Alaa Abdel Fattah's You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Following the footprints of revolution
For a passing moment, surrender blissful ignorance and join us in Alaa’s struggle.
As you read this behind the anonymity of a screen, Alaa Abdel Fattah sits guarded in a room four metres long, two metres wide. Each morning, he awakens to a putrid concoction of body odour, suffocating dampness and the remnants of the cell’s plumbing. The paint of once-white walls gives way to reveal the squalid interior of his isolation. Looking around, indistinguishable faces mesh together, their expression filled with torment. This is Cairo’s Tora Prison where humanity is crushed with glee, and still, he sings…
Alaa’s most recent sentence, five years for “spreading fake news”, is the latest in a Kafkaesque set of charges brought against the prominent Egyptian coder, blogger, and activist. This is Alaa’s fourth prison term in 10 years, half of which he has spent behind bars.
"You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a must-read for anyone concerned with the human condition, the power of ideas, or the strength of character needed to bring about real change in the world"
Such harassment would, in any normal case, justify the muting of critical ability. Imprisonment is designed to muzzle the mind into subservience. Not Alaa. Right now, Alaa’s mind fizzes with activity, ideas chaotically colliding to form molecular thoughts; not to philosophise or theorise as he would say, but to act upon all that stunts the Egypt of tomorrow.
For the first time, in a miraculous fortune of fate and fortitude, we’re privy to these thoughts in English. Released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in November 2021, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated compiles Alaa’s published works, prisons notes and notable tweets from the past 10 years (2011-2021). This feat should not be lost on the reader, as Professor Naomi Klein writes in the book’s forward, much of the book has been smuggled out and retrieved in ways we won’t ever understand.
But before prising apart Alaa’s prodigious mind, tracing his dissident background warrants some thought. It’s only then can we grasp what drives him, his prolificity, and the book’s frantic appeals. For if contrarianism runs in the family, Alaa’s veins overflow.
Alaa, along with his two sisters Mona and Sanaa Seif (notable in their own right), are the children of Ahmed Seif El-Islam – Egypt’s “Lawyer of the Poor” – who tirelessly fought against the country’s extensive use of torture, emergency law and administrative detention. But even for the most seasoned of campaigners, the seismic events of 2011 would bring about unprecedented anguish.
Sons told their fathers they were playing football while they dodged armoured trucks at Maspero, daughters told their mothers they were at the mall while chanting at Tahrir Square. And just like so many others, Alaa’s prominence in the revolution would eventually take its toll on his parents. As Alaa and his sister, Sanaa sat in prison – protesting the law that bans unsanctioned demonstrations, their father Ahmed Seif El-Islam passed away in hospital and neither of them was able to comfort him in his final moments.
In a moving eulogy transcribed in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, Alaa consoles the millions of Egyptians who mourned his father’s death through a series of charming anecdotes, tales of his legal prowess, and examples of Ahmed Seif El-Islam’s will to do what is right. None of us are extraordinary Alaa tells us, we’re allowed to grieve, we don’t always have to be strong, but we must continue to champion truth and justice – “nantaser lelhaq” – as only the innocent feel guilt.
Alaa’s father is survived by his wife, Alaa’s mother Laila Souief, Professor of Mathematics at Cairo University – affectionately known by the Egyptian public as the “mother of the revolutionaries”.
In our cybernetic age, it’s unsurprising that such a formative cocktail of justice, rights and mathematics would then compel Alaa to become a coder.
This cybernetic lens is prominent throughout You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, in form and content. Keynote speeches to the Silicon Valley establishment are interspersed with fleeting tweets, revealing a central tenet of Alaa Abdel Fattah: the virtual space must be protected as a means to assert individual agency – to create not consume, it must be used to explore one’s negotiated identity, and this right mustn’t be extorted or sold for profit, at any cost.
While Alaa’s imprisonment stifles his interaction with a rapidly changing infosphere, he nonetheless remains resolute as to how we enact change. A tide of political repression has spilt over into online forums, where conceited ignorance reigns over-informed doubt. Alaa pleads with us, be humble, let doubt prevail. It is only then can we truly learn “what it’s like to be a Christian in the Middle East, to be Black in the United States, to be Muslim in Europe”. No internet ‘kill-switch’ can stop that from happening.
"You Have Not Yet Been Defeated’s standout contribution is its rousing commentary of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the countries subsequent tumbling into tyranny. How did we get here, he asks? Have we lost the moment? Where to now?"
The Egyptian brand of authoritarianism has, ironically, qualified its activists to look beyond the digital world as solely a source of entertainment. The year 2011 and the events that followed brought about victories for those in the virtual space, with usernames triumphing over the leviathan of state and big tech.
However, for Alaa, this initial wave of optimism has been dampened by a saturation of the virtual sphere where trivialities masquerade as activism. The meme culture that dominates the Arab world today, despite providing respite and a humorous take on social phenomena, doesn't save lives.
As time goes by, we read Alaa become increasingly jaded, frustrated with his inability to track and trace digital invention. I wonder what he thinks of the metaverse?
Still, as is characteristic throughout You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, Alaa confronts this passive Luddism with a playful self-awareness. He knows he can’t keep up with the science of speed, it’s an inevitable consequence of the inmate being held captive by his own victories.
Notwithstanding Alaa’s commentary on technological futures, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated’ s standout contribution is its rousing commentary of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the countries subsequent tumbling into tyranny. How did we get here, he asks? Have we lost ‘the moment’? Where to now?
In particular, Alaa’s works published in Mada Masr and Al-Shorouk reveal, in gripping detail, the mechanics of events that continue to ripple in the Egyptian conscious. The Egyptian constitution is a key focal point throughout, with Alaa engineering a bottom-up, people-focused itinerary that enshrines the rights of all Egyptians.
In one of the book’s first entries, Who Will Write The Constitution?, Alaa uses South Africa’s Freedom Charter as a starting point to create a document that reflects the shared aspirations of the Egyptian people. By ridding the nation of its shadow economy, the infallibility of the parallel military establishment, and all those who plunder its resources, shield its elite and deny the masses their rightful share, Egyptians can build a second republic that’s based on a “genuine social contract, real national consensus, and full, constitutional, popular and revolutionary legitimacy”. Only once this is achieved can we then imagine a future where power is truly with the people.
It is this steadfast devotion to the Egyptian people that make Alaa’s entries in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated the most honest and compelling document that we have of the state of Egypt today. We learn that, in Alaa’s reluctance to grasp the limelight, there isn’t space for ego, nor time for complacency when lives are at stake.
This inherent selflessness is prominent throughout, but none more so in the entry To Be With The Martyrs, For That Is Far Better. Initially published on November 20, 2011, in al-Sharouk, Alaa narrates his involvement in the aftermath of the Maspero Massacre, when the Egyptian military murdered 24 civilians – mostly Coptic Christians – as protesters demonstrated against the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt.
Written with gut-wrenching urgency, Alaa appeals to the state’s forensic pathologists to conduct independent autopsies on the dead, as a pro-regime mob begins to congregate outside the Coptic Hospital. No, they didn’t die of heart failure as the state television would have you believe. They were mowed down by military APCs.
It is only when we read of Alaa and his companion’s juggling of the mourning of their revolutionary friend Mina Daniel, their consoling of the families of the bereaved, their navigation of an impending lynch-mob with their exasperated appeals for justice that we really learn what it takes when thrust into the eye of a revolutionary storm. And this was just one moment. The reader is forced to ponder: how many more will it take to overthrow the insidious machinations of authoritarian bureaucracy, whose only seeming purpose is as an advertisement for the banality of evil.
The above entry is one of the countless reflections that make You Have Not Yet Been Defeated a must-read for anyone concerned with the human condition, the power of ideas, or the strength of character needed to bring about real change in the world.
And whilst one may think that such lofty aims would make Alaa’s writing dense and tiring to read, Alaa’s writing style endears any and all those who care to glance at his words. Alaa speaks through the page, breaking the fourth wall with captivating ease to prove beyond doubt that we’re all capable of understanding the cogs of power, despite the arrogant claims of politicians.
Some entries are written in journal form, some are an inventory of events. Some are lists of demands, some are one sentence musings. All have a poetic character that underwrites the book. This is due, in no small part, to the anonymous collective of editors, translators and contributors who have helped make this book a reality. Despite being in English, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is also a glowing reminder of Arabic’s linguistic majesty.
So in what has become, and what should be, a homage to Alaa Abdel Fattah, it’s important to conclude this review of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by reminding ourselves of the January 25th Revolution, which fell 11 years on this day and in which Alaa was so instrumental in shaping. A formidable assemblage of collective resentment against the status quo, what happened at Tahrir Square 11 years ago is an inspiring, relevant reminder to the world that resistance breeds results.
Be it in Egypt, in Palestine, or any place where tyranny reigns unabated, we must continue to bear that in mind, and continue to think of all those whose lives have been taken or changed beyond recollection. Remember, “The state of injustice is but for an hour, the state of righteousness is until the hour of judgement”.
Benjamin Ashraf is a visiting research fellow at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab's Editorial Team.
Follow him on Instagram: @_ashrafzeneca