Egypt's political prisoners speak out ahead of revolution anniversary
As Egypt braces for potential protests on the fifth anniversary of the 25 January revolution that toppled former president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, thousands of political prisoners continue to serve their sentences under conditions deemed worse than the pre-revolution Mubarak era.
Some of the young political prisoners have decided to speak out from their prison cells ahead of the revolution anniversary, reflecting on the situation in the country and making before-and-after comparisons.
Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent political activist and blogger who is considered to be one of the public faces of the 2011 revolution, is currently serving a five-year sentence in a Cairo prison for violating the infamous anti-protest law.
In an open letter published by The Guardian on Saturday, Alaa told his story over the past five years, reflecting on the major social and political developments that followed the revolution.
"The only words I can write are about losing my words," read the opening line of Alaa's letter.
Alaa went on to discuss the growing importance of the revolution's narrative, as well as his sense of hope and possibility despite the "setbacks".
"People talk of a barrier of fear but to me it always felt like a barrier of despair and, once removed, even fear, massacres and prisons couldn't bring it back."
Believing the revolution would promise a better future for Egypt, Alaa and his wife Manal decided to do "the silly things over-optimistic revolutionaries do".
"I moved back to Egypt permanently, had a child, founded a startup, engaged in a series of progressive initiatives aiming at more popular, decentralised and participatory democracy, broke every draconian law and outdated taboo, walked into prison smiling and walked out of it triumphant."
|People talk of a barrier of fear but to me it always felt like a barrier of despair and, once removed, even fear, massacres and prisons couldn't bring it back.
- Alaa Abdel Fattah
Since his return to Egypt, Alaa has been questioned, arrested and detained on several occasions.
In the aftermath of the revolution, under the rule of the Supreme Council for Armed Forces, the young activist was detained for almost two months on charges of "inciting violence" at the 9 October Maspero clashes.
In November 2013, Alaa was arrested for rallying, inciting violence, resisting authorities and violating the anti-protest law following a demonstration against military trials for civilians outside the Shura Council building.
He was rearrested and ordered released on bail again on 15 September 2014, subsequently sentenced to a month of jail in absentia, and finally received a five years sentence in February 2015, which he is now serving.
Alaa was born while his father, prominent human rights attorney Ahmed Seif al-Islam, served a five-year sentence under Mubarak's rule. Decades later, Alaa's son Khaled was born while his father was also in prison.
"Three months after the [Rabaa] massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role. I called on revolutionaries to admit defeat, to give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change. What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights," Alaa continued.
|I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights; nothing, absolutely nothing. Now tomorrow will be exactly like today and yesterday and all the days preceding and all the days following, I have no influence over anything.
- Alaa Abdel Fattah
"In early 2014 it was still controversial to ask revolutionaries to engage in a human rights campaign limited to revoking the protest law and the release of political prisoners. Most still believed the revolution was winning (defining winning as either the demise or the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood) – the idea that the state of emergency was the new normal was rejected by most.
"Today it seems like we won that final battle for narrative. While the state still has its supporters their numbers are shrinking rapidly, especially among the young. Most people are no longer debating the nature of the events of summer 2013. The coup versus revolution debate is passé. Even Sisi supporters don't really believe that prosperity is coming soon," the young activist added.
"I spent most of 2014 in prison, yet I still had lots of words. My audience was much diminished, my message not one of hope, and yet it felt important to remind people that even after admitting defeat we can still resist; that going back to the margins we fought from during Mubarak's time was acceptable as long as we continued to fight for basic human rights.
"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 autumn 2015 even my personal words dried up.
|It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that's how I remember it.
- Alaa Abdel Fattah
"I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights; nothing, absolutely nothing… Now tomorrow will be exactly like today and yesterday and all the days preceding and all the days following, I have no influence over anything."
Despite losing hope and submitting to a general sense of despair, as shown in his heartfelt words, Alaa could not surrender to the idea that the initial faith in the revolution and the possible change it could have brought about was naïve.
"It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that's how I remember it," he concluded.
In a more optimistic and hopeful tone, political activist and human rights advocate Mahienour al-Masry spoke about the "fifth year of the revolution" in an open letter circulated on social media.
Mahienour recently spent her 30th birthday in prison as she serves a 15-month sentence on charges of "storming" a police station in 2013 during the rule of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
The human rights lawyer and revolutionary socialist activist was released from prison in September 2014, after having served four out of six months in prison on charges of "illegal protesting" during the Khaled Said murder retrial in December 2013.
During her four months in prison, before the sentence was suspended, Mahienour was awarded the 2014 Ludovic Trarieux Award for her contributions to the defence of human rights.
|Mahienour al-Masry spent her 30th birthday
in prison [The New Arab]
"I almost cannot believe that five years have passed since the chants of 'the people want to bring down the system' and 'Bread, Freedom, Social Justice, Human Dignity'," she said.
"Maybe this is because even in my cell I am filled with dreams of freedom and with hope.
"Some see that after all these years have passed the revolution has been defeated. Others see that there could not have been anything better than what happened," the young activist added.
"The regime, however, feels that they have won, but is this the correct and decisive answer? Are we defeated and has the revolution ended? Have we always been nothing but victims?"
Mahienour admitted making mistakes and being defeated, arrogant, and hopless at times.
"There are lessons for everyone; lessons we learnt from the pure blood that was shed for us," she said.
The young activist then listed five lessons that she had learnt from mistakes made during the revolution.
First, there is no such thing as individual salvation. Despair and attempts to escape will not help.
"When we looked at ourselves alone, only defending the freedom of the people we knew, rather than the freedom of the people as a whole, we allowed the regime to isolate us from the street and from our goals, thus allowing it to win the last round," she explained.
|I almost cannot believe that five years have passed since the chants of 'the people want to bring down the system' and 'Bread, Freedom, Social Justice, Human Dignity'. Maybe this is because even in my cell I am filled with dreams of freedom and with hope.
- Mahienour al-Masry
Second, revolution is humane by its nature, and it does not allow injustice, even for those with different views or others who seek to obliterate us.
"Accepting injustice against one person will subject all of us to the same fate," Mahienour said.
Third, trying is not enough. "We must organise ourselves; if they are united by the interests of the counter-revolution, we must be united by the survival instinct."
Fourth, only a frightened regime arrests thousands and cancels elections.
"The regime is terrified from a one day anniversary, even though injustice lasts the whole year."
Fifth, the revolution is as ongoing as life and dreams; it does not depend on individuals.
"Sooner or later, in our lives or the next, the revolution will be completed, because human beings deserve the best."
Mahienour concluded by a few words in the memory of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, an activist who was shot a year ago while attempting to place flowers in Talaat Harb square for the occasion of the 25 January revolution.
"Shaimaa; in the first anniversary of your death, please send our greetings to our angels, the martyrs. Tell them we are still hopeful, and that their imprisonment and the injustice they were subjected to only made us hold on to our dreams and revolution."