Book Review: Bearing Witness to the Fate of the Egyptian Revolution

Alaa Abd el-Fattah's 'You Have Not Yet Been Defeated' is both an archive and a blueprint: an archive of a revolution deferred, and a blueprint for bringing the world that it dreamt of into existence.

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On August 14, 2013 – a month after a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had deposed the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – army and police forces massacred more than 900 pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square, in a “clearing out” operation. The Rabaa Massacre, as it came to be known, was one of the worst instances of state-sanctioned violence on protesters in recent times, anywhere in the world. Primarily directed against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, it paved the way for the declaration of a state of emergency and a further extinguishment of the hope that had been born with the January 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah
You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Selected Works 2011-2021
Fitzcarraldo Editions (October 2021)

A week after the massacre, in an essay titled ‘Above The Sound of Battle’, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the Egyptian democracy activist, digital rights advocate, software developer – and past and future political prisoner – wrote that “nothing can justify this … whatever came before, whatever we might say about the crimes of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood … whatever came before pales in significance.” But perhaps what is most significant about this essay is not the common sense written large in these words, but that in writing them, Alaa was breaking ranks – as we are told in an editorial footnote – “with the old comrades of the Left and Liberal currents who acquiesce in the crimes against the Brotherhood”.

Egypt’s 2011 revolution had thrown up a host of ideologically opposed currents. For obvious reasons, the eventual ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to political power – and Mohamed Morsi to the presidency – had alarmed many, especially those committed to the values of secularism. While in power, Morsi had done little to alleviate this alarm, governing in an increasingly autocratic fashion, and making full use of the repressive state apparatus against which the revolution had been directed in the first place.

For this reason, the Army’s eventual interference had been greeted by many, and its culmination in the Rabaa Massacre was passed over softly – or even in silence – by those who saw the strain of political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, and one that needed to be eliminated at any cost.

Put in this context, ‘Above the Sound of Battle’ stands out for its clarity of thought, its intellectual honesty, and its prescience. In assessing the Rabaa Massacre, Alaa argues that it would not do to tot up the previous crimes of the Muslim Brotherhood in some sort of moral ledger; nor could the odiousness of its political project be invoked to justify – or in any way excuse – what had happened. The only principled response to something like the Rabaa Massacre is unqualified condemnation: “The fact that there have been lots of crimes committed by many criminals must never be a smokescreen.” Moreover, it is not simply a matter of principle.

Sisi came to power in 2013 after ousting his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup. Photo: Reuters

In another essay, written one further week later, titled ‘You Know That The Killing Was Random’, Alaa would go on to observe that “the arms that are being pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood today will be pointed at someone else next time.” And now, in 2021, as al-Sisi’s dictatorship – now legitimised by the garb of “elections” – approaches a decade, these essays appear all the more remarkable, Minerva’s owls that flew at dawn instead of dusk.

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‘Above the Sound of Battle’ and ‘You Know That The Killing Was Random’ form part of a collection titled You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, published by Fitzcarraldo Press in October 2021. They bring together Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s collected writings over the last decade, a substantial part of which has been written from prison. Alaa himself bears the unique distinction of having successively been imprisoned by three regimes: Hosni Mubarak’s, Mohamed Morsi’s, and al-Sisi’s, the last one incarcerating him for seven out of the last eight years.

He is – as Nihal El Aasar points out in this illuminating essay – “one of the most persistent and high-profile critics of Egypt’s authoritarian state”, “the most famous” out of the 60,000 political prisoners currently in the nation’s prisons (the essay, of course, rightly warns against reducing Alaa to a symbol). You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, thus, is simultaneously a witness statement: bearing witness to the fate of the revolution; a case for the defence: a defence of the values that birthed it; and an indictment: an indictment of the authoritarian regime(s) that continue to try to demolish the belief that it made possible – albeit however briefly: the belief that another world can be imagined.

As the Russian art critic and revolutionary, Viktor Shklovsky, once ruefully observed, the tide of the times did not let him write his books with “the quiet consistency of academic works”. So it is with Alaa: the essays in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated are responses to the events of the Egyptian Revolution, often written in the immediate aftermath of the unfolding of events, and trying to make sense of them, both in the immediate context, and in the longue durée.

Broadly, the essays fall into four themes. The first set consists of reactions to the Revolution itself: from the early days and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, to the election of Mohamed Morsi, to his ouster in the military coup, and then to al-Sisi’s repressive rule. Here we find reflections on the writing of a new democratic constitution – a dream that remains deferred (‘Who Will Write the Constitution?’), on the loss of comrades and the unlikely solidarities forged at the wrong end of State violence (‘To Be With the Martyrs, For That Is Far Better’, ‘Asmaa’), on military rule (‘Nothing to Celebrate’), on unity and division in a Revolution wreaked with factions (‘Impossible Solutions’), and on state killings (‘Above the Sound of Battle’, ‘What Happened At Abu Zabaal’, ‘You Know That The Killing Was Random’).

These pieces are concentrated in the years 2011-2014, before the commencement of Alaa’s near-constant imprisonment and the onset of Sisi’s rule. In these pieces, Alaa’s voice is reminiscent of that of Victor Serge: just like that other great revolutionary and thinker, it could too be said of Alaa that he “is with the Revolution, albeit independently, without renouncing thought or critical sense”. This shows up most clearly, of course, in his writings on the Rabaa Massacre, but it is present throughout.

A second set of writings have a broader canvas: reflections on democracy in a time of a revolution, and – more specifically, given Alaa’s own location – on the role of technology. A noteworthy example is Alaa’s 2011 Keynote Address to RightsCon – delivered shortly after learning that he had been summoned by Egypt’s military prosecutor, a fact skilfully woven into the speech itself. The RightsCon address tackles a familiar theme – the complicity of big tech companies in enabling state repression – but is set apart in ways characteristic of Alaa’s writings: the analysis is both structural (going into questions of product design) and constructive (noting what tech companies – and the audience can do to combat state repression, and not merely what they’re not doing).

Another remarkable piece of writing in this theme is a 2017 letter to RightsCon, written from prison, the titular ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated’: here, even in the depths of defeat, another crucial element of Alaa’s thought – a commitment to internationalism – shines through with particular clarity. After exhorting the audience to “fix your own democracy” as an answer to the question of “how can we help” – because “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” – Alaa goes on to say:

“Don’t play the game of nations … 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.”

This recognition that the intensely local and the global are inextricably linked – with internationalist solidarity the bridge between them – is a theme that we find throughout a decade of Alaa’s writing.

Alaa Abd el-Fatah. Photo: Alaa Abd El-Fatah/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5

The third set can perhaps be described as – for want of a better word – “prison memoirs”: these writings see Alaa reflecting – from prison – upon the course of the revolution, the reasons for its (seeming) defeat, and of his own role in events. The anchor for this is undoubtedly the beautiful and moving piece titled ‘Graffiti For Two’, co-authored by Alaa and another political prisoner, Ahmad Douma, and published in Mada Masr in 2014.

Alaa begins the essay by critically interrogating the famous phrase, “despair is treason”, and asking instead: “why are we afraid to admit weakness?” The essay goes on to investigate the many visions of freedom – and revolution – that converged on Tahrir Square in 2011, temporarily united but fundamentally different, with differences that would eventually lead to the events of 2013 and 2014.

While keeping space for different visions – another integral aspect of his thought and writing – Alaa nonetheless makes a powerful case for a revolution that does not seek to force itself into the centre of things, but one that dissolves the binary of centre and periphery altogether:

“Writing about margins wider than the centre, about a history made up of many narratives. Margins – as opposed to the centre – are multiple … I find myself theorising about the need to interact with all causes and injustices, however marginal their people, even if this angers the people of the centre. And to reject any attempt to impose priorities on freedom, dignity and justice.”

While these themes of equality and diversity run throughout the book – also present in the RightsCon address – it is here that we see the clearest statement of the belief that a Revolution whose sole goal is the wresting of power – without challenging the concept of power itself, and how it is organised – will either fail or ossify into Statism. And there is unity of thought here: a later essay called ‘Your Legacy’ – written in the aftermath of the death of Alaa’s father, a respected Egyptian human rights lawyer – makes a brief but clear case for the abolition of prisons, rather than simply ensuring a formal implementation of the rule of law.

Finally, there are two essays on Palestine. The first was written in 2012, when the opening of the Rafah border after the Egyptian revolution allowed transport and movement between Egypt and Gaza. ‘Gaza: On Being Prisoner To Your Own Victory’ is a series of observations from the besieged land, characteristically acute and self-aware: of life under siege, of the divisions that still persist, of the relationship between the occupier and the occupied. The importance of Palestine – and its centrality to the struggle for freedom more generally – is highlighted once again in the final essay of the collection, written (again, from prison) in September 2021.

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In ‘Palestine On My Mind’, Alaa reflects on the eviction protests in Sheikh Jarrah in the summer of 2021, news of which filtered even through the prison. Structured around the refrain “Palestine is always on my mind”, the essay speaks of the solidarities between Egypt and Palestine, and the necessary solidarities that must exist across borders if freedom is ever to be possible:

“My generation was raised on scenes from the Second Intifada and launched itself onto the scene with student demonstrations in support of Palestine. One movement followed another until this generation led a revolution. Yes, the roots of the revolution lie in the solidarity demonstrations with the Second Intifada, for we are Arabs and Palestine’s always on our mind.”

Ending with a re-arrangement of the lines form a famous resistance song, “I call out to you”, the essay is a fitting end to the book, and a worthy reminder of the book’s title.

Save Sheikh Jarrah Protest, May 12, 2021. Photo: Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It would, of course, be impossible in this review essay to do justice to the depth and breadth of the writing that constitutes You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Apart from the pieces I have mentioned, there is a beautiful eulogy to Alaa’s father (“All that’s asked of us is that we fight for what’s right”), reflections on Uber and the platform economy (‘The Birth of a Brave New World’), and on autism (‘Autism’), to name just a few. But taken together, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is both an archive and a blueprint: an archive of a revolution deferred, and a blueprint for bringing the world that it dreamt of into existence. That it succeeds so brilliantly at holding the two together is perhaps the surest sign that its author – and its readers – “have not yet been defeated.”

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer and author.