“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” This quotation, attributed to Antonio Gramsci writing from a prison cell in fascist Italy, would make a fitting epigram for Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s collection of Egyptian prison writings translated by an anonymous collective and published under the title You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.
Alaa’s writing is assured and often insightful, ranging widely over subjects from climate change, feminism, and sectarianism to artificial intelligence, emojis and the Internet. Fundamental to his project is rethinking the defeat of the Arab Spring. In a series of personal accounts and short essays, Alaa takes the reader through the last eleven years, as the progress towards democracy in Egypt was rolled back by a degree of repression unknown in the country’s modern history.
To set the context, we have to dial back to 2011, when mass protests deposed Egypt’s then military dictator Hosni Mubarak. After a brief hiatus, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — the newly appointed minister of defence whom President Trump later described as his favorite dictator — staged a coup, returning the military to power. He inaugurated his power-grab with a one-day slaughter of almost a thousand protestors, then rewarded himself with a promotion to Field Marshal. Since then, the junta has gone on a building spree, more than doubling the number of prisons in the country to accommodate tens of thousands of political prisoners. Egyptians who dare to criticize the junta risk having their citizenship revoked and are hounded abroad. A couple of years ago, the Canadian media reported on a reception in Ontario where the Egyptian Minister of Immigration suggested Egyptian-Canadians critical of Egypt’s military rulers should have their throats slit. Earlier this year, the US Congress’s Egypt Human Rights Caucus stated, “The government of Egypt has continued to engage in widespread torture, suppression of dissent, and even persecution of American citizens and the families of critics living in the United States.”
In a recent report for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey eldin Hassan wrote of the Arab Spring, “The Egyptian uprising lacked an organised leadership with a medium- or long-term strategic vision, a clear programme of action, and an objective, fact-based assessment of allies and opponents.” Alaa provides flesh to this barebones summary of failings. From the confines of his prison cell, he exercises what he calls “an alternative imagination,” reconceptualizing Egypt’s challenges by applying “a globalized consciousness” to “a local arena” with a willingness to learn from the experiences of others. An inspirational model is the South African Congress of the People and the drafting of the Freedom Charter. He writes, “[Nelson] Mandela and his comrades needed the public to educate them politically. Why assume that we’re any better?”
Despite the years he has spent incarcerated, there is humor and even joy in Alaa’s words. This is especially so when writing of his son, born while he was in prison. The terms Alaa coins are often expressive and apt, as when he refers to the Egyptian economy under the junta becoming a “gangster economy” and Egypt a “hostage state.” The descriptions were more than justified when at the International Youth Forum, held this year in Egypt, Field Marshal al-Sisi demanded Western governments pay him $50 billion to permit Egyptians their basic human rights. His words recorded and broadcast by the BBC couldn’t have been blunter: “Give me the money.”
During the 2011 uprising, Tahrir Square in central Cairo was the eye of the storm where hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered daily. It was where a nation woke to itself and its potential to achieve a political system where “the democratic rotation of power” was possible and answer the question “how do we protect our children’s bodies from the legacy of prisons?” For violence is not contained by prison walls. It overspills them, contaminating all of society. Alaa writes that being in the square was where many Egyptians discovered “we love life.” But it was also where the revolution was lost, when the crowds dispersed prematurely, believing they had won.
Truth is a word Alaa associates with his father, a distinguished and dedicated human rights lawyer who died while Alaa was in jail. One of the most moving chapters is the transcript of Alaa’s speech at his father’s memorial service. Truth is what authoritarian regimes fear and resist through obfuscation and absurdity. An example he cites is what Egyptians mockingly called the kofta, or meatball, machine. Shortly after their coup, the military unveiled a miracle machine, claiming it could diagnose and cure AIDS and Hepatitis C with the wave of a wand. The comedian Bassem Youssef soon debunked the claim on Egyptian television, pointing out the machine was a novelty golf ball detector with no medical or magical powers.
Robert Springborg, in a report for the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, wrote of Field Marshal al-Sisi, “His approach is reminiscent of the strategies of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini... Lacking charisma or democratic legitimacy, al-Sisi has neutered political institutions such as parliament, local councils, and the once semi-independent media, choosing to rely on the wow factor.” The kofta machine was to be the first of several such wows. Those resistant to the wows are, like Alaa, in jail or, like Youssef, have fled the country.
Over the years, the wows have varied from the crass to the kitsch: from the Field Marshal erecting the world’s tallest flagpole; to the Field Marshal striding along an Avenue of Sphinxes as loud speakers blared the Death Star theme from the Star Wars movies; to the Field Marshal paying obeisance at a parade of ancient Egyptian mummies on motorized chariots, with choirs and troupes of dancers, and a 21-cannon salute. For Alaa, these are the charades of “a murderer” and “a monster” disguising his criminality with “nationalist and identity-based discourses.”
A characteristic pose of the Field Marshal is to puff up his chest, as his face takes on a sullen expression like a child on the verge of a tantrum. The body communicates one attitude while the face another. It is a demeanor both threatening and abject. In The Meaning of the Circus, Paul Bouissac attributes this kind of anxiety-inducing ambiguity to clowns projecting themselves as “physical and moral monstrosities.”
Alaa remains incarcerated. The injustice of his condition is condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Office, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, as well as by many other organizations. He is one of over 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. What we have of him is this book of reflections and prison notes. It is a necessary read to understand Egypt today, but also worth reading to know Alaa. In a penetrating foreword, Naomi Klein writes, this book “must be read for the precision of its language, for its bold experimentations with form and style, and for the endlessly original ways it author finds to express disdain for tyrants … Most of all, it must be read for what Alaa has to tell us about revolutions.” Ultimately, it is a clear-eyed and moving account of one man’s courage and compassion.
Karim Alrawi is a novelist and playwright. His international awards include the John Whiting Award for British and Commonwealth Writers, the Samuel Beckett Award for the Performing Arts, the HarperCollins Best New Fiction Prize, and the Wallace Stegner Award for the Arts. He was in Egypt during the Arab Spring assisting at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and supporting the international media reporting on the uprising.