Bread, freedom, dignity: Street art in downtown Cairo, 2015, photo by ChrisJ for TrekEarth
In a quarter-century of visiting prisons or sitting in courtrooms and prosecutors’ offices, I’ve never really learned why states single out some people as special targets of retribution. Harmless groups (ranging from gays, emos, heavy-metal fans, to the peaceful Baha’i or the Rohingya) or lone individuals become symbols of everything the government loathes and wants to extirpate, the Jungian beasts that haunt its midnight dreams. Despite their innocence or weakness, they find themselves hemmed by all the instruments of power, the police with their guns, the torture machines, the prison walls. Sometimes there’s popular panic behind the repression, but sometimes the state seems random in picking out its demons. There’s a logic, but the logic of nightmare: a reminder that politics is, as Max Weber wrote, the realm not only of means and ends but of irrational beings, and that to engage in it is to traffic with “the diabolical powers that lurk in all force.”
I do speculate, though. I’ve come over the years to think that what power fears most of all is one phrase: “as if.”
In English (the next few lines are meant to appease linguists and other nerds) “as if” introduces the subjunctive mood, a verb form that describes unreal events. These can be fantasies of the present (“she looks as if she were Laila Elwi“), the future (“she looks as if she were going to the Prince’s ball”), or even the past (“she looks as if she were dead since Thursday”). “As if” announces a state of affairs that is not; it’s a portal though which fear and desire overtly enter the apparently hushed and sober halls of language. And once “as if” has been said — once the desire is voiced, the fear made legible — you can act on the longing or transcend the fear. It pushes beyond the passport controls at fantasy’s borders; its premise can move people’s bodies and minds, make them speak or stand as if that unreal world actually were theirs.
Vaclav Havel, arrested for protesting in defense of the Charter 77 principles in Czechoslovakia, 1970s
I first saw this in Eastern Europe. To be a “dissident” in the old-time Soviet bloc could mean many things, but it encompassed a shared style of action. To be a dissident was to act as if one were living in a free country. It was to write things, to speak, to hold a placard, to demonstrate, as if it were permitted rather than punishable by law. And this meant forcing the state to reveal itself: to show what it really was. Governments that put fraudulent charters of rights in their pseudo-socialist constitutions, that signed treaties, that pretended to be “people’s democracies,” could not bear people who acted as if democracy were real. That was the core of dissent, of the small cadres of people whose small, individual acts in time overthrew a massive, inhuman system. They changed the actual world by acting on the subjunctive. (“Really-existing socialism,” which never really existed, had a considerable tolerance for fantasy, as long as it remained fantasy. I was reminded recently that, in the Soviet Union in the desolate and stagnant Brezhnev years, when dictatorship lost even the pretense of purpose or charisma and lay on the people like a smothering, infected blanket, there was a large renaissance of science fiction. It was tolerated on the principle that the less real the other worlds where people took consolation, the more surreal and unachievable, the safer. Dream as you like. But do not act on it.)
I recognized this subjunctive faith again in the early years when I visited Cairo, between 2001 and 2003. Egypt had dissidents who put themselves on the line just as the legendary figures of eastern European dissent had. Their organizational loyalties were complex and sometimes conflicting (they tended to cluster round the Popular Committee to Support the Palestinian People’s Intifada, and later Kefaya — the two groups that arguably spearheaded anti-Mubarak actions on the democratic Left) but they had one strategy: to act as if the promises in the politicians’ rhetoric, and the Egyptian Constitution, were real; as if theirs were a free society, and not a dictatorship in thrift-shop democratic drag. Thus you demonstrated even though a thousand cops in riot gear kettled you in; you wrote what you wanted, even if State Security paid you a midnight call; you raised your voices, even if truncheons came down on your head. If you were jailed or tortured, that meant the regime had been forced to cast off its disguise, to reveal its real nature. And if you succeeded — if the demonstration went ahead, the article were published, the poster stayed on the wall — you had pushed the envelope slightly, you’d made the regime back off, you’d expanded by a millimetre or two the available space for freedom. Either outcome was a victory, whatever the personal cost.
The Egyptian regime was terrified, and arguably in the end was overthrown, by a few people acting on a hypothetical; by the weight of bodies and a grammatical construction. It’s in this light that I think of the life of Alaa Abd El Fattah.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah on trial in 2013 (Photo: Al-Ahram)
Alaa will turn 36 in a month, almost certainly still in prison. That’s half a lifetime, and for somewhat more than half of that he’s been an activist and dissident. Four successive Egyptian regimes — Mubarak’s, the military junta that succeeded him, the Muslim Brotherhood in its brief interval of power, and the military dictatorship of General Sisi — have treated him both as their favorite scapegoat and their most feared enemy. There has been, in past years, almost no excuse they won’t use to arrest him; there’s been no charge they won’t fling at him, and no act of popular anger for which they won’t assign him blame. During Egypt’s only free presidential election in 2012, the headquarters of the military-backed (and ultimately losing) candidate caught fire. The army’s lackeys could find no likelier arsonist to libel than Alaa. (“Witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before,” they solemnly declared.) There was no evidence; there was nothing at all; yet a bogus “investigation” continued till another military regime, almost two years later, could hand a one-year suspended sentence to Alaa and his sister. Alaa exists less as a person than as a djinn or poltergeist or figure in a fairy tale, travelling on a magic laptop to wreak havoc on State Security’s plans, the omnipotent goblin in the fever dreams of delirious generals. “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations,” Alaa wrote during this particular fiasco.
I mention this because, despite the court ordeal, this was one of many points where the state’s obsession with Alaa achieved an almost comic incongruity with reality. (I once watched the actual, non-omnipotent, arson-incompetent Alaa spend five minutes trying, and failing, to light a match.) But of course it’s not a comedy in the end. Nothing in Egypt is. Alaa would furiously reject the idea that he is unique, or more important than the other thousands — 60,000, by human rights activists’ count — enduring Egypt’s immense gulag. But he is uniquely important to innumerable Egyptians. Street artists stealthily stenciled his rounded, bearded face on walls around the country during his many jail terms. The images fade (graffiti is another subversive act for which the Sisi regime has imposed hefty penalties) but his presence, even in prison, refuses to evanesce. He remains a symbol of Egypt’s Revolution, and not just of that: of the long and seemingly hopeless struggle that led up to it, as well as the slow, losing battle to hold onto its gains. “He’s history,” we say in English, to dismiss someone as over, done. Alaa is the history that still contains futurity, pulsing under its surface like a thrumming engine, visible as a vein. The regimes’ fear is that history is the future: that this buried embodied energy, the blood and the anger, will not go away.
It took some time, and long back-and-forths with his marvellous sister Mona Seif, for me to straighten out even the bare outline of how many times he’s been arrested. I’m not sure anyone, even State Security, keeps an exact count. Twelve years ago, as a blogger — at a time when the Internet opened new public spheres for uncensored information — he started writing about human rights, and reporting on demonstrations. In 2005, the day of a referendum to allow contested Presidential elections for the first time ever, pro-regime thugs assaulted anti-Mubarak protesters with fists and clubs. They attacked Alaa’s mother in the crowd, and beat him when he intervened to defend her. The next year, he spent 45 days in jail for demonstrating for greater judicial independence. His prestige came partly from the combination of what he wrote and what he did. His words led to his actions; the as if became real.
Stencil of Alaa Abd El Fattah with the martyr Mina Daniel (R), killed during the millitary assault on demonstrators at the Maspero Building, October 9-10, 2011: photo, Mashallah News
Abroad when the 2011 revolution broke out, he returned and stood in Tahrir Square during the uprising’s last days. After a short recessional, state violence returned, and by the summer of 2011, the military were extending their control over both government and public life. In October, soldiers killed 27 mostly Christian marchers near the state broadcasting building in Maspero. Alaa had supported their demands for equality; a military court charged him with “inciting” the peaceful protesters, who in turn incited their murderers to kill them. He refused to recognize the army’s legal jurisdiction over civilians; in that stalemate, his son, Khaled, was born while he languished in jail. He was freed, and eventually cleared, but soon after, the alleged arson case had risen in its place. His life increasingly seemed a series of accusations springing up like undead vampires from jack-in-the-box graves, a legal horror parade of interrogations and cells.
After Sisi’s 2013 military coup, the environment grew darker. In November 2013, he was slapped with new charges for allegedly organizing a demonstration in front of Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament, to protest constitutional changes.that would have installed military trials like a permanent tumor in the justice system. Security forces seized and questioned the so-called “Shura Council” demonstrators one by one: two dozen of them, all asked about their relations with the dreaded Alaa. Alaa himself waited outside the prosecutor’s office for hours, inviting interrogation. But State Security preferred to burst into his flat on November 28, a 20-man assault team with masks and flak jackets and machine guns. They abducted him and they beat his wife, Manal. “‘I’d like to see the warrant,'” she said: “It was as if the word ‘warrant’ was the filthiest name you could call their mothers.” She remembered:
And suddenly it was as if I was outside the scene and it turned into a surrealist spectacle from which I remember shots like in a comic strip: close-up on an unshaved face and yellow teeth while he’s hitting me and insulting me. Or the boss in the suit hitting me and calling me names … Anyone who’s worried about me: please don’t be. I didn’t feel violated or broken. No. I was strong. You know, my worst nightmare is being abused and trying to scream but my voice does’t come out – and that didn’t happen. Actually, for a moment, I pitied them: the Ministry and the officers and their thugs and Sisi and SCAF. I felt they were so tiny – I’m not sure how to describe this, but I kind of thought “wow – Alaa’s really driving you this mad?”
Alaa Abd El Fattah and his wife Manal in 2011; photo by Nasser Nasser/AP
Alaa and his twenty-four co-defendants were jailed for three months, released, then re-arrested. He went on hunger strike late that summer, when his father lay in critical condition in the hospital. The last time I saw him was at the wake after his father died, in August 2014. He’d been released briefly, under guard, for the funeral; he stood swaying in the receiving line outside the venerable Omar Makram mosque in central Cairo, as thousands of Egypt’s weeping revolutionaries filed past, mourning not just the aged, brave dissident but the faded promise of democracy. Alaa wore his prison whites, which always suggest pilgrimage to me. He looked dazed by the light, by the fragility of freedom. We exchanged brief words. In February 2015, Alaa received five years in prison for illegally demonstrating. (Under Egyptian law, it will be followed by five years’ “probation,” meaning sleeping every night in a police cell from dusk to dawn.)
Alaa Abd El Fattah, his younger sister Sanaa Seif, and his mother Laila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm
Alaa’s ailing father, a distinguished rights defender who was also his defense attorney, had said at a press conference in 2014: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.” The cell still confines Alaa. All other defendants but one in the Shura Council case have received presidential pardons. His own case lingers. Moreover, on September 30 this year, he faced a hearing in yet another trial, with two dozen more defendants: this time, for “insulting the judiciary.” (In a 2013 tweet criticizing a paranoid case mounted against civil society workers, Alaa suggested the judges were “taking orders from the military.”) This time the court postponed the hearing till December. A conviction could add a year or more to his sentence, in a maximum security prison. An appeal before Egypt’s Cassation Court against his five-year Shura Council sentence was also postponed on October 19; a judge recused himself without giving reasons, and adjourned the case till November. Egyptian justice is a mill that grinds hope to sand and ashes.
Ahmed Seif al-Islam in the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Cairo, Egypt
I’ve said little about his extraordinary family. His father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was himself jailed for five years and tortured under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. One of Egypt’s first and best human rights lawyers, he defended arrested Islamists and accused gay men with equal passion. Alaa’s mother, Laila Soueif, has protested dictatorships for thirty years. His two younger sisters are activists as well. After the 2011 revolution, Mona Seif launched an unprecedented campaign to end military trials for civilians. Sanaa Seif spent a year in prison starting in 2014 — for demonstrating against draconian laws barring the right to demonstrate. His aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, and his cousin, Omar Robert Hamilton, are activists and writers in two languages, but always drawn back to the capillaries of Cairo where the pulse of action drums. It would be no wonder if such ancestral burdens intimidated him; certainly the wealth they’ve written about him leaves outsiders with precious little more to say. Through Mona, I asked their mother why she thinks he has been such a bête noire to government after government. “I always find it difficult to answer questions that reflect on the motivation of those in power,” she wrote, “but I will try.”
Authorities in Egypt are and have always been very suspicious of any attempt by groups of young people to organize themselves autonomously. In the years leading up to the revolution, with the spread of the use of the internet and later social media it became virtually impossible to try and control the growing trend of young people connecting with each other outside the influence of the authorities. This caused a kind of panic in different state organs … Alaa was and remains a very central figure in this trend, personally I believe this is the core cause behind the hatred with which authoritarian politicians regard Alaa and why they are so vindictive towards him.
The motives of power are always opaque. But its panics are lucid, exact in their illogic. It’s connection the generals and bureaucrats fear: the promiscuous, unregulated interactions of the young. Here, too, Alaa was a central symbol. You see him, pudgy and dishevelled, and he looks a bit like a rotund potato; but like a tuber, he transcends himself when the state’s dirt and darkness silt and bury everything. It takes a mother to recognize the terrible tendrils a son’s self can extend underground; it takes love to envision the connections he can contain.
You have to read him to understand what this means. My friend Jillian York, herself an expert in digital security and the needs of fragile social movement in the region, said to me a few weeks ago: “Alaa gave me my political education.” And she wrote:
Despite the fact the he is only (and exactly) six months my senior, the friend has also been one of my most important teachers, reminding me to take risks and not being afraid to tell me when I’m not going far enough, not doing enough. ….I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state.
The revolutionary editor Lina Attalah captured some of Alaa’s talk, between trials, back in 2011:
Alaa Abd El Fattah hugs his newly born son Khaled and his mother, Laila Soueif, after his release from prison in December 2011
“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.
Not long after, he wrote similarly in one of many letters smuggled out of prison cells:
This time, I’m alone, 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. …
In the few hours that sunlight enters the dark cell we read what a past cellmate has inscribed on the walls in an elegant Arabic calligraphy. Four walls covered from floor to ceiling in Qur’anic verses and prayers and invocations and reflections. And what reads like a powerful desire to repent.
Next day we discover, in a low corner, the date of execution of our cellmate of the past. Our tears conquer us. The guilty make plans for repentance. What can the innocent do?
My thoughts wander as I listen to the radio. … [Fellow prisoner] Abu Malek interrupts my thoughts: “I swear by God if this revolution doesn’t do something radical about injustice it will sink without a trace.”
He wrote that in the first year after the Eighteen Days that overthrew Mubarak, when the possibility of popular movements taking a radical, anti-capitalist, and anti-militaristic turn was still very much alive. This was an as if the state particularly feared: as if the hardened deadweight of class power and military repression could be shaken off the people’s backs. To imagine it required an especially intense vision of connections, what they might be and, more importantly, how they could be forged. This was work into which Alaa plunged: all the strains in his own family – a feminist faith in the personal, an ecumenical fervor for human rights, a strategic belief in nonviolence, a dream of democracy – came together in him, at one juncture in time, in concentrated form.
When I talked in 2011-2012 to some veterans of Midan Tahrir, they often clung hard to a radically utopian and politically very unreal version of what had happened there: that it was a perfect moment when all divisions of class, gender, race, and power simply melted away and everyone was “just Egyptian,” or “Egyptian together.” The remaining role of politics was to get back to this garden, as if Marx or Gramsci had given way to a Joni Mitchell song. This vision of the warm, dissolving, comforting adhesiveness of Rousseau’s volonté générale was a fiction and a dangerous one, because it implied there was no more work to do, just waiting for the unity to re-arrive. Alaa knew better; unity was a hope not a given, it had to be won, and the powerful had to lose power in the process. As they failed to do so, the unhealed rifts of politics and history set back in. In early 2016, from prison, he looked back, and acknowledged a counterrevolution so destructive that preserving anyone’s “innocence” against others’ “guilt” was impossible. What remained was a different struggle, a different return: to the apparently hopeless hypotheticals of ten years before.
In 2013, we started to lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarization between a rabidly militarized pseudo-secular statism and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism. All I remember about 2013 is how shrill I sounded screaming “A plague on both your houses,” how whiny and melodramatic it felt to complain about the curse of Cassandra warning of an all-consuming fire when no one would listen. As the streets were taken over by rallies that raised the photos of policemen instead of their victims, sit-ins were filled with chants against the Shia, and Coptic conspiracies flourished, my words lost any power and yet they continued to pour out of me. I still had a voice, even if only a handful would listen.
But then the state decided to end the conflict by committing the first crime against humanity in the history of the republic. The barriers of fear and despair would return after the Rabea al-Adaweya massacre. Another battle of narrative would start: getting non-Islamists to accept that a massacre had happened at all, to reject the violence committed in their name.
Three months after the massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role: to call on revolutionaries to admit defeat. To give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change.
I narrated defeat because the very language of revolution was lost to us, replaced by a dangerous cocktail of nationalist, nativist, collectivist and post-colonialist language, appropriated by both sides of the conflict and used to spin convoluted conspiracy theories and spread paranoia. … What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights.
In prison now, security forces randomly deny Alaa access to books — for him, the food of hope. His sister wrote me, “Alaa often refers to his emotional status as el talaga, ‘the fridge,’ and when he describes it he says he tries to maintain a strict hold on all his emotions, expectations tightly locked so that he doesn’t get too emotionally invested in anything or excited about anything and then get brutally disappointed.” The dwindling letters he writes have a dedicated readership in National Security; they only sporadically reach their intended recipients. “At one point it became too emotionally consuming for him to share personal reflections that will end up forgotten in some officer’s desk drawers.” He keeps writing, though, in any way he can. The best I can do here is to keep quoting — from, for instance, a short essay he managed to get through the walls in April:
Personally, I’ve come out of a decade of anger with a few simple lessons. I’ve realized that every step on the path of struggle or debate within society is an opportunity for understanding, connecting, dreaming and planning. Even when things seem simple or decided, even when we’re clear about which side of an argument we’re on, or about the need to abandon a particular argument altogether, seizing opportunities to pursue and produce meaning remains a necessity; without it we will never get beyond defeat. …
Finally, siding with power is generally unproductive. The powerful need nothing from you but to parrot their propaganda. The powerless, on the other hand, often cause as much trouble as they suffer. Their arguments and discourses are often as brittle as their positions in society and their diminishing chances of safety and survival. Taking their side, therefore, even as an experiment, is a catalyst for deeper reflection, deeper investigation, deeper analysis and imagination.
Once we were present, then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us. But we have not perished yet, and meaning too lives on. Perhaps our defeat was inevitable, but the chaos that is sweeping the world will sooner or later give birth to a new world, a world that will — of course — be run by the victors. But nothing will constrain the strong, nor shape the margins of freedom and justice, nor define spaces of beauty and possibilities for a common life except the weak, who insist that meaning should prevail — even after defeat.
And he has a message, finally, for those not in Egypt, for whom the politics of Cairo have become so alienating and confusing, who can’t conceive of what to do, who lapse back into old Orientalist fantasies about an ungovernable country that deserves what it gets. This confusion hardens to indifference; it paralyzes. (In the last few weeks, I tried to get a piece about Alaa published in the international press, and found it terribly difficult. LGBT Egyptians, who were suffering their own horrors during those weeks, were the topic of the month. Repression claims so many victims in Egypt that Sisi can easily distract critics just by vomiting up a different kind, like Apple announcing a new IPhone.) Yet the synoptic view linking the local to the global is what Alaa stresses again and again. “I have learned that ruling regimes are mere obstacles. The real challenges are international in nature,” he wrote, “which is why debate is so important.” He urged, in a statement to international internet activists around the same time:
Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the question “how can we help?” I still believe it is the only possible answer. Not only is where you live, work, vote, pay tax and organize the place where you have more influence, but a setback for human rights in a place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile. I trust recent events made it evident that there is much that needs fixing. I look forward to being inspired by how you go about fixing it.
Don’t play the game of nations: We lose much when you allow your work to be used as an instrument of foreign policy no matter how benign your current ruling coalition is. We risk much when human rights advocacy becomes a weapon in a cold war (just as the Arab revolutions were lost when revolutionaries found themselves unwitting and unwilling recruits in proxy wars between regional powers). We reach out to you not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the power of solidarity.
Defend complexity and diversity: No change to the structure of or organization of the internet can make my life safer. My online speech is often used against me in the courts and in smear campaigns, but it isn’t the reason why I am prosecuted; my offline activity is. My late father served a similar term for his activism before there was a web. What the internet has truly changed is not political dissent but rather social dissent. We must protect it as a safe space where people can experiment with gender and sexual identities, explore what it means to be gay or a single mom or an atheist or a christian in the Middle East, but also what it means to be black and angry in the U.S., to be Muslim and ostracized in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut back on greenhouse gases. The internet is the only space where all different modes of being Palestinian can meet. If I express this precariousness in symbolic violence, will you hear me out? Will you protect me from both prosecution by the establishment and exploitation by the well-funded fringe extremists?
Protester at an October 2011 Cairo march against military abuses carries a poster on his back: “Free Alaa Abdel Fattah. No military tribunals, no more emergency law, down with military rule.” Photo from http://she2i2.blogspot.com/2011/10/
I derive several things from that, for my international colleagues. Power — the friendly power of your own governments that say they have the world’s best interests in mind — won’t save you. It won’t change things, not for the better. Power must be battled, not befriended, wherever you face it. So, yes, you can fight at home, against the international system that contrives to extinguish hope, that keeps Alaa Abd El Fattah and 60,000 others in Egypt jailed. The system is huge. Egypt is only one small part, and the US and Europe prop up its indistiguishable dictators because of still larger goals against which 100 million Egyptians shrivel to paltriness: the priorities of Israeli occupation, or Saudi oil. Yet things can change. On the one hand, global arms sales to Egypt actually increased fourfold in the two years after Sisi’s coup and the attendant massacres. On the other: a few activists in Berlin, protesting last week against German complicity in the Egyptian crackdown on LGBT people, forced their government to cancel a planned security training for Egyptian police, meant to teach how to monitor web “extremism” (and repress any political activity they fear). The machinery of state terror, that produces terror and uses it to justify more, can be rolled back, even in small ways. That’s an immense victory.
Somewhile back, a Moroccan friend who studied linguistics wrote me, magisterially: “In Arabic as contrasted to English, the subjunctive mode is much more closely coordinated with desire.” I have no idea whether this is true (or, indeed, exactly what it means). But “coordinated with desire” is a marvellous phrase, and seems indeed to describe something recognizable about Oum Kulthoum songs or Mahfouz’s novels, permeated not just with an “as if” but with a tangible, urgent “I want” beating in every pause for breath. That transformation of impossibility into desire is the essential predicate of revolution.
I’ll just close with a story, one I often tell. I came back to Egypt for a few days in late 2005, for its first-ever contested Presidential election in history (Alaa had demonstrated six months earlier for the constitutional change that permitted the contest). The election itself was a sham staged for the Bush administration’s benefit. Mubarak jailed his main opponent, Ayman Nour, both before and after the brief campaign, and gave himself 89% of the votes. (Nour was later forced to leave Egypt after Sisi’s coup, and now lives in exile.) However, on voting day, September 7, a few dozen of the usual suspects — young activists from Kefaya, mostly — gathered at noon on the green roundabout in Midan Tahrir for what they expected to be the usual tiny, police-ringed protest. I came too and we walked in circles, chanting, till suddenly it hit everyone at once: the police weren’t there. The ranks of black- clad, armored Central Security conscripts who invariably came to kettle in and confine even the tiniest protest were miraculously, inexplicably, absent. Conscious that diplomats and the international press corps were all over Cairo that day, Mubarak had decided to stage a little simulacrum of democratic rights.
The next flash came quickly: We could do what we wanted. Limbs stretched like sleepers waking. Almost instantly the little demonstration moved off the greensward and started marching, up Talaat Harb street into downtown Cairo. It grew as we walked, to maybe a thousand or more. People sang, they danced. The sense of physical liberation, freedom from the huge constricting weight of the state’s riot gear and weapons, was incredible. It was if a hundred bodies had been unstrung from straitjackets at once. Along the street, shoppers and shopkeepers stared as if we’d gone insane; a few, envying the joy of the uncalendared moulid, peeled off to join us. The ecstatic procession wound through central Cairo, turning near Ramsis Station to approach the old presidential palace at Abdin; and there, where the streets widened and the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity softened (and after the foreign reporters, losing interest, had decamped to grab a beer) Mubarak’s paid thugs emerged from the alleyways, to club and batter those along the edges. The march broke up in fear and confusion, as friends raced to protect one another. Yet the memory is so vivid for me, I can almost taste the sweat and the exhaust fumes in the air. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen people so purely happy. I missed the Eighteen Days in Midan Tahrir, but that one day gave me a feeling for what it must have been like. It was the hour of as if, when lives mummified in fear and custom break free. I don’t recall any faces from the procession, strangely, just bodies dancing, arms raised high; I’m not sure if Alaa or his family were there, or were at some other demonstration in Cairo, or were arguing elsewhere with the police. I abase myself for my own forgetting. The failure of memory to hold steadfastly enough to the past corrupts history; its weakness puts the future itself in danger. Yet when I think of Alaa I remember enough of that afternoon to know: a day like that is what I want for him, as if he were free.
Street art depicting Alaa Abd El Fattah by Keizer, Cairo, 2016-2017. The placard around his neck reads “Innocent”; the words below: “Don’t forget me.”