The Imprisoned Egyptian Activist Who Never Stopped Campaigning for His Country’s Future

Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s writings reveal where the revolution lost steam, and how to rebuild its momentum.

black bars drawn over a photograph Egyptian writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah against a red background
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In the summer of 2011, several months after the protest-led ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I participated in a program on Al Jazeera’s English-language channel called The Café. The setup was intended to mirror the atmosphere of street-side cafés in Egypt at the time, animated with the political debates and newfound openness that the revolution had brought about. Eight of us took part, representing various walks of life and different points along the political spectrum, and we filmed over several hours at an actual café some 10 minutes from Tahrir Square. The most prominent among us was Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a blogger, a computer programmer, and an activist who is currently imprisoned in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison.

Over the past 10 years, the majority of which has seen Alaa (who is a friend) imprisoned or on probation, he has been writing—essays, newspaper columns, letters, Facebook posts, tweets—and his works have now been collected in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. The book offers a kaleidoscopic view of his thoughts and interests, touching on topics as varied as the threat of robots taking our jobs, the conflict in Gaza, Game of Thrones (he loved it), and climate change. His descriptions of prison life in the past decade—through all of his hunger strikes, the loss of his father, the imprisonment of his sister, the birth of his son, the torture and death of prison mates—are harrowing, but his book is also an important record of the pivot points where the revolution began to lose tack, the choices made by a movement that couldn’t maintain a unified front. Alaa, who grew up in a family of activists, has been thinking and writing about human rights and democracy since he was a teenager. But he has also written about subjects such as the dangers of capitalism and powerful tech companies’ impact on citizens—all part of his effort to envision what a sustainable and equitable society, built on the strong foundations of a shared democratic culture, might look like.

By 2011, Alaa was turning 30 and had already spent 45 days in prison for participating in a protest calling for an independent judiciary. During our conversation for Al Jazeera, he was cautiously optimistic about Egypt’s future, and had clear ideas about what it might take to develop a road map for achieving the revolution’s goals (“bread, freedom, social justice”). At the time, Egyptian society was splintering into political parties, many of which shared arguably similar mandates but had rigid and conflicting viewpoints on how to achieve them. The Muslim Brotherhood had emerged as a divisive political force, and debates over whether elections or a constitution should come first were so fierce that they were tearing political parties apart.

Alaa believed that the process by which a new constitution for Egypt would be developed was of utmost importance, and that electing a representative body needed to be the first step toward creating an inclusive national document. He also understood that how the constitution was conceived would most influence the direction Egypt would take. In one of the columns collected in his book, Alaa asks: “What value is a constitution drafted without genuine popular participation?”

In another article—a July 2011 newspaper column—he set more detailed parameters for selecting the constituent assembly that would draft this constitution. Among his suggestions were proportional representation of “women, youth, and religious minorities, as well as representation from … syndicates, labour and farmers’ unions, seats for activists, rights advocates, artists, and so on.” How this assembly would function was also on his mind; its discussions needed to be public and subject to the input of civil society. This consistent return to the idea of an inclusive government and process set Alaa apart as a political thinker: He understood that pluralism was the key to sustainability.

Alaa also believed that the street protests, which had galvanized the country earlier that year but had waned by the summer of 2011, needed to persist. He saw the protest movement as integral to changing the social order and creating a government that represented the people; because the government feared it, it was an important pressure point. I disagreed vehemently with him back then; the protests, which had been ongoing for the past six months, had failed to deliver on our goals. “Revolution fatigue,” as we were calling it, had set in, and I thought that we needed to organize, coordinate, and penetrate the system differently—through appointments to office.

Even the tightest of long-standing friendships—as well as nuclear families—were being polarized over debates like this. The army was well positioned to take full advantage of civil society’s disunity, and it quickly consolidated and entrenched its power. In October of that year, a few months after our conversation for Al Jazeera, soldiers in tanks freely opened fire on, then trampled, civilians protesting outside the state-television-and-radio building in solidarity with Egypt’s persecuted Christian community. It was, at the time, the army’s most flagrant statement against the revolutionaries.

That night, Alaa went to the hospital morgue. He knew that there would be bodies, and that autopsies would be crucial to holding the army accountable. Several days later, in an article for the Arabic daily Al-Shorouk, he recounted the experience, recalling the bullets, the signs of trampling, and the autopsies that were eventually—as a result of his and others’ persuasion—conducted. Published in translation in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, the column condemns the morgue reports’ euphemistic language: “Why does the report say they were run over with a ‘heavy vehicle’ when we all know it was a military APC? What’s this ‘explosive projectile’? Why not write ‘military bullets’?”

Because of his explicit criticism of the army, Alaa was summoned for questioning by military prosecutors, and on October 30, he was imprisoned again. The fabricated charges brought against him—“unlawful assembly, stealing military hardware, damage to military property, and assaulting a soldier”—could well have been punished by death. In his first note from his prison cell, he wrote: “Does this cell break the record for cockroach density? Abu Malek [my cellmate] interrupts my thoughts: ‘I swear to God if this revolution doesn’t get the wronged their rights, it will sink without a trace.’”

Egypt today is at its most politically repressive point in decades. Free speech is no longer protected, citizens have been arrested for expressing views on Facebook and TikTok, and protests have been effectively outlawed. Mass executions without trial have become alarmingly common, as have arbitrary arrests and detentions. Facts are hard to come by, but an estimated 60,000 political prisoners languish in Egypt’s prisons, many of them without trial, some without a trace. Among them, of course, is Alaa, who was detained in 2019 as part of a widespread government crackdown, but only received a formal sentence in December; he was handed five years without trial on charges of “spreading false news undermining national security.” Alaa is in the second month of his hunger strike to protest the conditions of his confinement, and last week, looking gaunt, he said his goodbyes to his family, unsure whether he would see them again.

Abu Malek was right; the revolution did sink, and I understand now what Alaa saw perhaps more clearly than anyone else. Along with an inclusive constitution, the only way to achieve a complete restructuring of the government would have been through sustained pressure, in the form of the protests that he and I so strongly disagreed on. They were the key to accountability and the necessary unity that Alaa refers to frequently as “the condition for change.”

Though there have been no signs of growing national unity for some time now, and no indication that Alaa will be freed, he had—until late last year—continued to problem-solve for the future. In one of his last articles from 2021, he called, again, for an inclusive national agenda: “Are we able—under this repression—to engage our minds and our imagination in conceiving a future that brings us together around specific plans to grow the economy, reform the state, develop society, and liberate the individual?” Alaa’s writings from prison, even if they fell on deaf ears, were his way of staying involved, of resisting. But as he has been held in solitary confinement, deprived of sunlight as well as access to books, pens, and paper, his family has said that he has almost reached his breaking point: His hunger strike has become his only means of resistance. Ours should be to use the words that we still have to bring attention to his unjust imprisonment and continue the work he tirelessly did.