Inside Sisi’s Prisons: Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s Fight for Freedom
Interview With Sharif Abdel Kouddous
October 18, 2022
Since 2013, counter-revolutionary Egypt has become known for its mass imprisonment, which has turned the activists of the 2011 revolution into “generation jail.” Rights groups have estimated that Egypt holds 60,000 political prisoners, many of them imprisoned without trial–and the number may in reality be much higher. Among them is Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a leftist writer and organizer imprisoned repeatedly for his activism and his political writings. Alaa is currently on a hunger strike in prison that has lasted over six months; his condition is critical. In many ways, his case reflects the reality of Egypt since Sisi’s counter-revolution in 2013. Spectre’s Shireen Akram-Boshar interviews Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a journalist who has worked on Alaa’s case, about the campaign for Alaa’s freedom, the repression of the counter-revolution, and the hope for his case as well as for an end to the Sisi regime.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He works as an editor and reporter at Mada Masr, and has closely covered Alaa’s case and worked on the campaign for his freedom.
Today, September 29, 2022, is the third anniversary of Alaa’s re-arrest, when he was taken from the police station where he was forced to spend 12 hours a day after the previous sentence he had served. So it’s been three years to the day since he’s been in prison in this latest imprisonment.
Alaa is a writer, a technologist, and a political activist. He first emerged in the early 2000s as a computer programmer and blogger, and he worked on technology localization, on the Arabization of terminology and translating user interfaces into Arabic. He and his wife ran one of the first Arabic blog aggregators, which created a platform that was a nexus of early online activism in Egypt.
Alaa has been arrested or prosecuted by every Egyptian regime that has ruled in his lifetime. His first arrest and imprisonment came in 2006 under the Mubarak regime. He had joined protests calling for the independence of the judiciary. But it was when the revolution erupted in January 2011, when Alaa moved back to Egypt from South Africa where he was living with his wife to take part in the uprising, that he really emerged as an incredibly effective and engaged political activist. He was among the most eloquent revolutionaries and political thinkers, and he was always looking to the margins and to the marginalized for inspiration. And for this he’s paid a very heavy price.
The government of Mohamad Morsi issued an arrest warrant for him, but didn’t imprison him. It was really when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coup to overthrow Morsi, marking the beginning of the Sisi regime, that we saw this massive counter-revolutionary movement come in and quash any form of dissent, crush all political opposition, and close all avenues of political organizing. And part of that was targeting the icons of 2011, and there is probably no bigger icon of 2011 than Alaa. After the coup in 2013, he was arrested by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for activism that he did around the killing of 27 mostly Coptic Christian protesters in October of 2011, which was known as the Maspero massacre, and he spent fifty-something days in prison.
Alaa was in and out of prison, but in 2013 he was arrested for a protest against a draconian protest law, which he didn’t actually in fact organize, but he was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He served those five years, was released in early 2019, and part of his sentence was that he had five more years of what’s called probation. The strict probationary measures meant he had to submit himself to a police station for 12 hours a day, from 6 PM to 6 AM. He was living a kind of half-freedom. He talks about how difficult it was to turn himself in. It’s not like he’s being arrested from his home or taken off the street as happened before; he had to willingly turn himself in to the authorities every day.
In September 2019, small but significant protests against the Sisi regime were sparked in part by a former military contractor and actor who put out videos naming names of generals accusing them of corruption. The protests were met with the biggest arrest sweep of Sisi’s time in power. Over 4,000 people were arrested: regular people off the street, prominent activists as well as people who had never before been targeted for arrest, like university professors, lawyers, journalists—everyone was being swept up in this massive arrest sweep. Alaa was one of them.
State security forces, also called National Security, came and arrested him from the police station around 6 am just as he was about to be released. He was taken to Tora prison where for the first time he was subjected to what is in Arabic called “al Tashreefa,” loosely translated as a “welcome party,” where you are beaten and tortured upon entrance into the prison by two lines of guards, and you have to walk through this cordon of violence. Because of his stature, his class, and his political prominence, he had in the past been spared these kinds of things that were regularly dealt out to other prisoners. But this time an officer, a National Security officer according to him, told him: “We hate the revolution. You will never get out of here this time.” And he was then subjected to the worst prison conditions he had faced thus far. He was put in a maximum security wing of Tora prison, where he was denied sunlight and fresh air, or any time outside of his cell. He was denied any kind of reading material or radio, a pen and paper, even a mattress to sleep on. And he was in that prison, in that state, up until April of this year.
Alaa was being held, as thousands of political prisoners are in Egypt, in pretrial detention. Pretrial detention has been used by this regime, instead of as a legal tool to investigate crimes, as a tool of mass repression. The vast, vast majority of political prisoners in Egypt are being held in pretrial detention without ever being convicted of a crime. Under Egypt’s penal code, you can be held in pretrial detention for up to two years. And what often happens is, if they want to keep you in, as the two years are coming to a close they do something called “tadweer,” which means rotation or recycling, and they file new charges against you and the pretrial detention clock is reset and you’re kept in prison. There are so many cases of people being held for years like this. In Alaa’s case, they did eventually refer him to trial, him and Mohamed Baker—his lawyer who was arrested with him—and the blogger Mohamed Oxygen. They were tried in a state security emergency court, which is an exceptional court whose rulings cannot be appealed.
It was an absurd proceeding; I attended it. The defense lawyers were not allowed to see the case file. They didn’t really know what the charges were or what the evidence was. Within three court sessions he was sentenced to five years in prison, essentially for re-sharing a tweet about the torture of a prisoner by the same kind of National Security officer who’s overseeing him in prison now. That’s the absurdity of it. The over two years he had spent in prison up until then did not count toward the new sentence, so the first time he would be able to come out is in 2027. They clearly want to just keep him in prison.
Alaa decided on April 2nd of this year to launch a hunger strike. This was an act not of desperation but of resilience. At the time he was still in the maximum security wing of Tora prison, and he had kind of reached his end point, for the first time expressing suicidal thoughts. This hunger strike was a way of him using his body as a form of resistance, taking agency over himself the only way a prisoner can. And so he started an open-ended hunger strike, calling for consular access and for certain other rights, and ultimately for his release. He started that hunger strike first with a technique that Egyptian prisoners actually learned from Palestinian prisoners, which is to use just water and salt—the salt keeps your blood pressure up and helps you sustain the hunger strike.
After some gains in his case, improvements in his condition, and some pressure from the UK, Alaa decided to switch his hunger strike to 100 calories a day, which is more of a Ghandi-style hunger strike. Alaa studies these things very closely. So he takes something like a spoonful of honey with his tea, and has been doing that for several months now. Today is his 181st day. But an average adult male needs something like 2,000-2,500 calories a day, so 100 calories is really nothing, although it does help to sustain the hunger strike. The last time his sister Mona saw him in a visitation, she was taken aback and shocked by his physical appearance. His eyes were kind of sunken into his head, she said his arms were extremely thin, he was very frail, and could hardly stand. But she said his mind was still very quick and active. So it is taking a toll on him. But he has vowed that he won’t end the hunger strike. I think he is determined not to serve this five year sentence. Either he’ll be released, or he’ll die.
Alaa is imprisoned and paying a very heavy price because the regime is making an example out of him; he is a symbol that they are trying to crush. He is a symbol of 2011, and there is an element of revenge in the regime’s treatment of him. Ironically, through the regime’s repression of both Alaa and his family they have also bolstered his status and the status of his family. They’ve turned them into symbols of resistance as well.
Alaa’s family has been advocating for him throughout. His sister Sanaa was imprisoned three times for a total of three years and three months. She was imprisoned for trying to get a letter from Alaa. The regime had cut off all communication, so she and his mother were staging a sit-in in front of the prison to demand a letter. For that they were beaten by regime thugs, and then Sanaa was arrested and imprisoned for a year and a half.
As all this was happening, the family worked to secure British citizenship for Alaa. Alaa and his siblings had the right to British citizenship because their mother was born in London and has citizenship. So when they realized that the regime was not going to let Alaa out, and likely would never free him, the family sought this citizenship as a way to get another government that could put pressure on the regime to advocate for his case. Alaa was granted British citizenship sometime in late 2021. But up until now, Alaa has not been granted consular access by the British embassy, which is his legal right. The Egyptian authorities have refused to grant that.
But the one thing that did change following a major international campaign for Alaa, and some pressure by the British, was that he was transferred from Tora prison, the maximum security wing, to a new prison facility in Wadi Natrun, which is about a hundred kilometers north of Cairo. This prison facility is not called a prison; it’s officially named a “rehabilitation center.” In a speech in September 2021, Sisi said that Egypt is building eight or nine “American-style prisons,” and this prison was launched with a fancy YouTube video showing prisoners getting instruction and classes and working on a farm, showing apparently humane conditions.
So, Alaa’s conditions have changed now; he’s held with two other prisoners, and is allowed reading material, a pen and paper. He’s allowed outside of his cell once a day for twenty minutes, not outside in the sunlight, but in an enclosed hall. He still gets just one visitation per month for twenty minutes behind a glass barrier. And this is how we hear from Alaa, either from family report on what he’s said during their visits, or through letters that he writes, which he’s allowed to do once a week. In a couple of his recent letters he has said that he can’t take it anymore, that he’s not sure that he has it in him to push back against feelings of despair. He’s come to very strongly believe that they will never let him out of prison alive.
There have been different waves of campaigning for Alaa during his various imprisonments.
In the latest stage of the campaign for him, his friends and family and other activists compiled a selection of his writings, speeches, and his social media posts, and published the book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. This was to bring Alaa’s voice to a non-Arabic speaking audience. Sanaa has said that if Alaa is imprisoned because of his voice, then publishing this book is a way of breaking him out of prison, to let his voice be heard. Most of the writing was already printed in Arabic, but it was also compiled into a book called The Ghost of Spring. That marked the start of a new push for Alaa’s freedom, and also coincided with his sentencing, where it was clear that the regime was simply not going to let him go.
Sanaa and I went on a book tour, and spoke at different universities while building solidarity campaigns abroad, both in Europe and in the United States. There’s been a lot of campaigning done by the family to the British Parliament because of Alaa’s British citizenship. Dozens of MPs have signed onto letters calling for Alaa to be released or granted consular access. There’s been campaigning in Egypt to the extent that we can. There’s something called the National Council of Human Rights which is a state-appointed body, which is pretty ineffective as a human rights body, but the head of that body did raise Alaa’s case, and I think this did help get him transferred to another prison.
I think it’s important to realize that Egypt, for at least the past forty years, relies on its Western allies to exist, and this is no different with the Sisi regime. Egypt is the second biggest recipient of US military aid in the world, it’s Britain’s largest trading partner, it relies on the West for economic, military and diplomatic support in order to survive. This is why putting pressure on the United States and Britain to act and to demand that Alaa be released is a campaign tactic. It’s a multi-pronged effort.
And there are tens of thousands of prisoners in Egypt; it’s not all about Alaa. But if Alaa is released, it will mark a significant victory and change. If the regime succumbs to having to free him when they absolutely don’t want to, that will potentially mark some kind of turning point for how the regime deals with political prisoners, and what it thinks it can get away with.
In fact, this regime is very susceptible to pressure. It comes off as very strong and repressive, and while it is very repressive it’s not strong. It’s an unstable regime. It doesn’t have a political party, and it doesn’t have any kind of mass support. It’s run by a very small inner circle, by the intelligence services, and the police. Popular anger and unrest pops up at different times, and they can’t totally contain it, despite this massive repression. An unstable system can last a very long time, but it is unstable and inherently there are opportunities in that. Right now the economic situation is absolutely dire. There is a combination of taking on massive debt over the past several years, and a foreign currency crisis that was precipitated or made much worse by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and a bunch of other factors. But the government has put itself in such a precarious position that Egypt may have to default on these loans. The Egyptian pound has already hit a record low against the dollar. So they’re very desperate in many different ways. Egypt is also hosting the United Nations Climate Conference, COP27, in November in Sharm el-Sheikh.
The latest efforts in the campaign for Alaa is focused on encouraging the climate justice movement to integrate human rights concerns into its discourse and advocacy in the run up to COP27. Activists are determined not to let this climate conference be an opportunity to greenwash all of these forms of repression that Egypt’s doing. Egypt is trying to position itself as the country campaigning for the Global South to get climate reparations and climate funding to transition to green energy. They’ve hired two PR firms in the US to help them sell this message. They work very hard at it, and in some ways it is effective. So this is also a place where there is an opportunity to push, because Egypt is hosting this thing. It has to open its doors to many different groups to come, and if people tie these things together that could be a source of pressure on the government as well.
All of these things have led to the authorities having to play a little nicer, because they need Western support in order to survive economically and politically. So we saw last year that they announced the release of what’s called the National Strategy for Human Rights, which they touted with much pomp and circumstance as addressing the human rights situation in Egypt, and they also formed a presidential amnesty committee to look into cases of prisoners.
In terms of the National Strategy for Human Rights, both Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and almost every local Egyptian human rights organization has decried this as nothing more than a cosmetic document that doesn’t really address any of the real human rights violations in Egypt. Egypt ended the Emergency Law last year, which had been in place for most of Egypt’s modern existence. But very quickly afterwards, Sisi then enshrined into law many of the extrajudicial powers that the Emergency Law had granted. We have seen a lot of high-profile political prisoners and other less high-profile prisoners released in the last few months because of this presidential amnesty committee. These are mostly activists who were swept up in the September 2019 arrest sweep, and most of them were in pretrial detention. So the US State Department and people in Congress have applauded this, but at the same time they’re still arresting scores of people for minor acts of what they perceive as dissent, some of them not even that.
With regards to Mada Masr, the crackdown didn’t necessarily happen just because of the campaign for Alaa. Mada covers a wide range of issues, and there have been different forms of repression. Mada was one of the first websites to be blocked in Egypt, it’s been blocked since March 2017. And since then over 600 websites of human rights organizations and media outlets have been blocked in the country. Then in November 2019, after an article we published about Sisi’s son and his role in the intelligence services, and some tensions within the regime, they arrested one of our editors from his home, essentially kidnapped him, and the next day raided our office, held all of us there for several hours, and then arrested the chief editor, the managing editor, and another journalist. They were very quickly released following a lot of massive pressure, both domestically and internationally.
Since then, Lina Atallah, the chief editor, was arrested again when she tried to do an interview with Alaa’s mother outside of Tora prison. She spent the night in prison, but she got out. And recently after an article talking about tensions within the main party in parliament that is a puppet party set up by the intelligence services, they filed charges against three of the journalists, and Lina Atallah as well. They were not detained, but were questioned and then let go on bail.
Mada is one of the last independent media outlets operating in Egypt, and it’s operating in a very, very closed space. Probably the most closed it’s been since Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. The intelligence services have, through censorship and through acquisition, taken complete control of the rest of the media. The intelligence services are now the biggest media owner in Egypt. They bought a lot of the newspapers and TV outlets through a private equity firm, and this is something that Mada exposed. We’re always operating in this very restricted space. And we don’t know when these waves of crackdowns will happen.
The regime seems very vulnerable now and afraid because of the economic situation. Economic inequality has severely deepened through a series of austerity measures and neoliberal economic policies, many of which were based on an IMF loan in 2016. This $12 billion loan came with an economic reform package that involved all the usual IMF requirements of tax hikes, subsidy cuts, and privatization. Subsidies on fuel and electricity have been lifted, taxes have gone up, the currency has lost over half of its value. And in the meantime, the government has spent billions of pounds on these lavish mega-projects like building a new administrative capital, building cities, building thousands of kilometers of bridges and roads all across the country. A lot of these new cities are mostly uninhabited because they’re out in the desert and away from local commercial networks and where people grew up. People don’t want to move. They demolished houses and neighborhoods and razed entire areas to start this massive project. And so people are very angry.
Currently Egypt is the second biggest borrower from the IMF, second only to Argentina, and is negotiating very heavily for another loan because they have a foreign currency crisis. They have been trying to lift the last subsidy which is on bread. The last time someone tried to do that was Sadat in 1977, and that led to three days of riots and almost toppled his government, forcing him to reinstate them. We have to see whether this vulnerability translates into more political openness, because they need to gain allies and push away the very muted criticism that comes from Western governments.
But Egypt has solidified all of these relationships by also becoming the third largest weapons importer in the world. Only ahead of Egypt in purchasing weapons is India and Saudi Arabia. We’ve become the biggest purchaser of weapons from Germany, the biggest purchaser of weapons from France, and one of Britain’s largest trading partners. We bought a couple dozen Rafale fighter jets from France that nobody wants. We bought submarines and communication satellites and all this stuff. So this really does solidify relationships because we’re, for lack of a better term, we’re buying their shit. And it’s profitable for foreign governments, and so they look the other way. Angela Merkel, right before leaving office, signed a 5 billion euro deal with Egypt for weapons contracts. So this is kind of the other side of the coin, a source of the regime’s strength.
Yes. They do speak out on certain things, and they can be useful, but I think we all have to realize where the actual relationship lies. Egypt also receives hundreds of millions of euros to enforce its borders and to keep Egyptians from crossing the Mediterranean and getting to Europe’s shores, which is the big fear of European politicians. Migration from Egypt, from the sea, and from the coastline of Egypt has largely stopped. They’ve been very effective at stopping it. But what we’ve seen is hundreds, if not thousands, of young men cross into Libya which has a much more porous border, and try to get to Europe from there. The UN migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), recently said that the second largest number of undocumented migrants coming to Europe’s shores after Afghans are Egyptians. This just happened over the last couple of years. So we’re seeing this max exodus of mostly young men, who have no economic opportunity, face very severe political repression, and have no hope. They’re just fleeing the country.
So, you know, that’s where the country stands. It’s not a very good situation, but I think there’s always room for hope. The number one thing everyone works on is to get people out of prison. That is first and foremost. But we don’t even have an accurate number of political prisoners. The number of 60,000 political prisoners has been bandied around for years. The New York Times did a very laudable investigation into pretrial detention, trying to come up with numbers as well.
I think the book is an important text for an English-reading audience, for a number of reasons. First of all, Alaa is a very versatile thinker, and tackles a lot of different ideas and political issues. His book enters the canon of prison literature in a very real way. It deals with prison life, its effects on the body, and its effects on the psyche as well as ideas about healing and regeneration.
But he’s a technologist first and foremost, and somehow from his prison cell, he kind of predicted the world that we live in now or what happened during the pandemic where everything is kind of a click away and a worker will bring something to your door and disappear and we’re all stuck in front of our screens and what this kind of capitalism means. After coming out of his first five-year stint in prison, he was shocked at how we communicate with each other, how we’re writing to each other in emojis and abbreviations instead of full discourse. Even though he is a technologist and he’s very tech savvy of course, all of this was a shock to him. I think it’s a change that we all are used to because it happened slowly, but for him, he didn’t have access to a cell phone for five years and came out and said this is problematic, we’re not speaking to each other, and there’s no room for proper discourse anymore.
A central message of the book, however, relates to the title. In “you have not yet been defeated,” the “you” is the reader, the English-language reader abroad. Alaa has been one of very few people to confront the defeat of the Egyptian Revolution in a very honest and real way. Most activists involved are either traumatized and don’t want to face it, don’t want to discuss it, or claim that the revolution was not defeated and we’re just in some difficult phase and so on. But Alaa very bravely confronts it and says, “we were defeated, let’s examine why we were defeated, what were our mistakes, what can we learn from this defeat, and how can we move forward.” And I think the message to a larger Western, English-speaking audience, is: “you have not yet been defeated, and so, these are some of the lessons you can learn from us, before your defeat comes.” Actually, one of his messages is that the way you can help Egypt is to fix your own democracy. Because Egypt relies on its relationships with Western powers, if the people in these countries made their governments genuinely democratic, these relationships would be forced onto an entirely different foundation.