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Alaa Abd El-Fattah is one of Egypt’s most prominent dissident activists: as the broadcaster Amy Goodman observed in a 2014 interview for Democracy Now!, he holds “the distinction of having been actively persecuted by the past four successive rulers in Egypt.” Alaa (as he’s mononymously known) has spent most of the past decade in prison, his conditions steadily deteriorating as the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reaches new heights of despotism and repression. As of January 2020, Alaa reports being systematically deprived of his rights to exercise, fresh air, and hot water while held in the notorious Torah Prison complex.
Yet despite his relentless persecution by the Egyptian authorities, Alaa has continued to write, think, and communicate prolifically over the past ten years. Many of his essays and articles have been smuggled out from a prison cell. With the erosion of his last remaining liberties in recent years, his strategy has been to use his fortnightly hearings with the State Prosecutor (a formality, used to indefinitely renew his detainment without trial) as a platform from which both to report on his own condition, and to continue holding Sisi’s dictatorship to account. At these hearings, his lawyers take notes as fast as they can, reconstructing his words later on with Alaa’s family.
A selection of Alaa’s writings, speeches, and interviews from the past decade has now been gathered into one volume, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in October 2021. The book features a Foreword by Naomi Klein, in which the author of This Changes Everything traces some overarching themes and concerns of Alaa’s thought for readers unfamiliar with his output. The title page of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated tells us that Alaa’s works have been translated by “A Collective.” This ascription serves two purposes. Firstly, it’s a reminder that the publication and circulation of Alaa’s words in itself constitutes an act of resistance, and that real and continual dangers threaten those involved in the chain of transmission.
But it’s also the case that the collective translation of Alaa’s words aligns with his own fundamental ethos. Despite his prominence in Egypt’s radical and dissident circles, Alaa’s writing makes it clear that the only way forward, the only way to effect real change, is through cooperation and collective action. There’s no room for egoism in revolutionary politics, because it’s only a short step from monomania to autocracy. Alaa’s instinctive empathy is manifest on every page of the book. Hours before his arrest on November 27th, 2013, he tweets asking after the safety of Cairo University students during a police invasion; in March 2019, his second post after spending five years in prison (the first was the cryptic, poetic assertion, “I’m the ghost of spring past”) calls for the release of his fellow political prisoner and collaborator in writing, Ahmad Douma. While Alaa’s concern for and commitment to others derives from an innate sense of human dignity, it’s also grounded in serious, robust political thought. In “Five Metaphors on Healing,” he quotes Vladimir Lenin, Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, and Walter Benjamin; elsewhere, his writing demonstrates an unforced familiarity with Marx and Gramsci. The coming together in Alaa’s writing of profound theoretical knowledge with an instinct for solidarity and compassion produces a voice at once authoritative and immediate, intelligent and lyrical.
The extraordinary versatility of Alaa’s register, ranging from furious polemic to personal reflection to rigorous theorising – as in his three-part series on Uber and contemporary political economy entitled “The Birth of a Brave New World” – is matched by the book’s presentation of a variety of media and communicative modes. Interviews, essays, letters, “notes” and social media posts are all printed. The latter form is especially crucial. As well as being an activist and blogger, Alaa, before his imprisonment, was a software engineer who worked to increase the functionality of websites and programmes in Arabic culture and language. A large proportion of his writing is concerned with the Internet: its potential and its actuality, with the discrepancy between the two often an index for the comparable derailment, or failure, of other radical agendas. In 2011, Alaa was invited to speak at RightsCon, a Silicon Valley-based conference on the intersection of tech and human rights. While at the conference, he learned that he had been summoned to the military prosecutor in Egypt. His talk begins with this fact, yet, as ever, broadens beyond his own example. “I urge you to find ways to stand in solidarity with anyone who is facing extraordinary justice,” he tells the audience. Then the speech continues, and it’s probably not what the crowd of tech-bros and angel investors expected to hear:
I guess I’m here […] to talk about how tech companies can find ways to maintain and promote and protect and respect the human rights of their users. Now, that’s a topic I’m quite cynical about. Companies are not really likely to do any of that.
While constantly stressing the importance of an internationalist perspective, as the RightsCon speech suggests, Alaa’s under no illusions about the state of democracies elsewhere. “It’s clear that the entire world order is in crisis, and the crises are mounting. Just look at the UK, it’s an utter farce,” he tells the Egyptian newspaper Mada Masr in an interview from April 2019. The message isn’t that Western liberal democracies provide the shining, salvific example for authoritarian regimes like Egypt, but rather that “playing the game of nations” means that all sides lose: “We reach out to you not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems.” Nuance and accuracy – powerful tools in the ongoing fight against obfuscation and misinformation – require attention to uncomfortable facts. One such is that many of Alaa’s charges and sentences are based on laws instituted by British colonial governments, revived by the series of oppressive and opportunistic juntas in the turmoil after the 2011 revolution. Alaa observes elsewhere that Egyptian state violence often models itself on international predecessors: “the military is using tactics that we’ve only seen […] from the Israelis and the Americans and the British […] from an occupying alien force.”
The flipside of Alaa’s unromantic view of the globality of contemporary crises is an emphasis on the possibilities of a genuinely widespread movement. The book’s title comes from a 2017 letter to RightsCon – the same conference at which he spoke in 2011 – sent from Torah prison. In the letter, Alaa outlines what those in other countries, those who maintain a degree of freedom and agency, can do in the struggle for justice. He insists on the importance of the Internet as a place where people can experiment with their identities and communities; he warns of the dangers of complacency, of thinking that because we in the West have democracy, we’re immune to the creeping authoritarianism and nationalism resurgent across the globe. The reason, Alaa says, that he wants to impart these messages and ideas, is because “unlike me, you have not yet been defeated.” His tone is powerfully ambiguous. “Yet”: no culture, no country, however stable it believes itself to be, is inured to the collapse of liberty into tyranny. Likewise, the address to ‘you’ is no reverential plea. Rather, it registers a frustration, a disbelief that those with the capacity and the freedom to act still remain apathetic. In a bitter 2014 article published in Mada Masr, entitled “Everybody Knows,” this anger is expressed in the form of an unignorable question – or accusation: ‘what about you? You who are against these injustices and are still on the outside? What will you do?’
The point, though, isn’t only to castigate the inertia of those able to live in relative freedom, in Egypt and elsewhere. The point is in the verb: ‘you’- we – have to do something. To do something is not to presuppose total, glorious victory; as Alaa knows, failure is often the likeliest outcome. But the possibility, even the inevitability of failure, is not an excuse for inaction:
“All that’s asked of us is that we fight for what’s right. We don’t have to be winning while we fight for what’s right, we don’t have to be strong while we fight for what’s right, we don’t have to be prepared while we fight for what’s right, or to have a good plan, or be well organized. All that’s asked of us is that we don’t stop fighting for what’s right.”
You Have Not Yet Been Defeated spans ten years, both of Alaa’s writing, and of the collapse of the 2011 revolution into a barely-functional authoritarian regime reliant on systematic illegal torture and repression to maintain its power. As such, it seems at times to track the slow disintegration of its author’s initial optimism. The opening piece, “Who Will Write the Constitution?” is full of practical fervour, a sense of real opportunity. By 2021, Alaa not only speaks of himself, and of the aspirations of the Revolution, as “defeated,” but for the first time shifts his own commitments: he asks poignantly “that we sacrifice our dreams so that our children may still have dreams of their own.” He’s speaking here of his own son, Khaled, whose birth he missed while imprisoned. Yet “our children” are also the generations to come, across the world, to and for whom we are responsible. A 2019 piece discusses climate change, arguing that the real crisis lies in “our failure to imagine alternatives for how we organize politics and the economy;” in 2020, the pandemic prompts Alaa to demand that “what comes next must not be like what went before.”
Alaa was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in December 2021, so recently that the book makes no mention of it. He was in prison during the Russian invasion of Ukraine; perhaps an essay on this latest senseless act of tyranny, searching, angry, and inspiring, will find its way out of his cell. Perhaps it won’t. He remains there today, and won’t see the publication of his work in English next month. But we, the addressees of the title, will. So what are we going to do about it?
By Alaa Abd El-Fattah
Translated from the Arabic by a collective
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 448 pages
Ben Philipps lives in London. He writes primarily on modern and contemporary literature, art, and philosophy. Some areas of special interest are pragmatism, Theodor Adorno, and ice cream.