We woke to the news last Friday: The 37-year-old software-developer and pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El Fattah had finally been released from prison, after completing a five-year sentence for having called for street protests in defiance of the law. “Alaa is out. Yes, I swear,” tweeted his sister, Mona Seif, in Arabic. Not long after, she shared a blurry photo of him, sitting on a rattan chair at their family home, playing with their dog. Next came a photo of Alaa sitting with his now seven-year-old-son and holding the boy’s little feet.
It wasn’t Alaa’s first arrest, but his seventh, and longest, under four governments.
In May 2006, under the reign of President Hosni Mubarak, Alaa was arrested during a peaceful protest calling for an independent judiciary, and released six weeks later.
In 2011, under the transitional rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he was arrested on charges of inciting aggression during bloody clashes opposing Coptic Christian protesters and riot police and thugs. He was released after two months.
On the night of March 26, 2013, under the rule of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, Alaa was accused of inciting “aggression” during a protest outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. He was arrested and released the following day.
In November 2013, he was arrested yet again, for protesting, in defiance of an anti-protest law, against military trials for civilians, for rioting and for attacking public servants.
He was released on bail in March 2014 — and rearrested on the same charges that June after being sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. During a retrial in September of that year — an obligatory procedure for defendants sentenced in absentia — Alaa was released on bail. The presiding judge stepped down mid-trial saying that the prosecution had obtained evidence illegally.
The following February, in 2015, he was arrested again, and handed the five-year sentence he just completed.
During one of the times that Alaa was in prison, his first child was born; during another, his father died.
His father was the prominent human-rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamed. His sisters — Mona and Sanaa Seif — are both staunch activists. And his mother, Laila Soueif, is perhaps Egypt’s most recognizable face of the left.
Of my many memories from the uprising of 2011, one of the most precious was finding Ahmed and Laila, sitting hand in hand one afternoon on a ledge in Tahrir Square. Alaa stood over them talking and laughing, a water bottle in hand; Mona and Sanaa were not far away, giving out fliers.
A lot has changed during the five years that Alaa was in prison. Many people we know in common have left the country, as immigrants or asylum seekers. Activists, journalists and human rights defenders have been put in jail or disappeared. Some have been released. Friends have had breakdowns. An activist couple who met in Tahrir Square have married and had their first child. But an Italian student and researcher was brutally murdered, found dead on the side of a street with torture marks — that fact lingers. The cost of living also has shot up, after the government lifted fuel subsidies and floated the Egyptian pound to save itself from debt.
As we lived our lives on the outside, in relative freedom, we never forgot Alaa — the hashtag #freealaa was sustained. And yet at some point we began to fail him.
I couldn’t forget how the protests calling for Alaa’s freedom started out sizable in the initial weeks, even months, of his detention, and then slowly began to shrink. I remember the day that I found myself not responding to such a call and followed the gathering on Twitter instead — on the streets, were just a handful of supporters, headed by Alaa’s ever-stoic mother.
I began to question my lack of political stamina, my will, my occasional paralysis over even writing, and was riddled with a sense of defeat. It was perhaps my guilt that caused me to work a character inspired by Alaa (Dido) into my novel. By the end of the book, Dido is in prison, and he says to his writer-cousin that he doesn’t blame her for not making activism her life, telling her that it doesn’t take an entire population to change the course of things and that everyone has his and her own calling.
In a letter from 2016, Alaa wrote, “I spent most of 2014 in prison yet I still had lots of words.” And then, a few lines later:
“But by early 2015, as I heard my sentence, I had nothing left to say to any public. I could only write personal letters. The revolution and, indeed Egypt itself, would slowly fade out even from those letters, and by fall 2015, even my personal words dried up. It’s been months since I wrote a letter and more than a year since I’ve written an article. I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights, nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Alaa is out of prison now, but that doesn’t mean he’s free. For the next five years of his life, he will be under surveillance and will have to report to a local police station every evening at six and spend his nights there.
I think Laila and Mona spent all of Alaa’s first night out but back in sitting on the pavement outside the station, reading and waiting for him to emerge at dawn. Knowing them, they might do the same for the next five years.
On Saturday, the second afternoon of his partial freedom, Alaa wrote on Twitter. “I am the poison, I am the antidote/ I am the medicine, I am the sickness/ I am the ghost of the Spring past.”
With the most visible face of the revolution now free, and against the backdrop of ongoing protests in Algeria, I find myself reflecting on what has gone wrong for Egypt since 2011. Our broader failing was less about what we wanted — “bread, freedom and social justice” — than how we thought we could get there. A national referendum to amend the Constitution looms, and it might dictate the course of the country for the next 15 years. And so it seems like it’s time to regroup and devise a common political strategy, knowing that our political goals remain the same: a freer, fairer Egypt, in which we can express ourselves without fear of persecution.
Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution and Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, and a contributing opinion writer.