The Egyptian revolution of 25 January, as we all know, had no leaders. But in the course of its unfolding, and in the months since, a number of people have emerged who are pushing it forward, advocating for it and articulating its principles. Alaa Abd El Fattah, the activist and blogger (and my nephew) who has been jailed by the military prosecutor in Cairo pending trial, is one of those. And in his character and the role he’s adopted, he embodies some of the core aspects of the Egyptian revolution.
Alaa is a techie, a programmer of note. He and Manal, his wife and colleague, work in developing open-source software platforms and in linguistic exchange. They terminated contracts abroad and flew home to join the revolution. In Tahrir he moved between groups; listening, facilitating, making peace when necessary, defending the square physically when he had to.
He started the TweetNadwa series – the corporeal meetings of the Twitter community. In one of those, in Tahrir, I understood the remarkable role he played. We sat on the ground, a screen displaying rolling tweets, discussing the restructuring of Mubarak’s brutal security apparatus. Comments and questions could only use two minutes. If you liked what you heard you fluttered your raised hand. Passersby stopped and, intrigued, they stayed and contributed. The numbers grew to over a thousand from every background: enabled, together, working out ways forward, and Alaa in the middle, facilitating, directing, articulating, engaged, and passionate. I thought: this is leadership.
As arguments raged around who should write the new constitution, Alaa started a project to get “the people” to describe their dream Egypt. In June he wrote in the well-respected Egyptian daily, Shorouk: “What is the value of a constitution formulated without the real participation of the people? The proposals coming from our coalition of elites are catastrophic. They propose … that the constitution should appoint the army [as] protector of the civil nature of the state; that is to allow an institution with wide repressive powers and a history of interfering in government to be free of any supervision by any elected body.”
In a May blog he’d questioned the legitimacy of conscription if conscripts were used as a workforce for commercial ventures rather than to defend the country. But he was to enter a major confrontation with the military when, on 9 October, a peaceful (mainly Coptic) protest was attacked by the army and, worried, Alaa went looking for his friend, the activist Mina Daniel. He found him in the Coptic hospital, among the dead.
Alaa and his friends then did something remarkable; from the morgue they took on the entire system. In the face of the hospital issuing death certificates from “natural causes” they persuaded the stricken families to demand autopsies. Activist lawyers pressured the public prosecutor to order them. They fetched the coroner and his staff and persuaded them to carry out the autopsies in the presence of physicians whom they trusted. And then they sat them individually with the families to explain the reports to them.
The hospital morgue only had three drawers, so all the while they treated the bodies of their comrades with ice and fans, and they treated the anger, grief and suspicion of the families with tears and embraces and explanations. Thus they foiled the attempt to cause sectarian violence, and to get rid of the evidence of the bodies, and they mobilised the families to demand an investigation.
On 20 October, Alaa described the experience in Shorouk; the spirits of the murdered in the morgue, he wrote, “fought against the authority of the priests and sheikhs of the ruler who suggest that if you seek justice in this world you renounce it in the next, they fought against the Mubarak sectarianism that made the poor find enemies in the poor rather than in those who steal the bread from the poor.” Within 48 hours Alaa had been summoned to the military prosecutor. The army has, since February, court martialled 11,697 civilians. In February, Mona Seif founded and has since led the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign; Alaa is her brother.
Alaa has refused to be tried by a military court. He argues that he should not be held on remand; he was abroad and returned and presented himself to the court. Manal is due to deliver their first baby, Khaled, in a few days. He clearly intends to stay, in Cairo, at home. But the prosecutor jailed him for 15 days, and extended this for another 15 today .
The campaigners are working for every person jailed – but there’s a sense that the military have now upped the stakes. No one believes that the military believe the charges they’ve levelled against Alaa; in attacking this central, charismatic figure they appear to be openly mounting an attack on the very spirit of the revolution. It is because of the seriousness of this message that the protests in Egypt and in – so far – 23 cities across the world have been so immediate and so intense. And that Alaa’s mother, my sister, Laila Soueif, is on a hunger strike, which others are joining.
The implications of the jail extension – for human rights and the safety of Egypt’s young people – are enormous. But the depth and strength of the reaction against this also shows that the revolution could receive a kickstart once again.
Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian short story writer, novelist and political and cultural commentator.