Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd el-Fattah review – a message to the world from an Egyptian prison

(Guardian review, 12 November 2021)

The jailed activist’s writings, some of them smuggled out of his cell, keep the spirit of the 2011 revolution alive

Protesters in front of Cairo's high court, where Alaa Abd el-Fattah and four others were charged with inciting violence,
March 2013. Photograph: Ed Giles/Getty Images

Rachel Aspden

Fri 12 Nov 2021 02.30 EST
In early 2011, a generation of Egyptians took to the streets, faced down the security forces and defied the old rule that Egypt’s citizens could never be more than cowed, obedient children of a military state. “I am addressing the youth of Egypt today … from the heart, a father’s dialogue with his sons and daughters,” the 82-year-old dictator Hosni Mubarak said as he clung to power. In Tahrir Square, tens of thousands of his “sons and daughters” – most of them not yet born when he inherited power from Anwar Sadat in 1981 – found this new intimacy unconvincing after the teargas and bullets, and chanted for his downfall.

By the next day Mubarak was gone, and the protesters were being hailed by the world leaders who had helped keep him in office for so long. (“Egypt will never be the same,” said Barack Obama, whose administration gave the country’s military $1.3bn each year.) One of the best known was the 29-year-old programmer Alaa Abd el-Fattah, already a veteran of street protest and imprisonment, and a champion of the online spaces that gave young Egyptians a virtual escape from the stifling political and social repression within their own borders. To many, he personified the narrative of a fresh start made possible partly by the new tools of global information sharing – what the international media labelled a “social media revolution”.

Ten years on, a military dictator is back in power in Cairo and Abd el-Fattah is back in prison, alongside an estimated 60,000 other political detainees. You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a collection of his writings across that turbulent decade, from essays to tweets to reflections scrawled in pencil and smuggled out of prison, translated and edited by an anonymous collective of supporters. It opens after the euphoria of Tahrir, in the chaotic days of late 2011, veering from fine-grained arguments over a new constitution to visceral reports of the violence the state was still inflicting on those who defied it. “We fought time with slabs of ice and miserable fans,” he says of struggling to preserve bodies retrieved from the Maspero massacre of Coptic protesters; the interim military council locks him up again for his efforts.

Abd el-Fattah at his home in Cairo, 2019. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

This mosaic of texts builds a picture of both the principles of resistance and democracy-building and the ugly, absurd, frightening, occasionally joyful experience of living by them in a stubbornly unreformed dictatorship. It’s also a reckoning with the legacy of his much-loved father, the human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who was imprisoned and tortured under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. “From my father, I inherited a prison cell and a dream,” Abd el-Fattah writes. In 2011, he is in prison for the birth of his son Khaled, just as his father missed the birth of his sister Mona; in 2014, he misses his father’s death, too.

As the public and private tragedies mount up, cracks appear in his usual eloquence and certainty: he describes his sadness at leaving Khaled to meet his nightly probation curfew; his fears that imprisonment will leave him permanently unemployable; his struggle, in a succession of lonely, decrepit cells, with despair. “Our sin was pride, not treachery,” he writes from prison after the military coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – later described by Donald Trump as “my favourite dictator” – to power. “We said, ‘We’re not like those who came before us.’” For the revolutionaries, the state’s massacre of more than 900 Islamist protesters after the coup is a brutal turning point “we will never be able to escape”. In the end, Egypt’s past proves impossible to shake.

But like the success of the revolution in 2011, its defeat isn’t only an Egyptian story. The rest of us are the “you” of the book’s title, and the speech it is drawn from makes a call to understand and protect the internet as a space for “universal rights and freedoms” – to see and act against tax avoidance, policy interference, the gig economy, algorithms that promote fake news, the exploitation of our data, our reduction to passive eyeballs for advertisers. “Fix your own democracy,” Abd el-Fattah encourages us, from his cell; Egypt’s rulers attempt to isolate, fragment and conceal resistance because it needs a global ecosystem to flourish. What can any one person do with a legacy of pain, struggle and courage? There are no easy solutions here, but You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a heartbreaking, hopeful answer.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, translated by an anonymous collective, is published by Fitzcarraldo (£12.99).

[In the US it is published as an eBook by Barnes & Noble.]

Interview with Alaa Abd el-Fattah on "Democracy Now!" October 21, 2021 HERE.

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