#FreeAlaa: When the personal meets the political

When I think of Alaa Abd El Fattah, his public identities – the blogger, the revolutionary, the man in a cage at a show trial – are not those that first spring to mind. Instead, I think of Alaa the family man, at home with his wife Manal and son Khaled, graciously welcoming a strange journalist into their most intimate of spaces, balancing speaking truth to power with everyday domestic routine. Forget politics, forget the street; ultimately, dictatorships seek to control every aspect of life – even, and especially, the most personal, writes THERESA MALLINSON.

Yesterday Egyptian activists Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman were sentenced to five years in jail for breaking the Egyptian protest law. Their 19 co-defendants in the retrial of the Shura Council case, were given three years each. Their crime? Protesting against military trials for civilians.

You see, the current military government – which ironically used street protests to “justify” a coup d’état – brooks no dissent. In this, they are no better – some say worse – than the Hosni Mubarak regime that was toppled in 2011.

For Alaa, this is his third stint in jail. His first was in 2006, under Mubarak; his second in 2011, at the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

I interviewed Alaa and his wife, Manal Hassan, in February 2012. He’d only recently been released from jail – I never imagined that in less than two years, he’d be back behind bars.

So, February 2012. The manager at my hostel told me that if I insisted on contacting Alaa, the Mukhabara (Egyptian state security) would follow me. But I wasn’t concerned. It wasn’t yet August 2013. I went to visit Alaa, Manal, and baby Khaled at their home in Cairo, uncertain that I was at the right apartment, until I saw the No to Military Trials for Civilians sticker on the front door.

Revolutionaries I’d spoken to at the time were worried: some at the fact that the Ikwaan, (the Muslim Brotherhood) had won a majority in Parliament; others because the military was, once again, in power. Much water – thick with blood – had passed under the bridge since the heady days of the Egyptian Revolution in early 2011. Maspero. Muhammad Mahmoud. Port Said.

Many people were disillusioned. And yet as they spoke of the 18 days of revolution – only a year ago at the time – I could still detect a sparkle in their eyes. Recent events were just a temporary setback. Bread, freedom and social justice would prevail in the foreseeable future.

This was before Raba’a. Before the Marriot Cell case involving, among others, journalists from Al Jazeera. Before a multitude of other injustices – not all of which have been picked up by the Western media. Before tens of thousands of Egyptians were jailed simply for voicing their political opinions – a right they thought they had won after the January 25 “revolution”, but a right that was swiftly denied by the counter-revolution.

Alaa was more clear-sighted than most. As I drank tea and ate cake with him and Manal, he warned me, as a rookie journalist, not to lose sight of the bigger picture. It is, arguably, the greatest error of my journalistic career that I failed to check that my laptop was recording the audio (spoiler, it wasn’t), and on top of that, was so involved in the conversation that I didn’t apply my go-to back up of typing up crucial quotes.



What I can say, what I remember – without putting words into his mouth – is that Alaa anticipated that the revolution was not yet over, that this was just the beginning.

It hurts that his vision was so prescient. It hurts that today, instead of playing an active role in civil society, Alaa has been sentenced to a five-year jail term. It hurts that his father, the renowned Egyptian human-rights lawyer, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, is no longer with us to defend him. It hurts that his son, Khaled, named after the flash point of the Egyptian revolution, will grow up without a father. It hurts that his little sister, Sana’a Seif, is herself in jail.

Others may quibble with the Western media’s obsession with Alaa. Fair enough, there are many, many Egyptians in jail for political reasons. So, it hurts that Alaa is behind bars, instead of out on the street drawing attention to their causes.

It hurts, as well, that Alaa is behind bars instead of at home with his family. Last year Manal wrote on Facebook: “This is how I (biased, of course) see Alaa: cool and gallant and loves travel and adventure and likes nothing more than our curling up on the slouch-chair watching something nice after Doudou goes to sleep. An incredible father and holds family life sacred :)”

Fuck politics. Every Egyptian – every person in the world – deserves the freedom to imagine and create a better world for their children and all the generations to come.

– Featured image by Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons.
– Additional image: Alaa, Manal, and Khaled in happier times. By Theresa Mallinson.

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