Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “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.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Yara Sallam in jail, and the moral bankruptcy of the United States

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

Note: Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about these arrests. Other important links are at the bottom of this post.

Yara Sallam is a human rights activist and a women’s rights activist. She is also a feminist. The distinction may seem captious, but I am careful to draw it. Rights activists (of whom I’m one) want to change the rules of the world. Feminists want to change the world itself, its deep structures of power; to have new players in a new game, on a different, still dormant field. The rules are bad; the game as we play it now is stacked against almost everybody except those who keep the score; to instill some modicum of fair play is essential. Yet nobody with much of a mind who’s worked in human rights for long escapes feeling this is palliative, a tinkering with superficies, and that however impossible a deeper change may be, the labor cannot carry on without a tinge of the impossibility that inhabits only our anger and our dreams. Why are we addicted to the game we are losing? “The roulette table pays nobody except him that keeps it,” Bernard Shaw wrote. “Nevertheless, a passion for gambling is common, though a passion for keeping roulette tables is unknown.” Check how the ball is weighted, calibrate the points. But in the long run someone also has to say: break the wheel, step away from the table, stop the game.

Boys will be boys: Men's rights activists John Kerry and General Abdelfattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Boys will be boys, I: Men’s rights activists John Kerry and General Abdel Fattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Yara is a friend, and she is under arrest tonight, in the Heliopolis police station in Cairo. June 21 was an international day of solidarity against Egypt’s anti-protest law. The law — a decree introduced in November — clamps draconian punishments on demonstrations, including prison terms of 2-5 years for anyone “calling for disrupting public interests,” that is, criticizing the state. It was meant to bolster the rule of the military counter-revolution by choking the rich protest culture that grew up in Egypt after February 2011. Two days after the law was promulgated, activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah joined a demonstration against military trials for civilians. Two days after that, police broke down his door, slapped his wife, and arrested him for violating the protest law. This month, a court handed him and other defendants 15-year prison terms. Last month, another judge gave Mahienour el-Massry, a well-known rights lawyer, and eight others two-year sentences for demonstrating against the torture and murder of Khaled Said — a victim of Mubarak’s police whose killing helped spark the 2011 revolution. “The military authority stands now on the remains of its opposition,” a dissident said.

June 21 was meant to show support for the victims of Egypt’s new, systematic oppression of dissent.

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

The anti-protest law protest in Cairo wound through narrow streets toward the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis. At every open space, hired thugs — the baltageya who were the Mubarak regime’s enforcers against dissent — and security forces assaulted them. Armed with the full power of the law, the regime still enlisted extra-legal violence — against a few hundred marchers. Mina Fayek, one of them, says 

We were attacked by thugs who beat us with broken glass bottles and stones. Then suddenly they disappeared and instantaneously the state security forces appeared and started firing tear gas and “sound guns” …  I saw a police officer directing the thugs with my own eyes, so they [would] stall the protesters till state security cars could make their way to them.

Photographs (taken from @Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Photographs (taken from Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Dina Youssef, another protester, says: 

When the police and people with them started throwing glass bottles and tear gas at us, I couldn’t run and hid behind a tree! One of them found me, and started threatening me with a strange knife, so I ran and jumped into a ground floor balcony in a nearby building.

Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Boys will be boys, II: Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Two other boys and four girls joined me, and they started crying hysterically. I tried to calm them down because the man with the knife had seen us. He was stalled as protestors started throwing stones at him, so we all ran from the balcony to the street and started chanting ” police are pigs”! They then shot tear gas canisters at us and as we ran, we were chased by a huge man with a big stick.I managed to make it into a building to hide … This is how they treat demonstrations in Egypt because we asked for #noprotestlaw.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces arrested over thirty people. Seven were freed this afternoon; the rest, at least 24, will be brought before a prosecutor tomorrow. They include Yara and Sanaa Seif. Sanaa is Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s youngest sister, a student activist and artist from a distinguished family of dissidents who have racked up years of imprisonment between them; according to her aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, she was arrested “when she refused to escape and leave 3 young men to the police.” Reportedly they will face charges including illegal protest, “attacking public and private property,” and “possession of flammable materials and explosives during participation in such a protest.” Soueif writes, “We never even fired a firecracker!”

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

My friend Yara is brilliant, charismatic, and kind. A lawyer educated in Egypt, France, and the United States, she has worked for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in The Gambia; as manager of the Women’s Human Rights Defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, in Cairo; and as a researcher for the the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). In 2013 the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network gave her its North African Shield award for her work in support of other women’s rights activists. Last year she explained the roots of her feminist commitment:

The first time I read about feminism as a theory was in 2010 while I was doing my master’s degree, but I didn’t need to read the theories and the books to practice feminism. I was lucky to be raised in a leftist family that believes in equality between men and women, and applies these values. My mother is, by anyone’s definition, indeed a feminist, but still refuses to call herself one because of the negative connotations associated with who is a “feminist” and whether this implies an aggression toward men. For me, growing up seeing a strong woman like my mother, who fought her own battles bravely in the public sphere, struggled while growing up, takes strong stands in her personal life despite social stigmas, is what inspired me and made me the feminist I am today. She taught me about feminism in her day-to-day struggle, and I will be grateful for her all my life.

 Yara Sallam interviewed after receiving the North African HRD Shield award, 2013

I know her family is desperately worried for her as she sits caged in a cell. Their fears run like rainwater into a pool of fear. They join the fear that families of Muslim Brotherhood supporters felt after thousands were slaughtered in Rabaa or dozens in Abu Zabaal. The tears of the secular and of the religious are equally salt. Having massacred and suppressed Islamists, a government determined to cement its power increasingly turns its gaze upon the remaining liberals and the revolutionary young. A few days before Yara’s arrest, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights released a report she had taken the lead in researching: an investigation of state responsibility for the rampant killings in the summer of 2013.

August 16: Old woman wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

August 16, 2013: Old woman wounded by birdshot in the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa El-Adawiya, Cairo, collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

The day after Yara’s arrest, John Kerry came to Cairo. He brought news that the US “had quietly sent an estimated $572 million to Cairo in military and security assistance this month,” gun money that had been suspended since October over human rights concerns. He also came with a promise of 10 Apache attack helicopters to keep the dictator secure: “The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very very soon,” he intoned, sounding remarkably like John Wayne. He spoke of the US’s “historic partnership” with Egypt — or, as a “senior State Department official” told reporters on the plane:

I  think that the Secretary is going to make clear that we want to be as supportive as possible of Egypt’s transition … [There is a] recognition that Egypt has been going through a very difficult transition. There’s a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed. Egypt is a strategic partner and we have a longstanding relationship with Egypt. It’s a partnership that’s based on shared interest, strategic interest.

It was a great festival of making-clear. “Egypt and its people have made clear their demands for dignity, justice and for political and economic opportunity,” Kerry said. “They just had a historic election for president.”  Indeed: Egypt has seen three contested polls for president in its history. In 2005, Mubarak triumphed; in 2012, Morsi narrowly won; and then there’s Sisi’s landslide. This democratic avalanche is the first where the winner gave himself more than 95% of the vote. Truly historic! Even Mubarak’s faked ascension showed more modesty.

Kerry came to Egypt disguised as a diplomat, but acting like a criminal accomplice. The United States colludes with murder. (The same day Yara was jailed, an Egyptian court confirmed mass death sentences on the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 182 supporters — gleefully envisioning the execution of the political force that won Egypt’s only free elections, ever.) The Obama administration has policies of a sort on human rights; but they are not about change. They are about keeping the misery inconspicuous. At best where our most suasible allies are concerned, they envision a slight tinkering with the rules of repression to make the violence palatable. But the United States will keep furnishing the means of murder to its friends. The Apaches are coming.

These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they're both coming.

Boys will be boys, III: These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they’re both on the way.

You can see this everywhere. Two days before Yara’s arrest, under pressure from homebound constituencies, the Obama administration announced punitive measures against Uganda’s government for passing the horrific Anti-Homosexuality Bill. These included visa bans on the worst offenders — good — and some adjustments to humanitarian aid, more carefully targeted than most observers expected. Oh, yes, and there was a slight change in the US’s intimate military relationship with Museveni’s dictatorship. “We have also cancelled plans to conduct the Department of Defense’s Africa Partnership Flight exercise in Uganda. This was intended to be a United States African Command (AFRICOM)-sponsored aviation exercise with other East African partners.” Tremble, puny generals! But the rest of the massive military support the US provides Museveni remained untouched. The means of killing that Obama gives the dictator are literally incalculable: just try to come up with a solid dollar figure. The regime is usefully repressive. So long as it’s stable, it remains a pillar in AFRICOM’s efforts to fight back terrorism in East Africa, and retain American hegemony over the region’s resources, including a growing likelihood of lots of oil. Never mind that those arms and military expertise go to kill thousands in Uganda’s north, and are the key props of the same government that arrests lesbians, and gays, and trans people. The Apaches will keep coming — at least, till somebody says: Stop the game.

“The U.S. government is mindful of the wide range of issues encompassed by our relationship with Uganda,” the administration’s statement said, including “a partnership that advances our security interests in the region.” American gays applauded Obama’s service to human rights. Wasn’t it proof that LGBT rights can actually coexist with America’s “security interests” in seeing people killed? The Human RIghts Campaign said Obama had “put all world leaders on notice.” He’d affirmed his “deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people,” etcetera. Then everybody got ready to go to the White House and shake Obama’s hand. But you should be careful shaking the hands of those who shake the hands of killers. Blood rubs off.

Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about the detentions, as well as images, placards, and other materials.
A June 22 statement on Yara Sallam and other women human rights defenders arrested in the protest, from Nazra for Feminist Studies, is here. A June 23 press release from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and 11 other groups is here.
Visit egyptprotests2014.tumblr.com for updates about the detainees, further protests, and the law itself. 

 Sanaa Seif interviewed about the role of women in the Egyptian Revolution, 2011

Then there were elections, and the fun started: Egypt’s vote

Beard vs. bullets: the Brotherhood’s Morsi and the army’s Shafiq

There’s no such thing as “freedom.” There are only freedoms of various sorts, and nearly all of them are freedoms to.  Freedom to speak; freedom to be silent. Freedom to put a placard in the window; freedom to refrain. Freedom to worship; freedom to say “There is no god.”  There is also a neglected one, but extremely important: the freedom to be stupid. This is indispensable, basic, if only because the second and most frequent excuse that police, politicians, philosopher kings and priests will come up with to prohibit any act (after the first and only valid one, “you’ll hurt somebody with that”) is: “That’s a really stupid thing to do.”  Power always wants to think for you, and the general way is to brand your own untrammeled thoughts as stupid. But you have a right to be stupid. Cherish that!  The freedom to be stupid is so fundamental to the autonomous self, so intrinsic to our independence, that when practiced by the individual we don’t even have a name for it. When practiced by a group, it’s called “democracy.”

This is a refreshing reflection after the Egyptian elections. The results were certified today, and, from a liberal or leftist intellectual’s perspective, 48.44% of the ballots displayed people being stupid. This is the combined result for the two top votegetters, and while it’s not quite a majority, it was enough to put Mohammed Morsi (the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood) and Ahmed Shafiq (former general, Mubarak’s last prime minister, the candidate of the military and the old regime) into a runoff for President. It’s Armageddon, the Islamists versus the army, the two establishments battling head-to-head, with the values that animated most vocal revolutionaries squeezed out from the middle without a smidgen left behind. Boy, is everybody else pissed.

Midan Tahrir, May 28, from @OccupiedCairo: “This time we’re serious”

There was a demo in Midan Tahrir tonight, thousands of people shouting in fury, mainly at Shafiq’s presence in the runoff, the discredited relic of dictatorship. Me, I’m following all this on Twitter, the stay-at-home revolutionary’s best friend. @JamalalJazeera quotes one protester:  “The generation that ruined us with their silence for 30 years has now ruined us with their votes for Shafiq.”

Meanwhile, across the river in Dokki, somebody attacked and ransacked and set fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters. One report on Twitter suggested that as many as eight of Shafiq’s HQs around the country were attacked at the same time; but I haven’t heard more about that. Is this revolutionaries’ rage, or provocateurs? My friend Liam Stack of the New York Times reports people in the burned building “say they ‘got a warning’ to leave Shafiq campaign HQ an hour before the fire started at 10 pm.” From whom? @Khufo lends a note of caution: “don’t you think it’s common sense since ppl have been calling to march towards the hq this afternoon?”  But there’s something fishy, if only in the Shafiqists’ attempt to pin blame. At first, according to @Sherifkouddous, people on the scene were inclined to curse the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks. But pretty soon they seemed to get different instructions: Youm TV had a Shafiq spokesman saying Alaa Abd el-Fattah was responsible. Alaa, hero of the Revolution, is the military junta’s favorite bogeyman; they blame him for everything, murders at Maspero, dust storms, 30 Rock being cancelled. The account of his incendiary acts is ridiculous, but in less than an hour it took on the dignity of mention in al-Ahram. The state-run paper proclaimed a little while ago that Egypt’s prosecutor general himself had dispatched a team of aides to investigate the incident, and that

a number of witnesses in their testimony to detectives charged political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah and his sister [Mona Seif, founder of the No Military Trials campaign and hence particularly unpopular with the generals] with involvement in the attack on the headquarters of the Ahmed Shafiq campaign; witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before the storming and burning of the headquarters.

Alaa says: “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations.”

Here’s film of the fire:

Shafiq has run as the law-and-order candidate, the man to restore security and the halcyon quiet of Mubarak times. The violence, whoever caused it, seems predestined to prove his point. Lauren Bohn, a journalist on the scene, says:  “Shafiq campaigners are reading raiding the HQ … as [handing him] his presidency on a silver platter.”

Even now, Shafiq’s candidacy is under a pall of doubt for a number of reasons. One is that the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament in April passed a law barring any senior Mubarak official from running. Shafiq, senior Mubarak official par excellence, challenged this before the Electoral Commission, which is staffed by Mubarak holdovers; they ruled he could run after all, pending a decision by the Constitutional Court. Rumors today suggested the court will hand down a ruling on June 11, five days before the runoff. Kicking Shafiq off the ballot at the last minute would be regular business in this highly irregular election. Neither of the two apparent finalists was the first choice for their respective sides. The Electoral Commission earlier disqualified the Brotherhood’s favored candidate, Khairat el-Shater, for a previous court conviction. It also booted the military’s number-one flack, Omar Suleiman, because too many of his signatures were forged. (Suleiman was Mubarak’s top spy, chief torturer, and chosen successor; I noted here eight months ago that the junta was keeping him in reserve as a possible Presidential candidate.) The two sides fell back on the uncharismatic Morsi and the dully bureaucratic Shafiq with some resignation. In the process, the Commission also kicked out Hazem Abu Ismail, candidate of the far-right Salafists, because his late mother had acquired an American passport. The era when any Egyptian can grow up to run for President is still not here.

El-Shater, Abu Ismail, and Suleiman: See no evil, hear no evil, and I will attach electric wires to your genitals if you do not tell me everything you know that’s evil right now

There are some signs of irregularities in the first-round voting, though Jimmy Carter found it generally fair. A reformist judge today demanded an explanation for the appearance of 5 million new voters on the registration rolls in the last year. Despite a ban on security personnel voting, an officer has filed a complaint saying that 900,000 were issued IDs to cast ballots for Shafiq. (Wael Eskandar has a rundown on these allegations here.) That’s more than the 700,000 votes that separated Shafiq from the third-place runner up, the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi.

But back off a moment. Even if the military illegally manipulated Shafiq’s showing, the fact is that the old reprobate got a lot of votes nonetheless. The three top finalists (Morsi, Shafiq, and the edged-out Sabahi) won close to 70% of the ballots between them in a packed field. Perhaps, while the ashes settle in Cairo, one can consider, in that pundity way, what this means: what are the Lessons of it all.

Money and organization. Morsi and (however doubtfully he used it) Shafiq had it. The Brotherhood, in addition to its alleged funding from Qatar (possibly supplemented by Saudi cash after Riyadh’s favored Salafists were disqualified), has its core constituency among the professional classes; these too help keep it in the black. Both cash and commitment have aided it in building the most formidable grass-roots machine in Egyptian politics. True, its vote fell off substantially since last year’s Parliamentary elections — from  more than 40% to less than 25%, reflecting wide anger at the legislature’s ineptitude. But it still mobilized the votes it had. Shafiq, meanwhile, certainly enjoyed the military’s money behind him, if not those 900,000 ID cards. It’s interesting that he didn’t start taking off in the polls until Obama, after some hestitations, renewed the $1 billion-plus in military aid the US ladles on Cairo; perhaps the prudent junta was holding off until it knew for certain the piggy bank (a haram receptacle, but a hefty one) was full.

Ideological certainty. The two candidates whom pundits and polls had earlier anointed both failed miserably. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the liberal former Brotherhood member who tried to built a rainbow movement stretching from secularists to Salafists, got 17% of the votes. Amr Moussa, charismatic former Foreign Minister and Arab League head, got 11%. Most voters, I would guess, disdained their vagueness — the elisions of coalition politics in Aboul Foutouh’s case, and of slippery sloganeering in Moussa’s. They voted for clarity instead. Sabahi, the Nasserist, ran as an unreconstructed leftist, talking of social and economic justice. Even without much cash on hand, a clear populist message propelled him nearly to the top. And even if  Morsi and Shafiq hedged about exact plans and programs, the Brotherhood and the Mubarakites are so familiar that you’d have to be a fool not to know what you’re getting. After the confusions of a revolutionary year, a lot of people wanted straightforward beliefs.

Sabahi: The nation needs my chest hair

Nostagia and nationalism. The siren singing of the successful candidates had, to an outsider’s ear, something of a retro tonality, like a bad cover of a previous year’s hit. The Nasserites, since the Great Gamal died, have had little appeal but memory: recollections of a day when Egypt was independent of the US, adored by the Arab masses, feared by the Arab kings, and at perpetual war with Israel and others.( It’s to Sabbahi’s credit that he broadened this by talking about present-day economics.) Shafiq, meanwhile, based his campaign on an end to the current crime wave and a return to enforced national unity and omnipresent police. And the Brotherhood, while not exactly nationalist in their blandishments — Islam of course is transnational — invoked a solidarity transcending temporary political divisions, the ummah, irrefragable except for those pesky Copts. If you worry about society’s friability in the face of democratic disagreement, or about a loss of national dignity with the retreat of economy and state, these are the guys for you.

What the left revolutionaries didn’t do. If I’m right about the above, then the votes for Morsi and Shafiq seem not stupid, but the pursuit of a rationality different from the leftist and liberal intellectuals’. But a vote for the unequivocal was made easier by the left revolutionaries’ own equivocations about a program. Beyond overthrowing the dictator and establishing democracy, they never developed one. Even on those two points, of course, much is undone — the junta still rules, civilians suffer in military courts, torture continues; but the negatives amount to a call for dismantling the existing system, not guidelines for what a new one will be, or do. I am reluctant to speak of “failure,” but two aspects seem like failures to me. First, the middle-class revolutionaries never engaged much with the workers or peasants who also manned, and womaned, the revolution. They had enormous trouble, indeed, integrating economic justice into their own demands: over the summer, negotiations on a revolutionary program never got much farther into economics than an anodyne provision on the minimum wage. Second —  growing from the first — they failed to follow their own left principles consistently. Almost all the youth activists had some touch of anarchism, for instance. But they did little work on micropolitics, to build local structures of decision-making and alliance within the larger society, structures that might have given the ecstatic but ephemeral experience of Tahrir some permanence. Still less did they follow their syndicalist ancestors in working with the trade unions (for instance) to imagine different models of self-government. These are missed opportunities.

As a result, most of the young revolutionaries wound up politically homeless. In the first Presidential round, most of their votes probably went to  Sabahi, the secular leftist — deserting Khaled Ali, a human rights activist just barely old enough to run, who incarnated many of their values and had no chance and wound up with .5% of the votes. But before that, many had a weird flirtation with Naguib Sawiris, a fantastically rich mobile-phone entrepreneur who founded the Free Egyptians Party, and was one of the more inept politicians among the many incompetents to whom the Revolution opened public life. A Revolution that marries a billionaire is making a bad match.

But certainly this doesn’t mean the Revolution failed. For better or for worse, the Revolution was always a postmodernish one, limited in its objectives, rejecting the Leninist model of seizing state power. The chance to seize state power was there; on the last day before Mubarak fell, as protesters surrounded the government broadcasting center, they seemed for a moment to be following a script as old as the First International. But they rejected it. Historians will probably debate the wisdom of this for decades, but the fact is: the lack of a positive program was built into the way the revolutionaries behaved. They scrupulously abjured either arrogating government authority to themselves, or replicating it by building a new model. That wasn’t the idea. Their highest goal was to open society up and create the space for democracy, and it was part of their dignity and modesty that they didn’t claim some preempting nsight into what that democracy should do.

And now? The leaderless liberals have launched a “united front,” predictably disunited, to demand that whoever becomes president set up an inclusive constitution-drafting process. Shafiq and Morsi will go ahead and campaign, though Shafiq might be disqualified at the last minute. Each will spend the time trying to scare the hell out of everybody about the other. After that, whoever wins will have a thoroughly divided country on his hands. That might not be a bad thing, give the regressive politics either one would represent: neither exactly deserves carte blanche to govern. And if Shafiq is shucked off the ballot? Does Sabahi enter the runoff with five days to go? Is there a new election? The whole thing has been so bungled so far that nobody can guess.

Issandr el-Amrani calls, basically, for a new Revolution aiming at a new transition:

The question is not really anymore whether there was massive fraud, or only minor violations as the PEC [the Electoral Commission] stated today. Its ruling is not appealable, it has a past record of dubious decisions, and it behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking access to observers to counting rooms. The PEC had no credibility even before the vote was cast for many people who are unhappy with the results.

The real question is to what extent will the political leaders that supposedly represent the protestors will push the delegitimization of the elections, and how the Muslim Brotherhood (which has alleged fraud but not filed any complaints, perhaps afraid to lose its spot on the runoff) will position itself between the protest movement and the state.

The revolutionaries were right that no constitution should be written, and no election held, under the rule of generals who served Hosni Mubarak. They didn’t care about the current interim constitution because it itself has little legitimacy, and the transition has been so mangled as to barely make sense anymore. … The politicians were afraid to alienate the good part of the population that doesn’t want to take that risk of confronting the state head on, as well as jeopardize their own position in the emerging order. I don’t know whether they’ll change their minds now, but one would think the moment is ripe  — even if this leads to no concrete gain and probably much pain, the seeds of delegitimization of the future regime will have been laid. …

[S]omeone needs to rise to the occasion here and reject this electoral process outright (Aboul Fotouh and Khaled Ali have). If you’re going to lose, you might as well drag others down with you — in this case, the PEC, the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], and the (officially) winning candidates. It’s just good politics.

I’m not sure. SCAF needs to be dragged down, but can that be done from the streets anymore? Shafiq won’t do it, but could Morsi? These are things people will be asking. Giving either side command of the state closes off certain possibilities. But it potentially opens a different project: building society, something the revolutionaries (as opposed to the Brotherhood) have neglected so far. Yet that the society is already open enough for people to be, by the revolutionaries’ lights, collectively stupid without fearing the apocalypse — that’s a kind of victory. A country presented with a couple of unacceptably stupid choices is exercising the giddy freedom of idiocy, where other freedoms begin. That’s society, starting to flex itself and act. It’s worked. How much more can the revolutionaries ask?

Zillions of scorched and scattered Shafiq flyers carpeted the ground outside his smoldering headquarters tonight, sodden from the runoff from the fire hoses. Sarah Carr writes, “The wind is making all the Shafiq pictures on the ground fly up in the air like a lovely American Beauty moment felool style.” There’s nothing so creepy it can’t be beautiful from the right angle. Now back to business.

Litter and liberty: from @Sarahcarr

Prison letter from Alaa Abd el Fattah

Jailed Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd el Fattah sends a second, self-lacerating letter from prison:

Let’s begin from the start: How are you? I am Alaa, a foot soldier in the revolution, there are those who sacrificed more than me, those who are much more courageous than me, and those whose role is much more important than mine.

I am Alaa, proud that I am doing what I can and sometimes surprise myself with what I am capable of. And I know myself and what I am not capable of. I try never to fail my commitments, I try to overcome fear always and I constantly try to be in the front lines at all times.

Sign the petition calling for his release.

لا للمحاكمات العسكرية للمدنيين No Military Trials for Civilians

A video giving voice to victims and opponents of the military courts Egypt’s junta uses to try civilians, stacked tribunals that repress both dissidents and the poor. Go to http://www.nomiltrials.com/ (Arabic and English) to learn more.

“The marginalized are always the core”: Free Alaa Abd el Fattah

Big Brother is guarding you

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.

In Tahrir: Alaa Abd el Fattah

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.

freealaa.com

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.