On Alaa

We went up to the sea, to the beach, in the summers. One year it was all kids. A digital camp of some kind. I forget. It was the summer “Independence Day” came out. 1996. I was watching the trailer, sat on the floor, when the window shattered. Glass sprayed and slid across the floor and at the other end of the room, amidst the wreckage, was Alaa, laughing, his leg gushing blood. He had been so engrossed in some game that he’d run straight through a glass door. Manal, the new girl on the scene, marked out her territory as his nurse. They were 14 years old, and have been together ever since.

Metaphors abound.

It is October 31, 2011, 15 years later, and a crowd of thousands is calling Alaa’s name. We march through downtown leaving a trail of sprayed “@alaa” avatar graffiti in our wake. We raise our hands and our voices and our chants resound with the anger that has been building since the betrayal of General Fangary’s salute.

clap clap clap clap

7ORREYA!

clap clap clap clap

FREEDOM!

We fill the street outside Bab al-Khalq Prison. We raise our middle fingers at the men with moustaches and cigarettes watching us from the roof. We fill the night with a noise we are certain will reach Alaa in his cell hidden beyond the walls. The tiny, frozen cell he’s crushed into with eight other prisoners. It’s pitch black. And when the sun finally rises it illuminates the date of a previous inmate’s execution.

Our tears overcome us.

Our voices did not reach him.

I dreamt last night that Khaled was happy and talking and smiling again. But as my waking life is filled with sorrow, so my dreams are riven with violence.

One month later we are sitting outside Tora prison. Dozens of families wait by the gates. A horse and cart circles the prison walls, carrying a choir of children chanting “The army and the people are one hand.” Mona is sitting on the curb writing her brother a letter. Manal is nine months pregnant. Being a cousin with a strange name carries no weight; the guards do not let me in.

“ROCKS, he said. 

“Rocks were the single most important tool of [the 18 days]”.

Not what the RightsCon tech conference in San Francisco was expecting to hear when they invited an Egyptian blogger to give a keynote address. Three days later he would fly back to Egypt to hand himself in to the military prosecutor. Rocks and words. All we’ve ever had to fight with.

The first time I saw Alaa in Tahrir he was marching towards the Museum with an armful of rocks. The Camel Battle. Like so many of us, he didn’t have a very good throw, but, like so many of us, he was up there, hurling everything he had over the barricades, into the unknown.

Nine days later, on that stupid, joyous, night, he tells me that he and Manal will move back to Cairo, that they will start a family and that the child will be named after the fallen — Khaled or Sally.

They had moved to South Africa to concentrate on their work as software developers. They lived there for nearly two years before the revolution. They had a cat, a car, clean air. A life to be packed up. For the new Egypt that called. The new country that called out for the young and their ideas and their idealism.

THE POLICE SHOT and killed a young boy outside a theater on June 28, 2011. Within a few hours, Mohamed Mahmoud Street was burning. That night saw the first major battle against the police since their defeat and withdrawal from the streets five months earlier. Battle lines — rhythms and routines that we will grow all too familiar with — are drawn. Selmeyya is still a word in the revolution’s vocabulary and occasionally a peace is brokered. Groups of men put down their rocks and link their arms to form lines across the street to send you back to the square. Lines to rein in the uncontrollable, to calm the insatiable. Lines that limit the revolution, that hold it back from maximum force — whatever that may bring. Lines we have all drawn. The difficult conversation left to drift, the unanswered phone call, the picture ‘liked’ instead of lived.

Alaa, that night, tried to break those lines, to stop them from forming. He would not be held back by the peacekeepers. He tried to open the way for the angry kids behind him, pushing and arguing with the men with the interlocked arms. He knew that our moments of uncontainable strength were irregular and unpredictable and must be used to their maximum potential. If a revolution polices itself, is it still a revolution? When a revolution speaks of the law, does it understand its own nature? That time, like every time, the peace was broken by a canister of tear gas.

Five months later those lines would appear again across Mohamed Mahmoud, made now by the army and the Brotherhood. The army brought cement blocks and tanks. The Brotherhood brought teams of men. In groups of 20 they lined the street and with heavy steel poles they pushed the furious crowd back, back to Tahrir and away from the real challenge in front of them. Chanting all the while that “the revolution is in the square.” Parliamentary elections were to begin the next day and the first great battle since the 18 days had to be ended somehow.

You either win or you lose.

IT IS OCTOBER 9, 2011. The corniche, tonight, is lit by a blazing car and the air around Maspero hums.

Take to the streets says the news anchor.

Take to the streets.

Christians are attacking the army.

Take to the streets and protect your army says the state.

Twenty-nine more names have joined the list of the martyrs. Twenty-nine bodies are taken to the Coptic Hospital where, for 40 hours, Mina’s friends fight. They fight for the legacy of the fallen and their place in history. They fight the crooked judge and traditional priest and the swift burial. They fight the rising heat to keep the bodies from rotting. They fight for a dignity in death.

Two days in the company of merciful death and a shame without mercy. Why, my Lord, are most of our martyrs poor? How do the gun and the APC distinguish? The blood’s the same and the grave’s the same and yet martyrdom rejects us again and again. Egypt is choosy; she’ll only pick the best amongst us, and Mina Daniel is her choice. Without him we would not have won in the morgue.

They fought, they won, they got the autopsy, the coroner’s report; the words with which to keep fighting. These were the words, the action, the stand that could not be tolerated. An arrest warrant is issued. The charges include ripping doors off APCs. Stealing caches of weapons. Throwing caches of weapons in the Nile. Murder.

Alaa flew back from America to face the charges. To face the absurdity. He would not answer to a military court, a military judge. He would only be tried in front of a civilian judge. He went into C28 to make his position clear and didn’t come out.

The noise around the world was enormous. The media was ablaze. The streets were filled.

Fifty-five days later, it’s Christmas Day. I am in London, packing up the remains of my old life, boxing books to be sent to Cairo, when the news filters through: Alaa has been released.

EXACTLY TWO YEARS later and I am standing among those books, thinking of Alaa again. I pull out a handful of titles, “A People’s History of the United States”“Popular Resistance in Palestine”“The Complete Poems of John Milton”Books I would like to have with me in jail. It’s December 25, 2013 and day 27 of Alaa’s third, and current, incarceration. They say they will let me in today. They do not. I wait outside by the river of filth that surrounds the jail. Something lands on my shoulder. A sparrow sits above me. For a moment I’m in Palestine, at Qalandia Checkpoint, the sky dissected by razor wire and bursts of birds’ flight in their maddening, sacred liberty. Then it’s gone. And I go back to smoking the cigarettes that only make life worse.

The others come out after an hour. They cross the street towards me, the books stayed behind. I do not know if they got through. Words, rocks and bodies. Against guns, tanks and prison walls. We will never forget 2011, the year when, for a moment, words felt stronger. Will we able to forgive it?

That strongest of years closed on Alaa standing outside the gates, still in his prison clothes, speaking to a crush of cameras:

Will the judge charge [General] Hamdi Badeen now or not? That’s the question. The revolution will be complete when Hamdi Badeen is picking his nose in a cell and a bottle of cooking gas is five pounds. . . . Yalla, let’s get on with the revolution.

Khaled, the symbol of a moment of hope, is in his father’s arms. Just 17 days earlier Alaa had held him for the first time:

Half an hour in which I did nothing except look at him. What about half an hour in which I changed him? Or half an hour in which I played with him? What about half an hour for him to tell me about his school? Half an hour to argue about whether he should go down to a protest? Half an hour for him to give me an impassioned speech about the revolution and how it will free us all? About bread and freedom and dignity and justice? Half an hour for me to feel proud that my son is a brave man carrying the responsibility of a country before he’s of age to carry the responsibility of himself? How much happiness in half an hour like that? In that last half hour the father of the martyr spent with this son?

How many more half hours will be stolen from you? I dreamt last night that Khaled was happy and talking and smiling again. But as my waking life is filled with sorrow, so my dreams are riven with violence. Before long the familiar scenes, the panic, the hiding places, the death that dominates the night has taken hold again. Out of prison for five minutes and already calling for the arrest of a ruling general? I fear the worst, Alaa. I fear the worst. The unstoppable wave that swept us all forward three years ago has retreated, leaving the vanguard to drown.

THE “NIGHTMARE SCENARIO” first became a regular conversation on those cold nights outside the Presidential Palace in December 2012: the coup against the new Islamist president, the armed uprising, the military response, the total return of the police. The stage was set. But I did not foresee such a rapid, such a brutal swing towards everyday fascism. How quickly it would become normal for pop stars to call for Brotherhood members to be executed without trial. For witch-hunt hotlines to crackle with personal vendettas. The airwaves pulse with a bloodlust that cannot be explained.

Alaa was taken from his home on November 28. Plainclothes troops stormed his house. When Manal asked to see a warrant, the beatings began. The last thing Alaa saw as he was dragged out of his home was five men slapping his wife. Khaled was asleep in the next room. His father spent the night on the floor of a cell, his eyes blindfolded by a dirty rag, his hands cuffed behind his back.

His principal charge: organizing a protest. A protest outside the Shura Council that was attacked by the police with water cannons and tear gas, by men in plainclothes and black balaclavas. Fifty people were grabbed in five minutes. After the women, lawyers, journalists and kids with connections were released, 24 men remained. They will go to trial with Alaa — their charge: participation in a protest. The date has still not been set, but they will be tried in a criminal court, a court that can hand down longer sentences than the policemen accused of gassing 37 prisoners to death are facing. The young women who did, in fact, organize the protest publicly claimed responsibility and tried to hand themselves in, but were repeatedly dismissed.

Where is the firestorm? Where is the rage?

In 2011 it had served so many interests to capitalize on Alaa’s stance. The Brotherhood sent lawyers, Hamdeen Sabbahi gushed on the phone to Yousri Fouda, the liberals tutted. In the ugly electoral game there were points to be scored against the weakening military and lip-service to be paid to the still “glorious” revolution that had given the politicians their shot. All gone now. The state continues ascendant and all dissent is waved away as Islamist or irrelevant.

This should not have made us as weak as we are. We never needed the Brotherhood or Hamdeen or a sympathetic media to try and change things before. We always knew these were not our real friends. We didn’t need them in mid-2011 when SCAF and Tantawi were still untouchable. But, depressed, confused and worn down by the unrelenting horrors of 2013, the dissenting public of the once-new Egypt has silenced itself and stands like a bull with its back full of knives, waiting for the end of a game it only now understands was rigged.

They are testing us, and they have seen that we are weak. When they found they could arrest and hold Alaa without a repeat of the anger of 2011, they jailed Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel. Three years each for protesting. Arrest warrants have been issued for Hassan Mostafa and Maheinour al-Masry, key activists in Alexandria. Sherif Farag, an architectural conservationist, sits in jail charged with burning down a church, robbing a bank and murder on the eve of his engagement party. Young men having a political conversation in an ahwa were rounded up and arrested. Journalists are being dragged from their hotel rooms and labeled terrorists. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights was stormed, its lawyers detained and beaten. Alaa Abd El Fattah, for this state, is a symbol. A symbol of everything that they don’t understand about the riotous, enervated, flammable youth of this country. And as long as they can keep him in jail, no one is safe. More will follow. Winter has come.

Update: Hassan Mostafa and Maheinour al-Masry were sentenced on Thursday along with other defendants to two years in prison and a fine of LE50,000.