Alaa Abd El-Fattah—the Revolutionary el-Sissi Fears Most?

11 July, 2022
Free Alaa ban­ner cour­tesy Access Now campaign.

 

Alaa Abd El-Fat­tah is an Egypt­ian writer, tech­nol­o­gist and polit­i­cal activist. He has been pros­e­cut­ed or arrest­ed by every Egypt­ian regime to rule in his life­time, and has been held in prison for all but a few months since the coup d’état of 2013. Col­lect­ed in You Have Not Yet Been Defeat­ed by his fam­i­ly and friends, for the first time in Eng­lish, are a selec­tion of his speech­es, inter­views, social media posts and essays since the out­break of rev­o­lu­tion in Jan­u­ary 2011—many writ­ten from inside prison.

 

You Have Not Yet Been Defeat­ed: Select­ed Works 2011–2021, by Alaa Abd El-Fattah 
Trans­lat­ed by A Collective
Sev­en Sto­ries Press 2022
ISBN 9781644212455

 

Fouad Mami

 

Abd El-Fat­tah’s essays are pub­lished by Sev­en Sto­ries Press.

In some strange but equal­ly sub­lime ways, You Have Not Yet Been Defeat­ed recalls Anto­nio Gramsci’s clas­sic, The Prison Note­books, with Alaa Abd El-Fat­tah instan­ti­at­ing the anti-fas­cist rev­o­lu­tion­ary and the­o­reti­cian of the Arab Rev­o­lu­tions! If the anal­o­gy with Gram­sci is unap­peal­ing, then Abd El-Fattah’s inter­ro­ga­tions recall the cele­bri­ous anti-Nazi Ger­man author, Carl von Ossi­et­zky. Such is the clos­est and per­haps fairest por­trait with which one might intro­duce Alaa Abd El-Fat­tah to the world.

I review here his book less to high­light its polit­i­cal engage­ments or log­i­cal for­mu­la­tions than prin­ci­pal­ly because he admits he has been defeat­ed. I pre­fer to leave aside Abd El-Fattah’s oth­er pre­oc­cu­pa­tions — such as con­sti­tu­tion­al activism or feud against the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood — not because these are minor or dis­fig­ure his pub­lic image, but sim­ply because Abd El-Fattah’s think­ing of them has evolved. It is easy for read­ers to notice how issues such as who has the right to write the con­sti­tu­tion of the post-rev­o­lu­tion and what has to be includ­ed in it or left out have been large­ly bypassed by press­ing mat­ters. These updates are under­stand­ably the unfold­ing of the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion and Abd El-Fattah’s extend­ed incar­cer­a­tions togeth­er with the gen­er­al con­di­tions of liv­ing in post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Egypt.

As I write this review, Abd El-Fat­tah is both incar­cer­at­ed and under­go­ing a hunger strike. The free world is out­raged and has called for his imme­di­ate release. The Egypt­ian regime, Abd El-Fat­tah spec­i­fies in this book, is par­tic­u­lar­ly noto­ri­ous for hunger strik­ers. Lest we in the free world lose him, I find it par­tic­u­lar­ly reward­ing to dwell on what I deem both admirable and deep in Abd El-Fattah’s assess­ment: those ele­ments that present and future activists need to embrace in order to car­ry out the strug­gle for estab­lish­ing an egal­i­tar­i­an order, both in Egypt and elsewhere.

It is remark­able that while admit­ting defeat and being stripped of his basic rights at the hand of the noto­ri­ous justice/injustice sys­tem of Abdel Fat­tah el-Sissi’s Egypt, Abd El-Fat­tah still man­ages to remind rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies every­where that while not incar­cer­at­ed the way he is, they have not yet been defeated.

Abd El-Fattah’s book dis­plays a selec­tion of his texts, pref­aced by none oth­er than the admirable schol­ar and activist Nao­mi Klein, author of The Shock Doc­trine: The Rise of Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism, among oth­er tomes. The admis­sion of per­son­al defeat enforces the dis­man­tling of the hero­ic and almost invari­ably male account that rev­o­lu­tions and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies always win even when they are squashed. This explains why that admis­sion is both admirable and, as will fol­low below, critical.

Read­ing the book, it becomes self-evi­dent that the author, despite his exem­plary willpow­er, acknowl­edges per­son­al fail­ure for when giv­en his prison con­di­tions, he no longer has the strength to fight for his rights as a human being: the right to read, to use clean toi­lets, to sleep on prop­er bed­ding and so forth. Nev­er­the­less, we under­stand that rev­o­lu­tions or the rev­o­lu­tion for which Abd El-Fat­tah has giv­en his name are con­sum­ing, and ardu­ous. In this sense, the book is a myth-buster. It reg­is­ters that fail­ure, like suc­cess, is more than a pos­si­bil­i­ty — still, a likelihood.

Once the rev­o­lu­tion­ary read­er (for that is what is implic­it in the writ­ing, not just any read­er) has aban­doned the neu­ro­sis of self-denial for an unfold­ing real­i­ty of defeat, he or she becomes attuned to the real motion of the world. In oth­er words, one becomes ready to reg­is­ter the need to know how the defeat hap­pened, how it became a his­tor­i­cal neces­si­ty and not just a log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty. The method of gen­tly lead­ing osten­si­bly arro­gant and proud but unques­tion­ably pure and zeal­ous com­rades, the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of Tahrir, to admit defeat is by no means a small accom­plish­ment. It is indeed a feat of genius because under­neath the admis­sion lies the real­iza­tion that his­to­ry is not made by sheer willpow­er, and that indi­vid­ual or sub­jec­tive pow­er counts for noth­ing in the large arch of his­to­ry. With­out explic­it­ly stat­ing it, Abd El-Fat­tah calls rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to embrace humil­i­ty as the lat­ter facil­i­tates the recep­tion of the objec­tive laws of his­tor­i­cal change.

Giv­en the sub­lime expe­ri­ences activists lived through dur­ing the momen­tous phas­es of rev­o­lu­tions, Teodor Shanin qual­i­fies these expe­ri­ences of extend­ed cama­raderies and self­less­ness as moments of truth.[1] As such, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies devel­op their log­i­cal fal­lac­i­es, famous among which is the denial of adverse out­comes in the sense that they remain hos­tile to admit the rever­sal of their dreams, even when defeat gazes at them in the eye. Specif­i­cal­ly, it is in this con­text that Abd El-Fattah’s prick­ly title makes sense, dis­clos­ing for the ben­e­fit of who­ev­er wants to learn that Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies were not lack­ing in courage but the suc­cess of rev­o­lu­tion does not call for hero­ism, either.

Click to lis­ten to NPR’s Leila Fadel talk­ing to author Rusha Latif,.

Yes, the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of Tahrir and the Arab Spring have been defeat­ed. But if one can mas­ter the nar­ra­tive, the book clar­i­fies, they need not be defeat­ed forever.

Abd El-Fat­tah advances two remarks which are inter­re­lat­ed and have to do with the pow­er of lan­guage. The first high­lights the need to nurse and pre­serve the expres­sive qual­i­ty of lan­guage while the sec­ond instan­ti­ates the first through the pow­er of writ­ing. The two remarks are, in a nut­shell, strate­gies that have to be suc­cess­ful­ly deployed in order to reverse the ini­tial rever­sal and unseat the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion. They are no less rev­o­lu­tion­ary than har­ness­ing the courage req­ui­site for bring­ing down a dic­ta­tor. Because writ­ing artic­u­lates the nar­ra­tive of the rev­o­lu­tion, it is then self-evi­dent that writ­ing is a step ahead of mere­ly express­ing for the sake of express­ing because it is instead a writ­ing geared towards mate­ri­al­ly chang­ing the world. Writ­ing breaks the monop­oly of coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary nar­ra­tives. That monop­oly pre­tends to the tri­umph of its world order and jus­ti­fies the false omnipresent. Lucid and translu­cent writ­ing lays bare the pre­ten­tion and brings down the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion. Hence how zoom­ing in on each remark is not only use­ful but deci­sive for the suc­cess of social rev­o­lu­tions world­wide, not just in Egypt.

For Abd El-Fat­tah, one has to be gen­uine­ly alarmed when peo­ple start com­mu­ni­cat­ing in GIFs and Emo­jis. Instinc­tive­ly, one knows some­thing is wrong when imper­son­al and pre­arranged draw­ings serve as replace­ments for texts. After spend­ing a five-year stint in prison, he imme­di­ate­ly notes young people’s chron­ic depen­dence on ready-made draw­ings with which they pre­tend to be com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Grad­u­al­ly, the mas­sive use of GIFs and Emo­jis erodes the capac­i­ty to dis­tin­guish vari­a­tions in basic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, let alone the com­plex think­ing need­ed to engage with the world. Dif­fer­ent­ly put, com­plex think­ing evap­o­rates from the radar, leav­ing the stage for the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary lies to assume the form of his­tor­i­cal truths. With this assault on lan­guage and the capac­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate, the pos­si­bil­i­ty for rev­o­lu­tion­ary change — under­stand­ably impos­si­ble with­out advanced com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills — becomes next to nil.

In a tweet dat­ed April 4, 2019, Abd El-Fat­tah notes: “When did it become OK for adults to com­mu­ni­cate most­ly in emo­jis and gifs?” (p. 269) In this con­text, elec­tron­ic devices and plat­forms such as Face­book or Twit­ter are no longer neu­tral or imper­son­al means of facil­i­tat­ing the exchange of ideas, the way pro­pa­gan­da would have it. Because they encour­age lazi­ness and shield peo­ple from the task of fil­ter­ing through mean­ing, the ease of access­ing Emo­jis and GIFs restricts one’s choice to a few clicks on a cus­tom-made list that pre­sum­ably cov­ers the field of pos­si­ble expres­sion. Grad­u­al­ly, stan­dard­ized think­ing sets in, enforc­ing the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary project. 

This first remark about a com­mu­ni­ca­tion emp­tied from the capac­i­ty of sense-mak­ing is con­nect­ed with the sec­ond remark: the unpar­al­leled assault on the writ­ten word. After revers­ing his parole in Sep­tem­ber 2019, Abd El-Fattah’s jail­ers refuse him (among oth­er neces­si­ties) books, news­pa­pers, and mag­a­zines. The injunc­tion has not been there in pre­vi­ous prison sen­tences. He asserts that the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion has become mor­tal­ly afraid of the writ­ten word. In his pros­e­cu­tion hear­ing, Abd El-Fat­tah announces:

…it’s clear that this goes beyond a denial for secu­ri­ty rea­sons, but rather reveals a pho­bia or a hatred for the writ­ten word. This pho­bia has unfor­tu­nate­ly tak­en hold of the Egypt­ian state and has spread through it. I see no log­ic or rea­son for my deten­tion except the writ­ten word, espe­cial­ly since my arrest coin­cid­ed with that of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and researchers, and pre­ced­ed that of jour­nal­ists known for their pro­fes­sion­al integrity.

Free of per­son­al accu­sa­tion or pri­vate ani­mos­i­ty toward prison war­dens, Abd El-Fattah’s ren­di­tion of his plight facil­i­tates mak­ing the case for a gen­er­al, deeply trou­ble­some sce­nario that applies to only one writer or activist. In incar­cer­at­ing activists along with jour­nal­ists and aca­d­e­mics, a trend in exer­cis­ing author­i­ty is set. Read­ers find that local or Egypt­ian author­i­tar­i­an prac­tices are part and par­cel of the glob­al order, bent on fight­ing all that which con­tra­dicts the false omnipresent, the one sin­gle nar­ra­tive herald­ing the tem­po­rary tri­umph of the cur­rent world order. Incar­cer­at­ing peo­ple with the cal­iber of Abd El-Fat­tah under­lines the cen­sor­ship of an alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive, the one that uncov­ers pre­ten­sions towards eter­nal­iz­ing this world order, though it is immune to age­ing and death. These peo­ple are in prison because their writ­ing shakes up not only the Egypt­ian state but the entire false omnipresent that gov­erns the con­tem­po­rary world. Dif­fer­ent­ly put, the fact that sim­i­lar sedi­tious writ­ings keep emerg­ing at all proves that Cap­i­tal’s pre­sump­tion for the infi­nite through a hap­py-go-lucky con­sumerism is a chase of phantoms. 

Appalling stan­dards of learn­ing, there­fore, are not just mere unfor­tu­nate acci­dents. They serve repres­sive regimes in the lat­ter “war on mean­ing.” (259) But what is over­looked in Abd El-Fattah’s dis­cus­sion is how even repres­sion which has tak­en unprece­dent­ed lev­els since Sep­tem­ber 2019 (the rever­sal of the pro­ba­tion and the pros­e­cut­ing orders with the open renew­al of impris­on­ment with­out court sen­tences) under­lines the fact that the Egypt­ian state is fac­ing the wall. Despite the innu­mer­able pledges and Her­culean efforts to build a viable econ­o­my, el-Sissi’s gov­ern­ment has been unable to reverse neg­a­tive inter­est rates. The cred­its el-Sis­si has accu­mu­lat­ed since the start of his tenure have made it impos­si­ble to restruc­ture old debts and draw a pos­i­tive val­ue on the bal­ance sheets. There is hope then, even in defeat. For the regime leads a fren­zied pol­i­cy that mani­a­cal­ly cen­sors all dis­sent­ing voic­es because it can­not find a for­mu­la to break the antin­o­my of val­oriza­tion of de-val­oriza­tion. It is not in the nature of the world order, for which el-Sis­si in the final analy­sis is answer­able, to rule exclu­sive­ly by repres­sion. Quite the con­trary, el-Sissi’s inter­na­tion­al back­ers want Egyp­tians to be fooled into think­ing that they are hap­py.

Sev­er­al Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies nev­er­the­less enter­tain the erro­neous and debil­i­tat­ing pre­sump­tion of a world order that cham­pi­ons author­i­tar­i­an rule for its own sake, that is, in con­tradis­tinc­tion to the real move­ment of his­to­ry which spec­i­fies that repres­sive orders serve in uncov­er­ing mor­tal and pro­found crises. Even when he does not explic­it­ly sug­gest the mor­tal cri­sis, Abd El-Fattah’s think­ing is rapid­ly prop­a­gat­ing toward the con­clu­sion that it is the inter­na­tion­al order which is fal­ter­ing, and repres­sive state poli­cies are just one course of action the same fal­ter­ing order takes in order to cheat the cer­tain­ty of its faltering. 

Con­cern­ing the wide­spread cir­cu­la­tion of GIFs and Emo­jis, Abd El-Fat­tah observes that they con­sti­tute an unprece­dent­ed attack on the fac­ul­ty of crit­i­cal think­ing. State ani­mos­i­ty against learn­ing in gen­er­al and writ­ing in par­tic­u­lar serves in abort­ing artic­u­la­tions of a nar­ra­tive that coun­ters those pushed by the state and its sub­servient media. The impov­er­ish­ment of learn­ing and the attack on writ­ing illus­trate how the counter-rev­o­lu­tion has been thor­ough but not com­plete. Aca­d­e­mics can­not miss the degen­er­a­tion and con­tempt for writ­ing in unstat­ed but high­ly encour­aged state poli­cies. It has been years since stu­dents in Arab Spring coun­tries have been grad­u­at­ing despite the fact that their skills in writ­ing are ques­tion­able.[2] The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic has accel­er­at­ed this ero­sive habit with dis­tance learn­ing and a new set of excep­tion­al reg­u­la­tions that favors pass­ing and grad­u­at­ing at the expense of acquir­ing essen­tial skills. Thus, the assault on the writ­ten word seeks the infi­nite, and Abd El-Fat­tah reads the sit­u­a­tion for what it is: “…an attempt to pro­duce clones unthink­ing and inca­pable of debate.” (p. 328) In pay­ing atten­tion to the rav­ages com­mit­ted in the edu­ca­tion sys­tems and the infan­tiliz­ing prac­tices that both states and tech giants facil­i­tate, one starts to won­der how rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies expect a dif­fer­ent out­come than the tri­umph of the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary order!

But Abd El-Fattah’s text reminds read­ers that his­to­ry makes per­fect sense and activists should embrace the his­tor­i­cal arch of la longue durée. Only by aban­don­ing one’s nar­cis­sism, neu­ro­sis, anx­i­eties, and putre­fac­tions, can activists reg­is­ter the scale of what they are up against: revers­ing the rever­sal, uncov­er­ing the lies, and shed­ding off the alien­ation. Near the clos­ing of You Have Not Yet Been Defeat­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Abd El-Fattah’s sec­ond address to the RightsCon in 2017 from which the title of the col­lec­tion is tak­en, and in: “The Birth of a New World Order” series, read­ers find the author com­ing crys­tal clear with respect to the repres­sive char­ac­ter of the Egypt­ian regime. He seems to be ask­ing: why waste one’s time expos­ing the wrongs per­pe­trat­ed by the del­e­gate? For El-Fat­tah, like Assad in Syr­ia or Boute­fli­ka in Alge­ria, el-Sis­si is a del­e­gate of those who hunt for sur­plus value.

As a tech spe­cial­ist, Abd El-Fat­tah knows that tech giants can favor­ably alter the equa­tion for the cause of rev­o­lu­tion should they decide to demon­e­tize cer­tain, if not all, trans­ac­tions. The val­oriza­tion of val­oriza­tion — that is, reduc­ing every exchange to an exchange val­ue — shat­ters both exchange and val­ue. When the gov­ern­ing dynam­ic of human life becomes val­oriza­tion for its own sake, one knows that the mon­ster has bro­ken loose and dis­as­ter is uncon­tain­able. This explains why read­ers find Abd El-Fat­tah cer­tain that his fate and the fate of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies like him have been sealed by a liqui­fied form of pow­er, that of the exchange val­ue. He is clear that pow­er no longer resides in Cairo, Davos, or Wash­ing­ton. If only because it is a prac­ti­cal exer­cise in rev­o­lu­tion­ary method, You Have Not Yet Been Defeat­ed should be hailed as the bible for rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the 21st cen­tu­ry, the way Vic­tor Serge’s Mem­oir of a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary (1951) served ear­ly- and mid-twen­ty cen­tu­ry revolutionaries.

 

1. Teodor Shanin, 1986. Rus­sia, 1905-07: v. 2: Rev­o­lu­tion as a Moment of Truth.

2. I speak from my own expe­ri­ence as a uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor in Alge­ria, and from inter­ac­tion with col­leagues from the region, includ­ing Moroc­co, Tunisia and Egypt. Cer­tain­ly, the phe­nom­e­non is less acute in the Gulf monar­chies, France, and Europe. But col­leagues from these parts report that crit­i­cal think­ing is seri­ous­ly erod­ing. Teach­ing con­di­tions dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and the reg­u­la­tions that gov­erned spe­cial mea­sures tak­en dur­ing the past two years unfor­tu­nate­ly revealed that mas­ter­ing the skill of writ­ing has become an unaf­ford­able lux­u­ry, or so it seems to me. 

 

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Fouad Mami is a literature scholar from Algeria. An Africanist by training, his field of interest lies at the crossroads between North and West African along with the larger Mediterranean literatures and arts. Over the last few years, he has published not a small number of essays with some reputable journals such as Postcolonial Studies, The Journal of North African Studies, Mediterranean Politics among others.

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