Alaa Abd el-Fattah and the Hope of a Generation

Alaa Abd el-Fattah and the Hope of a Generation

Alaa Abd el-Fattah and the Hope of a Generation

In the essays of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, the Egyptian activist and blogger reminds us that democracy flourishes and falters at the interstices, the in-between spaces, and the squares where revolutions take place.


As I write this, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who is often known in Egypt just as Alaa, is on his 67th day of a hunger strike. In solitary confinement at Egypt’s maximum security Tora Prison, he has been deprived of sunlight, reading materials, or the right to walk outside his cell for exercise, and forbidden from writing or receiving letters. So he has resorted to the only means of protest that remains to him. There is so much to be said about Alaa—his transformation from blogger to “voice of a generation,” from activist to revolutionary icon, from tech whiz kid to symbol of Egypt’s hundreds of thousands of nameless disappeared. But that his life now hovers at the edge of the bardo, sustained by water and rehydration salts, is the fact that must appear first. “I’m the ghost of spring past,” he wrote in 2019, as if to prophesy his fate.

Only 40 years old, Alaa has spent most of the last decade in captivity as Egypt’s most prolific prisoner of consciousness, jailed by each of his country’s successive dictators. In 2006, he was first detained for protesting in support of judges calling for an independent judiciary. He was released 45 days later, only to then be incarcerated in 2011 and 2013 for relatively brief periods. But it was in in 2015 that he would be sentenced to five years for allegedly organizing a political protest without a permit; and then, only months after his release in 2019, he was arrested again for the crime of sharing a Facebook post. Alaa had spent his few months of relative freedom forced to sleep at the Doqqi police station in Cairo each night; upon his return to prison, he was brutally tortured. “I become an object, something to be eliminated, destroyed, disappeared, negated, excluded,” Alaa has written. “I become a symbol or a bogeyman, with no physical presence.”

With You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, we are fortunate to have Alaa’s remarkable, collected writings now in a physical form, translated and edited by a collective that remains anonymous for their own security. With the book, we follow Alaa’s political trajectory and the evolution of his political thinking. Above all we see him ask: “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?” If what makes Alaa’s, or any person, “political” is their capacity to speak for, and represent, the aspirations of others, then can one ever really remain oneself? “Like a ghost,” he explains in “On Probation,” “I move in your time but I’m suspended in the past.” Imprisonment didn’t just aim to sideline him from history; it sought to deprive him of the rituals that punctuate the passage of time: He was permitted neither to be with his dying father nor to witness the birth of his son. And yet, as he reflects on his metamorphosis into an atemporal, spectral symbol, he cannot help but wonder, “When did it become OK for adults to communicate mostly in emojis and gifs?!”

I, like many others, first heard Alaa’s name around 2006 when, shortly after the execution of Saddam Hussein, and taking heed of labor strikes and a quest for judicial independence, Egypt’s longest-ruling dictator, Husni Mubarak, had permitted mild-mannered, middle-class public criticisms of his regime. Alaa was one of a handful of activists to take advantage of relatively fast dial-up Internet access in those years and the optimism that flowed from it, but the latter was short-lived: Alaa was among many blogger-activists to end up on jail. But it wasn’t until I flew back to Egypt in January 2011, to participate in the demonstrations that would turn into the revolution, that I became better acquainted with his ideas. It was soon after that night in February, which in the mythology of Tahrir was referred to as “the Battle of the Camel.” Like Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday, the 17 days of revolution all had their holy monikers: Rage Tuesday, Departure Friday, Martyrs’ Sunday. And in those days I discovered the powerful constitutional ruminations of Alaa, whose name I had vaguely known but not associated with the kind of intricate political ideas on display in these collected essays.

At the time that I first became aware of his thinking, there was much talk of Constitutions. Everyone knew that Mubarak’s monstrous text, despite having undergone a few cosmetic and meaningless reforms around 2006, needed to be discarded. But what would the template of Egypt’s new constitution be? Would it be “the Turkish model,” or “the American”? Amid these fierce debates, it stood out in my memory that Alaa was alone to ask why we needed somebody else’s template at all. Why couldn’t we collectively imagine (or given his training in tech, crowdsource) our own? As I remember it, Alaa said this before a gathered crowd in the square. The ideas were soon developed into an essay published in July of 2011; in the same month, Alaa’s dream of a crowdsourced Constitution was launched, as the “Let’s Write Our Constitution” movement.

In “Who Will Write the Constitution?,” Alaa drew inspiration from South Africa’s Freedom Charter, which he considered particularly radical less for its content than for the process by which it was assembled. Mandela and his comrades didn’t presume that it was their role to “educate the public” but rather to receive instruction from them, disrupting the directional and elitist metaphors for how and why ideas travel. “Mandela and his comrades needed the public to educate them politically,” Alaa wrote. “Why assume that we’re any better?” A lack of humility, Alaa prophesied, would be our downfall. In a suburb outside Johannesburg, “in a space much like our Tahrir squares,” Alaa wrote, intentionally using the plural, “for two days, Kliptown lived the most important democratic experiment in history.” Yet democratic experiments, Alaa cautioned, are ephemeral, and necessarily tragic: Like cruel dreams that can only be experienced, felt, and seen, they disappear at the moment when we try to institutionalize them, or even translate them into words. Democracy flourishes at the interstices, the in-between spaces, at the place where politics pours into poetry. Whenever we try to render it eternal, it dies.

During the 17 days, Tahrir Square formed a living refutation of the infamous statement—made to a CNN anchor by Mubarak’s henchman Omar Sulayman—that Egyptians weren’t ready for democracy. The encamped city that coalesced for just over a fortnight was proof of everything—religious coexistence, meticulously managed field hospitals, and even efficient rubbish collection and disposal—that the regime, and many individuals, had long believed to be impossible. In these staged and telegenic acts of citizenship, revolutionaries refuted a long-standing political claim that only the threat of torture, forced disappearance, and ritualized public humiliation would ensure that Egyptians didn’t succumb to internecine, sectarian, and fanatical violence. I remember seeing protesters unfurl a banner naming it “the Ideal City,” referring to the treatise by the ninth-century neo-Platonist philosopher al-Farabi, who imagined a self-governing utopian polity held together by neither the force of a king nor that of a magistrate but by the virtuous self-comportment of its inhabitants. It is hard for me to write of that moment without feeling overtaken by nostalgia. But Alaa reminds us, time and time again, not just how aesthetically kitschy such nostalgia has always been but also how dangerous it is, politically speaking. “Our sin,” he insists, “was pride not treachery.”

The 17-day sit-in may have toppled Mubarak and ushered in a moment of fraternity, but it left the revolutionaries unmoored. Although they boasted that their own revolution, compared to those of their parents and grandparents, was leaderless—“We thought we were different: we don’t believe in leaders,” Alaa recalls in a 2014 essay. The activists of the uprising had substituted any worship of leaders for the worship of Tahrir Square itself. The square, and what it represented, soon became not a means but the very end of the revolution itself. In one of the most powerful essays in the collection, “Graffiti for Two,” a collaboration with fellow inmate Ahmad Douma that had been written by the two shouting between the cell walls, the two political prisoners reflect on the dissidents of the past on the third anniversary of the revolution:

We’re like them in their strength and weakness, and we need to free our dreams as they freed theirs. The square is just a spectacle to express these dreams: our hearts overflow with it for love of what appeared in it of our dreams. We made of it a myth that imprisoned us, blotted out our experience and dissolved ourselves. We got lost inside it and believe it was the aim of the dream and the heart of the revolution. It’s our job to kill our myth with our own hands as they killed theirs. It’s time to pull down the square, so that we may be free, so that we may come back to ourselves and our revolution.

In freeing themselves of Mubarak, the revolutionaries also believed they were liberating themselves from the tyranny of generations past, but they created new hindrances in their struggle for freedom. How do we liberate ourselves from the very structures that make us who we are? The work of liberation, he warns, cannot also be a form of suicide.

Many of Alaa’s words in the collection read like prophecies or seem clairvoyant in hindsight. Yet he refuses any praise: “To every Cassandra, there is no prize for being first to make predictions, and there’s no use in saying I told you so,” he writes. “Cassandra’s tragedy isn’t that she was unable to convince others. Her tragedy, as in all Greek drama, was the failure to accept the limits of her condition.” It is precisely in our collective refusal to accept our limitations that Alaa insists the defeat of the Arab Spring is found. Defeat, he shows us, cannot be located in the actions of others but in our own, sometimes necessary, delusions. For this reason, his essays resist enumerating painful litanies of state violence, largely because Alaa insists that focusing on the missteps of the enemy is a distraction from the incoherencies, the oversights, and the divisions within each one of us. If the political is born at the moment when we distinguish between friend and enemy, the insistence that the enemy is external to us may be a comforting if also dangerous fantasy. Revolutions succeed when revolutionaries are willing to also confront their own inconsistencies and the sparring forces at the heart of their very beings. Revolutionary slogans such as despair is treason are troubling, Alaa writes: “The denial of a natural feeling scares me.”

In the months before the book appeared, I kept misremembering the title. Every time I said We Have Not Yet Been Defeated, I could hear that something was not quite right. But the seemingly innocent substitution of pronouns—“We” for “You”—is perhaps more revealing than I’d cared to admit. Many of my historian colleagues, inadvertently channeling Zhou Enlai’s supposed quip about the French Revolution that it was “too early to tell,” insisted that we couldn’t yet pronounce the 2011 uprisings dead because it, too, was “too early to tell.” When Sudan, Lebanon, and Algeria were engulfed by revolutionary activity long after the embers seemed to have been extinguished in Egypt, for a moment it seemed as if they were perhaps right.

But Alaa’s assessment, as encapsulated by the actual title of his book, was a direct refusal to engage in the kind of delusional fantasy that I and many others sometimes propagated: that it was too early to tell. It wasn’t. Alaa’s judgement of the revolution’s achievements and failing is more sober, but also arguably more radical. Against the patriotic and ultimately provincial “we” that I imagined in his title, the “you” of Alaa’s actual statement, taken from a Silicon Valley speech reproduced in the book, refers to an international revolutionary public rather than to Egyptians or Arabs alone. It suggests that our struggle against authoritarianism in the Arab world wasn’t particular or peculiar but rather the harbinger of things to come across the world.

Palestine is always on Alaa’s mind, as he frequently reminds us in the collection; its struggle is not a reflection of a past set of dynamics but in many ways represents the struggle against an imminent future—a future that is securitized, segregated, and surveilled. For Alaa, Palestine is much more than a metaphor: not only did activism around the Second Intifada act as a crucible for the networks of activism that would become reenergized on a much larger scale by the 2011 uprisings, but the struggle to liberate Palestine remains been inextricable from a wider constellation of forces that give rise to authoritarianism globally. Egypt’s military regime, after all, is propped up by American military aid contingent on its implementation of a set of security arrangements that make Palestinian emancipation impossible. It is for that reason that Alaa sardonically urges his American audience to “Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the question ‘How can we help?’”

The Arab world’s political movements are often thought of as echoes, belated and often syncopated, of more sophisticated versions that happened in Europe: The “Arab Spring” is depicted as a replay of the “People’s Spring” of 1848; the “Jasmine Revolution” is presented as a variation of the “Colour Revolutions.” But Alaa dares us to question whether the unthinkable hasn’t happened, whether the order might, this time, have been reversed. Did the 2011 uprisings prophesy a new kind of universal struggle against a new kind of global authoritarianism? Was the crushing defeat of 2013 by al-Sisi an augury for the new strongman leaderships that would emerge the world over, from Duterte to Erdogan to Netanyahu, from Modi to Bolsonaro, from Johnson to Putin and from Orbán to Trump? In his fragmentary reflections on a 2012 trip to Gaza, Alaa writes that the situation there is “like it’s been sent back in time from some grim future we haven’t arrived at yet” but to which all of us are headed.

American and European political scientists and think tanks have long sought to locate the “Arab intellectual,” who could explain “the region” to the West. Their search doesn’t merely reflect the eurocentricity of much academic enterprise but also harbors within it a narcissistic fantasy: that professional intellectuals matter, politically speaking. But the age of the university and of its professional intellectuals serving as the engines for political change has long passed, and those who seek to deconstruct “power” are too invested in it to do so meaningfully. Alaa’s writings suggest that some of the most radical ideas of our times are produced outside universities and that some of the most significant thinkers of our age are not academics. The question running through Alaa’s writings is how to reconcile mass politics with representation at a juncture when the speculation of political theorists and self-fashioned intellectuals had failed. “Everyone says the same thing, the same frustration, the same impotence, the same anger,” Alaa writes. “Nothing is happening. Nothing has meaning. We philosophize and theorize: you need a revolution.”

Alaa’s sobriety—as well as his long tenure in prison—have earned him comparisons with Gramsci, a figure whose ideas he himself evokes. On the second anniversary of the uprisings, in 2013, as if to prophesy the coming coup and the massacre of Rab‘a, Alaa tweeted: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” The Italian press, among others, was keen to seize upon the label of the “Arab Gramsci” upon this volume’s publication. And now the hunger strike has earned him comparisons with Bobby Sands. The Dublin book launch was timed to coincide with an exhibition based around the writings smuggled out of the H-Blocks where Sands and other hunger strikers were held. And while such comparisons sell books and render the unfamiliar palatable to foreign audiences, they also constrict our imaginations in ways that clash, fundamentally, with the spirit of Alaa’s thinking. Even as we remain utterly vanquished, he insists, we can begin to imagine that ever elusive thing called freedom. Alaa has undoubtedly made history. If he, like all of us, couldn’t make it as he pleased, he has, shown us why we must reject the borrowed language that for far too long made us prisoners of the imagination and in so doing thwarted our hopes.

Alaa bid farewell to his mother and sisters, in anticipation that he would be dead by the time of their next visit. If he dies, he will die not having received his full inheritance, as he tells us,

From my mother I inherited a stone cake [reference to the base of the monument in Tahrir Square] and a love that penetrates the walls of prisons. And from my father I inherited a prison cell and a dream not bound by prison walls or surrounded by the edges of a square or limited by the borders of a homeland. I have not yet received my complete inheritance; I’m still waiting to learn how I can spend my life in the square without it taking my soul prisoner and emptying my dream; how I can stay inside it and still face the nightmares inside me.

But what will we inherit from Alaa? Perhaps the surest guide to facing the nightmares inside and outside of us. With the hunger strike still underway, Alaa’s question of “How do I live as a symbol?” may at last find its answer. He may soon only live as a symbol, but his writings leave us with the key to making sense of its meaning and the terrifying, terrible significance of our times.

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