A Conversation with Alaa Abd El Fattah


On May 7, Alaa Abd El Fattah, my nephew, was detained by security forces in downtown Cairo at a demonstration in support of the Egyptian judges in their conflict with the government. He spent forty-five days in Tora jail. Three main impressions that stay with me from those days: 1. Manal, Alaa’s wife, and Laila, his mother, trekking to Tora jail to visit him. Laila spent five years, when Alaa was small, visiting his father, Ahmad Seif, in Tora jail. My heart broke for her, going through the same process again. 2. Seeing Alaa at one of his appearances before the prosecutor: the long-haired flower-child look had gone and there was this amazingly handsome young man with a shaved head and a thick black (Islamic?) beard. 3. Googling his name and finding half a million entries under “Free Alaa.” I guess, purely from my own point of view, this was when he stopped being my nephew and took possession of his own life.

Ahdaf Soueif: You’ve just been in detention, in jail, for forty-five days. If you could have had one item in there with you, what would it have been?

Alaa Abd El Fattah: My laptop tab’an [definitely], it would have provided hours of entertainment (books, comics, films, games). I would have used the free time to get some work done, and blogging from jail would have been much easier.

AS: I read your blogs from jail and some of what you wrote when you came out. (Your blog has been inaccessible for a while?) It seemed to me that you were writing the very tip of your thoughts — is there more to come out?

AF: There are many reasons why it can never come out. We were engaged in a battle with the prison authorities, fighting for better conditions. We managed to win more rights than what the law allows us, and we hope that the next political prisoner who resides in that jail will inherit these rights with minimal struggle. If we were to publish any details about this, the prison authorities might get into trouble and the next prisoner will have no hope of regaining these rights. We were a group of forty-seven. Most of us didn’t know each other and the few who knew each other had a history of conflicts. The first weeks were full of friction, but you leave that kind of thing behind you when you get out. Talking about it now would just mean that we have to continue fighting even beyond prison walls-and we still need to work together.I’d love to convey what prison looks like, how it feels and smells, the small details, to talk more about how it felt, but I don’t have the talent for this kind of thing. The closest thing I can use to explain prison is school, but it’s not close enough. If I had a camera with me, it would have been different, it’s a visually fascinating place. Regarding the site being inaccessible, after the arrests, the Al-Jazeera documentary and the media attention, traffic on our server increased from an average of three thousand daily visits to around thirty thousand, straining the server and even crashing it.

AS: Is your political activism separable from your blogging? Can you describe the relationship between them? Are the authorities right to fear bloggers?

AF: Questions about cyberspace and a separate plane of existence always confuse me. A blog is just a tool, and blogging is using that tool. I suppose some people take writing seriously, and so the question makes sense to them, but to us it’s a very casual thing. It’s not like we were searching for a way to make our voices heard and then we found out about blogging. No, it’s the other way round. We found out about blogging, decided to play with it, and as a side effect had our voices heard. The blog is sometimes a space to tell a story (which is often a story of activism), sometimes a place to discuss things (which is often a discussion of what to do about a specific political issue), sometimes it’s a political pamphlet, sometimes it’s a flyer announcing a political event, sometimes it’s a wall full of graffiti, sometimes it’s a piece of a newspaper with some news item, an opinion piece or a film review. So I guess the answer is no, they’re not separable, and the relationship is too organic for me to describe. As for the authorities fearing bloggers, I don’t know if that’s even true. There are signs that they follow blogs, but no real signs that they fear bloggers (the fact that they put six bloggers in jail is irrelevant, if you arrest a thousand activists from Cairo you’re bound to hit some bloggers). But if the question is should the authorities fear bloggers, that’s a tough one. I like to believe that tools that empower individuals to publish, debate, and organize on the web have the potential of being threatening to authorities, and to be effective tools in liberating people and defending their liberties. But it’s only a potential. Maybe we’ll never reach that critical mass, maybe they’ll strike us down before then. Or maybe we’ll reach it, and it’ll turn out not to be enough. Eh, I’m doing a bad job of answering this one, let’s move on.

AS: You’re doing a good job. Questions tend to be dumb. I feel dumb asking them. It’s like asking if I would write what I write if I wasn’t using paper. Actually, that’s a valid question. If I had to chisel on stone I’d probably write shorter novels. In any case, my one comment is: Bidoun is particularly keen on your humor! So, be funny!

AF: I’m not in a very good mood these days, I don’t think I can be funny at the moment.

AS: How do you feel without the long hair?

AF: Dunno. I used to get depressed when I was forced to cut my hair at school, but in prison it was different. Technically they did not have the right to cut my hair (something to do with temporary detention), and it was obvious that they did cut it the moment I arrived in order to break me in — my colleagues got the same treatment despite already having short hair. But on the other hand, given how unsanitary prison was and how crowded the cells, cutting it was a smart thing to do, and I did expect worse. What sucks though is all these people who tell me I look better this way. Thank you, you just ruin the whole symbolic value of it. How can it be a sacrifice for the cause if it ends up looking better?

AS: On May 25, 2005, there were demonstrations against the presidential “referendum” in Cairo. After the heavy-handed reaction of the security forces, the protests never stopped. My perception is that you really got into the protests and all that on that day when you tried to protect your mother and the film you had in your camera. At least that was when I read your blog about working out what victory would consist of. Was that a defining moment?

AF: I know defining moments are supposed to be corny, unrealistic, literary devices, but that’s what May 25 was for me (and I’d say for many “activists” of my “generation”). The fact that they stole my laptop helped too. Not only did it give me enough anger to fuel three months of hectic “activism,” but it gave me a lot of free time. (What is one supposed to do without a laptop?)

AS: Given your genes/environment, was it inevitable that you would become an activist?

AF: The word activist is meaningless. It was invented as part of a grand conspiracy to divide the world into groups of those who care and those who don’t or something. I believe that there are not activists and non-activists, there are only acts of activism and degrees of commitment, and in that sense, yeah, I was raised to be an activist. I think before May 25, my political involvement was just an excuse to spend time with my mum. The anti-war protests of 2003 and 2004 were actually a great way to see my mum and dad share something. Somehow the time spent together there was more private than in the big family meetings. Now we make several phone calls every day just ranting about the movement or some political happening. She visits me more often to help with posters, pamphlets, petitions and that kind of stuff.

AS: As early as five years ago I heard you spoken of as a guru. Is this a responsibility you welcome?

AF: [Laughter] This usually comes from people who don’t know technology. There is an aspect to Egyptian society that most people consider depressing, but it can be quite positive and that’s the fact that in all aspects of life, we seem to be getting the scrapings at the bottom of the pot. And so someone like me is a guru. But since I know real black-belt hackers, I know I’m not so hot.

AS: I’ve found myself, when trying to work out how to arouse public opinion, thinking in terms of presentation and “spectacle,” almost in advertising terms. I’m comfortable with that. Others are uneasy. What’s your take?

AF: I never thought of it in terms of advertising. I don’t think advertising works (the best koshary shops don’t do any advertising but everyone knows about them; the mediocre ones do advertising, but everyone knows they’re bad). I prefer to think of it more in terms of art. When I plan a street protest or sit-in or something similar, I find myself imitating the way my performance-artist friends think. Every act is a performance-a blog post is, a protest is, a visit to the prosecutor is, and you have to improvise not because you believe in it, but because all of us performers have missed the rehearsal. You have to treat the set as part of the performance. You can’t go to Nahya and do the same things you do downtown. If you go to Sayyida Zeinab you have to tackle that holy entity. Same for your audience. And we’re all audience. A lot of the planning is about how fellow protestors, bloggers, whatever, see you, not just how “the public” sees you. Is that different from thinking about advertisements? The first protest I co-organized we had state newspapers claiming we hired a professional PR company to do it, even though it was mashed up by six friends over a couple of days.

AS: Where do you see yourself five, ten years down the line?

AF: Not very far from where I am at the moment, I hope. I know I’ll always be working with computers. At the moment I work on technology for development, helping NGOs. But in Egypt you can’t do development work without hitting political barriers. Corruption, police interference, stupid laws and stuff like that is always in your face, at the same time people insist development work should be apolitical. I’m constantly required to act as if the government is really a democracy. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who notices these things (the real explanation is, of course, that I’m just young). So if I can’t find a place where people are willing to mix a little bit of politics, I might end up hopping to another country for a while. Who knows?