Posters are spreading like blotchy fungus on bare walls in Cairo and Alexandria. Smiling from them is the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The posters say “Egypt above all” and “The people demand stability.” They call for electing Tantawi President of the Republic.
A coalition of “3,000 lawyers, businessmen, physicians and other professionals” boldly claims responsibility for the posters — boldly, because of course they are a terrible insult to Egypt’s armed forces. After all, the military has sworn it doesn’t want power, and that it’ll surrender it in 2011, or 2012, or 2013 … well, the dates keep changing, but the promise stays the same. Nothing could be more offensive than to suggest the generals might be induced to change their minds. Surely, then, these debauched souls will be charged with defaming the guardians of Egypt, a serious crime, and tried in military courts, and tortured, and probably their links to the Mossad, the US Embassy, and other foreign forces will be dredged up to discredit them. Already, with amazing effrontery, their antics are being praised on state TV! But surely a righteous vengeance can’t be long in coming.
Or maybe not. Justice in Egypt is a bit more selective.
Instead, military authorities arrested Alaa Abd el Fattah on October 30. Alaa, 29, is one of Egypt’s best-known revolutionary activists and bloggers. He was accused of inciting violence against the junta –the violence being the Maspero assaults of October 9, when the military cracked down on a demonstration for Copts’ rights and killed at least 25 protesters. (As an added insult, Mina Danial, a revolutionary activist brutally murdered in the Maspero attack, was named in Alaa’s interrogation as one of his “accomplices.”)
His real crime was that he’d publicly said the military bore full responsibility for the October 9 killings. On his way to his arrest on Sunday, he told a reporter the army “committed a massacre, a horrible crime, and now they are working on framing someone else for it … Instead of launching a proper investigation, they are sending activists to trial for saying the plain truth and that is that the army committed a crime in cold blood.”
He was ordered held for 15 days, renewable at the military’s discretion. Yesterday, his wife Manal smuggled out a letter; the Guardian prints it here. He writes of being the only political prisoner
in a cell with eight men who shouldn’t be here; poor, helpless, unjustly held – the guilty among them and the innocent. As soon as they learned I was one of the “young people of the revolution” they started to curse out the revolution and how it had failed to clean up the ministry of the interior. I spend my first two days listening to stories of torture at the hands of a police force that insists on not being reformed; that takes out its defeat on the bodies of the poor and the helpless.
Last week, Essam Atta was tortured to death in Cairo’s Tora Prison for smuggling in a sim card, to communicate similarly with the outside. In retribution, guards raped him with a running water hose. Despite the danger, Alaa Abd el Fattah insisted his letter be published.
I know Alaa only very slightly. We’ve talked a few times, and I wound up standing near him at every demonstration every time I was in Egypt, perhaps because he was always the person there who most conveyed that he absolutely knew what he was doing. It would be hard to say how he conveyed it. He had the stereotyped revolutionary’s jungle of hair, but the rest of him seemed pudgily huggable and absent-minded, as if the Pillsbury Doughboy had been miscast as Trotsky. As usual, appearances deceived. Everybody, from other activists to the jailors of State Security, respected him for his courage. He was also a coalition-builder between diverse interests, and one of the few unquestioned intellectual leaders the revolution produced — someone who helped shape and articulate the image of a new society, giving substance to the dream of change. He spent time as a political prisoner under Mubarak as well; he comes from a revolutionary family, and both his parents and his sister Mona are leftist activists with international reputations. The whole clan has been something more than a thorn in the side of authoritarian oppression — they’ve been the alligator in its bathtub, the tiger in its back yard. I had the privilege to work in the past with his father, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, a human rights lawyer whose complete and inexhaustible dedication makes him one of my heroes.
Lina Attalah wrote a moving essay about Alaa yesterday:
“The marginalized are always the core,” he said. From Christians, to tuk tuk drivers, to gay people, Alaa glorified how they challenge the status quo by denying its existence. “Now if you count the marginalized in all their forms, we are the majority, because it includes women, the poor, those who live in slums, in rural areas … That makes the mainstream a minority.” …
He sees the alliance in post-Mubarak Tahrir, where the mainstream men and women – both Christians and Muslims – of the “gentrified square” retreated, ceding the place to street sellers, gangs and what-not. Along with the remaining activists of the square, this alliance stayed on, claiming post-uprising demands at a time when many others went back home seeking “stability.” Those who slammed Alaa and his fellow activists for continuing the revolution after February were jealous, he says, because the fluidity of its identity allowed for cross-class solidarity. This keeps the revolution alive.
When Alaa recalls criticism from counter-revolutionaries, the key words are “long hair, defends thugs and gangs, gay.” He is jubilant to know that the markers of marginalization have come to define the defamation campaign against him. If this does anything, it proves him right.
It’s proper, then, that Alaa should be a symbol. Here is a petition calling for his freedom, for full investigation of the Maspero murders, and for an end to military trials. It’s also important not to forget the other victims he symbolizes: the many dead, the 28 or more other civilians the military has detained as scapegoats for the Maspero violence (it has held no one culpable on its own side), the fully 12,000 Egyptians hauled before military tribunals since the revolution.
Maikel Nabil Sanad, whom I’ve written about here, also remains imprisoned. He was ordered retried before another military court, but has refused to appear, rejecting its legitimacy. His family demanded he receive medical care, for the hunger strike he’s been on for more than 70 days; instead, the junta has apparently moved him to a mental hospital. You can find information here on how to write to the military regime about his case. And his friends have launched a blog (in Arabic, with parts in English) publishing some of his writings in prison.