was less harrowing this time. Only ten days into this new prison term, they arrested Sanaa, my little sister. And that just confused me on a very personal level. She takes care of me when I am in prison. She is the one who does most of the negotiating, most of the fighting with the authorities, and much of the actual support that is not done by Nari, my wife, is done by her. But also, she is the one who was campaigning for me, and other detainees [of course]. So that was a draw on both the political and the personal level. It was also a sign of—they have not done this before with my family and so on—it was a sign of how far they are willing to go.
And then my father`s health deteriorated. That took some time for me to realize that was happening also. [So], at that moment, both the outlook and the attitude changed. The attitude was not resigned anymore. I [was] not going to take this and just continue to pretend that this is a court case. And basically, the lawyers had decided that, "all hope is lost with this charge and so we are working for the appeal." And I had already decided on a hunger strike, even before going into that, but the correct timing for it would have been after being sentenced, and after the appeal has already been submitted, which takes two months after sentencing, and probably after all the big dates where mobilization might [have] happened have passed. So definitely after the anniversary of the revolution, and then, potentially even after a party is elected. So that there is some authority that would be obliged to respond to my hunger strike. And I helped plan it so that it becomes a wave of hunger strikes, and others would join and [things like that]. So that was already planned and discussed both in prison and outside of it.
Once they had put me in prison using the [unclear (00:06:32)] ruling. They started taking their time with the case. I was not so sure that they were going to sentence me quickly. [Of course], Parliament was not forthcoming at all (laughs). We were constantly, like almost every other day, discussing when do we go ahead with the plan for the wave of hunger strikes. When my father`s health deteriorated and they arrested Sanaa it became clear I should just do this now. It made little sense legally because it was a bit risky, legally, which we can see with someone like Mohammed Soltan. If you are under temporary detention but already facing a judge, then you really need pressure from a very high-ranking military officer or the president himself. You need a very high-level of pressure for that judge to change his mind. And, with Mohammed Soltan, the guy seems to be willing to kill him and never change his mind, so I knew I was facing odds like this, but I could not take it anymore. So, the attitude, in that sense, changed. But the outlook also changed. This was a moment of very real despair. And serious conversations about being in the country started, [and things like that]. Again, for personal reasons, I mean, the politics are still confusing and are full of despair, [but] it was about how much of a price I am willing to pay, how much of a price my family is—well, my family seems to be willing to pay any price—[but, I mean], at what point does it stop making sense? What is [my son] Khaled going to inherit in the middle of all this? [Of course], the strike was much more successful than I expected. To get to a point where you have one hundred and forty—is it now?—prisoners on strike. I think we were sixty or eighty in less than a month,that is a number I never expected.
When we planned the wave of strikes we thought we were going to have the well-known activists, the people that we could reach out through our families and through lawyers and so on, to join. But what happened is that tens of students and so on, and ones outside of Cairo, ones with very minimal contact with high-profile activists, went on strike. Ones who were incarcerated in police stations, where you have almost absolutely no rights and no formal procedures or paperwork and so on, went on hunger strike. So that is the bravery of Sanaa`s generation, that is both humbling and surprising. So, it changed the dynamics of that strike. The level of solidarity that we got outside was quite impressive, also in the beginning, although it kind of fizzled—well the sense of solidarity is still there, but I mean the actions, like the solidarity strikes and son on—kind of fizzled after a month, which is understandable. If it was different on many aspects, the texture of it was different also.
Lina Attala (LA): So you visited your dad on his deathbed and then a day later you decided to go on hunger strike then? Maybe you can try to recollect this moment and tell us when you did this, how much limited home was there to just get released and spend these few days with him? And how much was it just coming out of despair? We do know from the letter you sent that you were saying that this is, at this point, this is about my family and this is about our need and our right to be together at this point. But we also never know how far the state can go. So, when you were doing this, what did you have in mind? And also, what did you fear on a very personal level, on the level of your relationship with your own body, what your body can handle and what your body cannot handle. Where were you when you took that decision?
AA: One of the downsides of doing this for a long time and also being under the spotlight in such a crazy and obsessive manner, is that there is little room for spontaneity. So, unfortunately, as much as this was a emotionally intensive, it was actually pretty calculated. I mean, as I told you, I already knew there was going to be a hunger strike before I went in, and I was already concerned with the question of timing. And I kind of knew it would be my feat to start that way. Because, you know, other people, much braver people than me had already started, but it did not turn into a—but I knew. So basically, as I was standing there, shocked at what he looked like, and after he realized how shocked I was, I was actually picking flowers from the mountains garden so that I could take them. We had just exchanged letters a few days before. I think they had just visited me also a couple of days before. So, I knew there were complications but there always seemed to be complications. But the healing process, they were not about the heart. So, it felt like he was getting these incessant bacterial infections and so on. So I was completely unprepared. But as I realized how bad it was—and it was really bad because he was not in a coma, he was unconscious, but he was struggling against his body—it was a terrible emotion. Prison is very difficult, but if your body becomes your prison, and not metaphorically, it was literally, there is something in there that is I do not know if it is awake or conscious or not, but at least it knows that it needs to struggle for survival and no control over the body. Anyway, that is not the image I want to keep of him, so let`s just skip it. But anyway, there was something that [my sister] Mona had said before his health deteriorated that badly. I think it was in the visit that was a couple of days before, I went to see him, where she described him as, he started this process of the operation and healing and so on. He started with a very optimistic outlook, because he is optimistic like that, and he loved life. She said something about him getting tired. So, there was a very also real and personal aspect in which I truly believed, and I still believe, that if me and Sanaa were next to him, the odds might have been different. But at the end of the day, I had this question in head: when do I start my hunger strike? And so, the answer came while I was there in the hospital. And I basically informed everyone that I most probably am going to do this. In that sense, also, the statement is calculated. I am honest that my motivations are personal, so I express that, but I talked about my family`s right to live because this has been what the struggle has been about the past year, about the right to life. And as a prisoner, you really do not have space for anything else. It takes planning to smuggle a letter that is going to express the very real feelings that you have it. So, it cannot be as raw as you just screaming something out, or just going on Twitter and writing the first thing that comes to your mind. Because, anyway, you have to plan how you are going to smuggle it out. There are delays between when you write it and when it is going to get published, and even longer delays until you figure out what the reaction is, and so on. So it is always deliberate and calculated. That is one of the things that prison strips you of, anyway.
But my one moment of spontaneous expression in prison is ending up with me facing court again on Thursday, because I—how do you say--da‘ayt ‘alayhum?
LA: Yeah, prayed that they would leave our world any way or another.
AA: (laughs) And so it was kind of a thing with my body. I stopped trying to contain my weight back in November. Because I knew a hunger strike is going to be required, or might be required at some point. And when I was released the first time I was a bit optimistic, so I started on a diet and started, you know, going to the club to swim or run before coming to the office and so on the first month. And then, when it looked like I was going back to prison, I stopped. I am not saying it is healthy, [but] it is, you know, I need fat so that when I go through this, the impacts are going to be smaller. But also, I am going to deliberately abuse my body, and so to put much planning into and much value into it, by being in shape and looks and so on, is not a good idea for maybe the preparation, even if it is unhealthy. So, it was fine, really. And I am actually coming out looking much better (laughs).
LA: I attest to that.
AA: Yeah. It was weird how un-weird it was for me. While, for instance, for Sanaa or for Dolma, it has been a devastating experience for them, the hunger strike and the relationship with the body. Prison is about absolute control over your body and you are constantly aware of how it is controlled, so you kind of let go, I guess. Everything is in prison, it is not just your body. I mean, of course you resist, and so you resist in the notion that I still have agency over my body and so I can go on hunger strike. But it is some agency, they have stripped you of agency. And so you also resist in the sense of, I do not change my ideas and so on. But you lose the agency there too. They control the flow of information, so you do not know what is going on as such, and you only have access to the channels that they allow you, which immediately impacts and affects your opinions and your thought process and your analysis. They conspire against you constantly while you are in prison, even for the petty stuff, and so you start thinking in terms of conspiracies, even if you deliberately make a political choice not to, like I do, like I try to do. I am trying even to pretend that I have full agency while in prison.
LA: You have written about that in private letters, and it is an issue you always wanted us to be careful with, especially with some tendencies to romanticize imprisonment and all that. But do you also agree with the thought that, besides it being partial agency over the body, there is this other major significance to hunger striking, to the act of you guys hunger striking, and that is with regards to the body being ultimately the site of resistance, really? And that goes when in that in that context of the campaign being about this right to life for this last year, and it mixed up everything, that we are just (laughs), we want to exist, simply speaking. You do not want us to exist. This is how bad reached. And this is what you are fighting for at this point.
AA: The hunger strike is so not normative. Everybody describes completely different symptoms, completely different feelings, completely different cravings. And I think for most of us, once you got into a hunger strike and it has lasted for long enough—mine lasted for a month—is that it turns you back into a body in general audiences` perspective. It might seem quite funny. You know how you complain about being objectified into just a body—especially, I am sure as a woman—or how the state just treats you as a body, just to move from here to there and be contained within that. And you complain about that, but shabab al-thawra [(the youth of the revolution)] has been so abstracted, it is as if we have ceased to have bodies. We are abstractions. You can see that very much with someone like Ahmed Maher. People discuss Ahmed Maher as if they are discussion the 6th of April group. They are not talking about a human being with a wife and children, a job, and a car, and car payments, and all the food that he likes and is missing, and some condition that affects his cholesterol levels. This flesh-and-bones stuff that makes him who he is also. With me, I am anything from a symbol to a punch-line. You know, like, who ate the cookie? Abd el-Fattah. (Laughs) But once you go into a hunger strike, everybody becomes aware of your body. The state that is imprisoning you, the agents of the state that actually lock the room and open it on a daily basis, your supporters, your friends, people who just read about you in the news and so on, suddenly it is an issue of how many kilograms do you have and what is your blood pressure. And, how long can you take it? People are asking, "what does it feel like?" So, it is amazing in a way, and I guess it is liberating in a way, like when the . . . clearly sent the message during the last hearing. You know, normally, you say, "I am bleeding, I am in pain," you tell a doctor, you tell your friends, maybe, you tell your lawyer, but you do not necessarily want mass media and social media to be talking about it. [Unclear (00:24:17)] but that was immediately the message he sent and the message he wanted broadcast and so on, because I think he kind of realized that people are trying to grasp and share this very bodily experience. And so, it stops being about your sense of privacy, and your sense of agency, but you retain the ownership and the importance of your body? I do not know. I do not know what it is exactly.
LA: Let`s conclude with a personal question, knowing that every personal question we ask is highly political. Now that you are out and in full awareness of what is going on outside the walls of prison, how do you think they are thinking of us, the state is? What are we for them? And I would specify it a bit more and talk about political prisoners. We may want to ask whether all political prisoners are lumped together, or all dissidents are lumped together for the state, as represented in the current regime. Or, are they thinking of you guys, of even you personal, Alaa Abd El Fattah, as a specific type of threat that needs a specific type of response? How are they imagining us?
AA: I wish I knew. I mean, it is very confusing. I actually need to know, because a court process is a process of negotiation, you know. Whatever the system is, clearly with a broken and highly politicized system it is even more so. So I need to understand how they view me and how they view us—with the many us that one could imagine—so that I can plan my strategy. Like, I am banned from travel, and I do not know if this is because they just did that at some point, or is it because of some vindictive attitude? So, they want to keep me around so they could keep punishing me? Or is it that they actually fear what I could do abroad? I do not know. If it is the last one, then I actually have messages to tell them: that I am not interested in the role abroad. If I go abroad it is either because I need a break or because I have given up. But it is not going to be because I am going to go plan stuff. During the first couple of years of the revolution, and even in the years of activism before that, I felt that it is our duty to diminish our value in how we think and talk about ourselves. Not out of modesty, but for very practical reasons. It makes activism more accessible, allows more people to go in. It drives in the idea that you do not need to be a super hero and you do not need to be willing to sacrifice and so on. So that has been my tendency to analyze, I cannot be such threat to them. It does not make sense. I know my limits, I am not such a threat. On the other hand, I think that is the wrong attitude to have now. I think we cannot understand what is going on unless we realize that they really consider us a major threat. But who is they? Is there one mind for this regime? And who is we (laughs)? I do not know.
LA: A lot of imagined communities.
AA: I do not know what the boundaries are, but I think we have to start realizing that what has been going on makes absolutely no sense unless we accept that we are a major threat. And I am not talking about just what is happening to myself. Look at the crazy stuff that is happening at university. This is clearly a regime that is scared shitless of young people. It is clearly a regime that is scared shitless of any dissent. There is clearly also another tendency, which is not about being scared, it is about being, "well now is the time to do this. We have an opportunity now to get rid of all opposition." And I am not sure that there is a major difference between fear and between thinking that there is a narrow window for consolidating through annihilation.
LA: Well, one is the one product of the other in many ways.
AA: (Laughs) It is the product of fear while you have strong instruments. If you go back to the body, they do not need to worry about their bodies because their bodies have extensions through subjugated bodies of soldiers and collaborating bodies of officers and so on. We continue to be fragile because our bodies, even as a collective, we are still easily crushed by APCs [(Armored Personal Carriers)] and so on. But also, a collective is a very complex process for us, while any collective is an automatic process for those in power. But, so we continue to be fragile, they continue to be brutal and strong, but that does not mean that they are not weakened and they are not scared and they cannot achieve annihilation. But they seem to think that if they take that posture and destroy individuals, then eventually people will act as if we have been ethnically cleansed, as if genocide happened. But they cannot actually—you know, Rabaa is the limit of the war crimes that they could commit. And it is already horrific enough. What I am trying to say is we are not going to cease to exist. That is maybe how our bodies are—what is the expression you used?
LA: The site of resistance.
AA: Yeah. I do not know that it is my choice, but since they cannot just disappear. They do not just disappear, even after we are killed, they do not just disappear. And even when we are disappeared, the absence is felt. There are families that knew them, there was a body there. That is not a major strength. That is not something unique to a revolutionary moment, so that just shows how crazy they are. I actually think we are completely and utterly defeated, but they are incapable of [unclear (00:31:40)] something else. So they need us to cease to exist, they need us to disappear. And cease to exist, like, you know how when a court rules that something ceases to exist, so it never existed in the past either. And you cannot do that to human beings. You know, they leave footprints. And I guess that is the gift that my father left me with. His process of leaving us was the epitome of loss of agency. He lost agency of his body, he lost agency. But the process of burying him and mourning him has been one of how immortal one could be, and I think they are scared of this: the thousand of people who came to the burial and to the ‘azan. Because I have seen their security preparations, on that side, when they were getting me out of prison to attend that. And they were not prepared for this at all. And they are still surprised every time a political detainee who is not famous becomes the news because their health is deteriorating or because something is happening in their families, or whatever reason, or because they are being tortured. Because they are used to prisons being spaces where you erase people completely, and that is not happening as effectively. I mean, it happens, of course. There are people erased. And everybody who goes through prison, something is erased. But it is not as absolute and complete as it used to be for them, and I do not think they will be able to rebuild it. I do not know that there is much hope in that (laughs). It is, you know, it is certainly something to build on. If that is the substance that hope is made of, then it is certainly there.