Better days, Alaa, Manal, Sem sem and I ...April 2011
Throughout the time I spent in Egypt, one recurrent question from people outside Egypt struck me the most: Had the Revolution brought about any meaningful change? My very first impressions upon arriving in Egypt were that indeed the Revolution had changed many things. I had read about the Mubarak regime which sounded pretty much like my own government. The Egypt of Mubarak was one of violent repression of dissenting opinions, arbitrary arrests, bloody dispersions of any forms of protest, strict censorship of the media, demonisation of non governmental organisations and the general suppression of the masses’ freedoms and rights. Indeed Mubarak was famous for being a ruthless dictator who would not stop at anything to consolidate his reign on power.
So when I found Egyptians able to demonstrate and camp in Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the Revolution I thought things had changed. When one of my friends asked me whether the January 25 movement in Egypt was in effect a Revolution I answered yes and based my judgement on the characteristics of the movement. I argue that it was an initiative by the masses (1), which grew out of disaffection with the governing authority (2); it overthrew a government (3) and brought about change (4). Now I look back at that response and wonder if my assessment may have been premature. Was there a real overthrow of a government and has there been any real change in Egypt? Mubarakism persists even after Mubarak has gone.
I witnessed the smear campaign against the NGOs as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces discredited them as agents of the West the same way Mubarak denounced and harassed them. That rang an alarm bell in my head because in my country, NGOs are also called stooges of the West. I witnessed the death of 26 protestors at the hands of the military as it exercised disproportionate force against unarmed civilians and again the alarm bells went off and I could smell doom coming.
I witnessed the political space closing up again and the ability to speak freely, assemble freely and associate freely that had characterised the period immediately after the revolution dissipated. Maikel Nabil an activist and blogger was subjected to military trial for writing a blog refuting the belief that was prevalent during the Revolution that the military and the people were one. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison and an additional fine of 200 Egyptian Pounds. He subsequently went on a hunger strike and has since been moved to a psychiatric hospital.
What I had not envisaged was that my very own dear friend and one of Egypt’s most prominent younger generation bloggers and human rights activists, Alaa Abd El Fattah ,would become a victim of the system just as he had done under Mubarak. I had also not anticipated that his arrest would come at a time when his dear wife Manal Bahey El Din Hassan is due to deliver their very first child/son Semsem.
In 2006 Alaa was arrested on spurious charges and spent 45 days in detention. On October 30 2011, just 6 days ago Alaa was summoned by the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces at their C4 headquarters for investigations. Alaa stands accused of inciting violence among the protestors who were expressing their anger at the burning of a church in Aswan on 9 October. The clashes between the military and the protestors that followed hose protests now famously known as the Maspero attacks (named after the state television building in front of which they took place) resulted in the death of 26 people.
It is then quite ironical for the military to charge Alaa with inciting violence when they are on record for calling people to come and defend the oh-so-vulnerable army from uncontrollable and rowdy Christians on state television. It is also ironic coming from the military which according to most video footage and eyewitnesses is clearly responsible for the death of the 26 protestors. To add insult to injury the same indictment investigating Alaa also contains the name of Mina Daniel, one of the protestors who died during the clashes.
Alaa refused to answer to the charges by the military for many reasons. First, exercising his right to remain silent and not give any evidence that could incriminate him. Second, challenging the legitimacy of the military to investigate him given that they are also an accused in the matter and therefore placing questions on the independence and impartiality of the investigations. Third, questioning the legitimacy of the military to investigate civilians in a civilian matter when the ordinary channels and ordinary courts are there to exercise this function.
For refusing to answer, Alaa was thrown into a jail cell at the notorious Bab El Khalq prison where he later explained in a letter addressed to the press was a tiny 6 x 12 feet roach infested cell which he shared with 8 other detainees. Today marks the 6th of the 15 days that he has been ordered to remain in detention. It appears this period may be extended in order to force Alaa to cooperate with the military prosecutors.
Alaa’s arrest and detention is a tragic occurrence bringing to light the reality that the Revolution in Egypt is far from accomplished. It is clear that the real reason for his arrest is that he denounced the SCAF and unequivocally placed blame on their shoulders for the Maspero massacres. It is also his vocal stance against the SCAF stating that the military rulers are doing all they can to erode the gains of the revolution. Alaa is among 12 000 other individuals, many of them human rights defenders and activists that are being subjected to military trials a culture that is not only a clear violation of their right to a fair and transparent trial but also a gross travesty to justice in itself.
Taking advantage of my proximity to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights I filed a complaint regarding Alaa’s detention with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa. The Special Rapporteur has since sent a letter of allegations to the Egyptian Head of State with regard to the arrest and detention of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bahaa Saber by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. I await the result of that enquiry and hope Alaa is released before SemSem (Alaa’s unborn son) comes into the world lest that little boy also grows up thinking it is normal for his father to be a political detainee the way Alaa did with his own father.