Behind bars, with no hope and no despair

Since his release on bail in March, Alaa Abd El Fattah has been putting things in order before his inevitable return to jail. He’s had too many brushes with the regime to have any illusions about his fate.

Abd El Fattah was arrested in November and held in custody for four months pending trial. He was charged with violating the Protest Law by calling for and participating in a protest in front of the Shura Council, assaulting a police officer, blocking traffic and other accusations.

The running joke among activists is that a president’s inauguration isn’t complete until he puts Abd El Fattah in jail. In that same tradition, only days after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took the oath, the activist was arrested outside court on Wednesday and put back in jail with a 15-year prison sentence, handed down in absentia.

In a recent conversation with Mada Masr, Abd El Fattah said that, once more, the battle for freedom has become a necessity for survival.

In a letter written during his last incarceration in January, Abd El Fattah candidly expressed a sense of hopelessness that many try to conceal.

“To be honest, what adds to my feeling of oppression is that I feel that my incarceration this time around has no value, this is not a struggle and there is no revolution.”

At the start of his political involvement in the mid-2000s, the activist says he worked with no hope. After witnessing the 2003 protests in Cairo against the war on Iraq, he learned that the regime was tougher than originally expected.

“In 2003, when I saw people in the streets, I thought that there was no way that the regime could survive this. But then I realized that the battle is bigger than this, and that it’s worth it.”

When sparks of hope were ignited again with large labor movements in 2008, he still didn’t allow himself to get his hopes up.

“With the April 6 Youth Movement, Mahalla and Khaled Saeed, there were new people joining and new forms of struggle. I didn’t think the revolution as a moment was possible, but that the rate of change would accelerate.” 

In 2006, he wrote a blog post where he articulated his position:

“We don’t have hope, we don’t even have despair, this is just who we are and this is our life.”

As it is now, activism was the only choice then, he says, done without necessarily expecting results.

While he was skeptical of the possibility of a revolution breaking out, he always believed that revolutionary tools, such as street action, have to be deployed to achieve gradual but lasting reform.

But even then, Abd El Fattah was disillusioned with the idea of a revolution. In 2007, long before he became one of those that the January 25 revolution turned against, he wrote:

“Even successful revolutions, when they happen in a faulty international system, they soon turn into a Greek monster that eats its children.”

During his stay in South Africa in the late 2000s, Abd El Fattah said there were lessons he learned from its revolution.

“As heartbreaking as it was to see that it didn’t live up to the people’s ambitions, I learned that this is the fate of the revolutions, and that you can’t be cynical, and you have to respect the sacrifice of the people and measure the achievements of the revolution in comparison to the past.”

The people in Egypt started off with a low ceiling, he adds, a fact that had to be respected and not resented.

But 2011 was the first time Abd El Fattah believed in the possibility of a revolution, and hoped for triumph.

“I was defending the Facebook revolution even though I wasn’t convinced at the time. I expected something to happen that would lead to the big wave in September after the elections, but I didn’t expect Egypt to react so fast.” 

On January 25, 2011, Abd El Fattah put up the first statement of the revolution all the way from South Africa after it was dictated to him by activists in Tahrir Square in the midst of a communications blackout in Egypt.

“I was shocked, it was a declaration of revolution. I put it up and started defending it as a revolution, even though I didn’t believe it until January 27.”

“I thought it was over. In one interview I said we will be celebrating together in Jerusalem next year.”

Abd El Fattah returned to Egypt just in time for the Battle of the Camel in early February, when civilians supporting Hosni Mubarak attacked the Tahrir sit-in with camels and weapons.

“I thought it was the most horrible thing in history at the time, but we’ve seen so much worse since then.”

Nothing breaks his spirit and leads him to revise his hopes more than civil fighting, he says. And since then, the intensity of the battle has been grueling.

“I imagined a normal process where people go back to their normal lives, then have a periodic uprising. But the continuous intensity for this length of time is what saps hope and creates imbalance.”  

Since 2011, Abd El Fattah has twice been detained for lengthy periods, and investigated several more times under each of the consecutive regimes.

During the time in between his release in February and his most recent arrest on Wednesday, Abd El Fattah and a few other activists spearheaded a campaign against the Protest Law under which he, along with hundreds of others, was arrested.

While he is disappointed at some in the revolutionary camp who have either decided to give up or refuse to admit defeat, Abd El Fattah says he keeps going by believing this has become a fight for life for this generation, and the one to come.

But he does it with an undeniable sense of defeat and hopelessness.

“The defeat was so intense, it brought people to their knees.”

During his last detention, Abd El Fattah and fellow detained activist Ahmed Douma co-wrote an article by shouting statements at each other from their respective cells. In one section, Abd El Fattah stated:

“There in the past, I found me less experienced and more wise. I write of a generation that fought without despair and without hope that won only small victories and wasn’t shaken by major defeats, because they were the natural order of things. A generation whose ambitions were lower than the ambitions of those who came before, but whose dream was larger.

“There’s a lot wrong with me — but I’m no traitor. I’ve committed cowardice and selfishness, I was impatient often and rash sometimes, I was proud and I was lazy but I was never a traitor. I will not betray the revolution with despair or with hope. This is a promise.”


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