He is on the other side of the glass in the huge new Wadi el-Natrun prison, north of Cairo. He’s talking into the handset at top speed, gesturing, his movements precise as he taps the narrow shelf. He’s in prison blue with close-cropped hair and beard. My sister holds the other handset, listens and nods. We know National Security are listening in. He’s talking to his mother about prisoners he’s left behind in Tora Maximum Security Prison Two, and what they need. He is completely like himself – except his face is thinner, and his heavy sweater tells us that after 47 days of hunger strike his body can’t stay warm.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s British citizenship came through on 15 December. We thought that since – unlike in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – Egypt and Britain enjoyed and often broadcast “important strategic relationships”, consular visits would be granted quickly. Held in pre-trial detention since September 2019, Alaa had been denied sunshine, exercise, books, writing material, music, bedding. The officer in charge of the prison was personally hostile. The atmosphere was lethal. On 20 December, he was sentenced to a further five years of imprisonment – taking no account of the preceding two. The only hope we had of bettering his conditions and negotiating his release relied on the intervention of the UK Foreign Office. When for 15 weeks Egypt’s government stalled the British embassy’s repeated requests for a visit, Alaa took matters into his own hands: on 2 April he went on hunger strike.
Writing Egypt’s revolution
This is a story about communication. About a man serving five years for an act of communication: sharing a post about a prisoner who had died in jail. About a man whose forte is to communicate between English and Arabic, old and young, the worlds of technology, business, literature and human rights, the disciplines of maths, science and art. A man who epitomises his generation’s intersectionality.
Alaa is 40. At 14, he was one of the earliest bloggers. At 23, he won the Special Reporters Without Borders Award. At 29, he was at the heart of the international techie community, and spent his time travelling, designing open-source platforms, mentoring. Then he flew home to join the revolution and build a new Egypt. In the streets, he brought people together in open forums fuelled by social media. He invented an initiative for thousands of volunteers to spread out into the country and ask the questions that would write the People’s Constitution. He was an original thinker, a passionate advocate for a true secular democracy. And he never stopped writing. A book of his selected works, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, compiled by friends, was published last year.
Since 2006, every regime that has come to power in Egypt has tried to silence Alaa. He has spent eight of the past ten years in prison. For six of the months that he was “free”, he had to spend 12 hours a day in a police station. When they “tried” him for sharing a factual post in December, the judge wouldn’t let him talk to his lawyers. There can be no appeal or review; only a pardon from the president for an Egyptian, or deportation for a British citizen.
This is a story about communication.
1939, Cairo: my 12-year-old mother, Fatma Moussa, has rheumatic fever and is spending her days on a sofa. Miss Sage, her schoolteacher, comes to read to her. By the time she’s better, my mother has fallen in love with Austen, Byron, Dickens, Eliot. Her life’s work will be in the contact zone between Arabic and English literature. Each one of her children bears its mark.
1956, London: it’s a Saturday in April and I’m with my father in Battersea Park. He’s promised we’ll ride the big dipper. My mother is in the Senate House Library. She is very pregnant and trying to get as much work done as she can before the birth. Her PhD thesis is on the influence of the Oriental tale on the Romantics. My sister, Laila, will be born on Labour Day.
Sixty-three years later, and after many visits to the UK, in 2019, when Alaa has been arrested yet again, Laila’s children explore whether they too are British. Laila’s daughters, Mona and Sanaa, find they are de facto citizens. Alaa, born before the British Nationality Act came into force in 1983, has an “inalienable right” to citizenship. It takes two years to apply, but he gets it.
It is Alaa’s will to live a life that is full and useful that drives his hunger strike. We hope it will be that contact zone between the governments of our two countries that will save his life and restore to him the freedom of which he has been robbed. Stay with us.
Ahdaf Soueif is a novelist and commentator whose books include “Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed” (Bloom
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control