Alaa, the prisoner who terrifies Sisi

Alaa, the prisoner who terrifies Sisi
6 min read
28 Oct, 2015
Comment: It is a man behind bars who makes those on the outside dream of freedom, writes Amr Khalifa
Solidarity with Alaa on social media marked a year since his most recent incarceration [AFP]

How could a man behind prison bars terrify an Egyptian strongman?

This is the story of Alaa Abdel Fatah and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Suddenly, and shortly after the charade of a parliamentary election, the resignation of Egypt's Central Bank chief, there was a potentially defining thunderstorm of support, on social media: #FreeAlaa.

Could this be yet another worrisome sign for the regime? Is this merely an act of self-love for a revolutionary camp that has fallen on demonstratively hard times? Or is there something far more significant at play upon this political stage?

Looking at these questions is crucial to understanding the boisterous support for Alaa while, some still believe, the Sisi cult mushrooms.

It is impossible to speak of those magical days in January 2011 without hearing of Alaa Abdel Fatah. His close family reads like a "who's who" of Egyptian revolutionary fervour.

One sister, Mona Seif, is a celebrated activist behind the "No to Military Trials" campaign and was nominated, in 2013, for the Geneva Human Rights prize.

Another sister, Sanaa, was only recently released after her own stint behind bars for protesting against the controversial Protest Law.

Alaa's father, upon his death, was described by The Guardian as a "leading light of Egyptian human rights". Not to mention Alaa's mother, Dr Leila Sweif, who is both a leading activist and professor. His aunt, Ahdaf Sweif, is also a leading writer.

     Alaa is not and has not been a man of pretension. This is not a man who perceives himself as an Egyptian Gandhi


Yet it is Alaa who has consistently caused one Egyptian regime after another, since the 2011 uprising, to laser tag him as a trouble-maker rather than a hero.

Twitter was turned a reddish hue with Alaa's famed portrait, as many switched their avatars to his to mark one year of his imprisonment. Meanwhile regime supporters in a display that was at once putrid, classless and venomous, created #FreeSmeda to satirise calls for his release.

More tellingly, it reflected what many - activists and analysts alike - believe to be true: this reaction, while reflective of a lurking division within Egypt over the revolution of 2011, also displayed the regime's fear of Alaa himself.

Alaa is not and has not been a man of pretension. This is not a man who perceives himself as an Egyptian Gandhi. Not too long ago, he was quoted as saying "we did not dream of more than a life as life".

So why is a man who never sought to change the Egyptian universe but, instead, merely sought a dignified existence, such a threat to men such as General Tantawi, the former army chief, or the ousted president Mohamed Morsi, or Sisi, the president who did the ousting?

Dignity and self-respect are terrifying prospects for autocrats, dictators and strongmen, and that is the only kind of ruler Egypt has known since the glorious heydays of the Egyptian revolution.

You see, the problem for Egyptian regimes, in men like Alaa Abdel Fatah is that they get it. That it is the notion of change: once you convince someone that they are deserving of respect, all else follows.

These men who have ruled Egypt, though they alternately appear to believe they can dominate the people also cower before the people.

Men like Alaa understood, quite quickly considering his youthful 33 years (born November 18, 1981), that if you are to assist citizens up the ladder of equality, then education is key.

Nothing frightens power more than education and Alaa is an embodiment of this ethos. This made him a marked man.

On the day before he was imprisoned, he warned a politically apathetic public "stay that way, watching us be imprisoned and killed one by one until the disaster is at your doorstep".

Things are slowly shifting, however. But Alaa's incarceration, significantly, shines the spotlight on the Sisi regime's human rights Achilles heel. It is impossible to say with certainty the number of political prisoners in Egypt - because the government does all that it can to hide those numbers.

Countless courageous efforts by human rights organisations to document abuses do help form a bigger picture.

The last independent credible number is that of WikiThawara, which, as of April 2014, totalled over 41,000 prisoners - in an indication of a monumental human toll on opposition voices.

Though the grim reality of a divided Egypt brings far more focus on progressive and liberal voices in prison like Ahmed Maher, Douma and Mahinour, it is precisely these voices - with Alaa prominent among them - who bring focus upon Islamist political prisoners.

Sisi pitches, to the west, a fight against terrorism and a new Suez Canal - but truths of human rights abuses are shunted to the political underground. But so long as injustice mounts with trumped up charges, and politicised judges being the order of the day, the more glaring obvious will be the elephant in the room: the government jails those it fears most.

     Sisi pitches, to the west, a fight against terrorism and a new Suez Canal - but truths of human rights abuses are shunted to the political underground


When you have thousands of Egyptians surrendering their personal photos for a cause as noble as Alaa's, a regime starts to fret.

Alaa is a symbol for the many, a symbol of those forsaken by the very society whose rights they give their lives and freedom to defend. Alaa, for autocratic regimes such as Sisi's, is the ultimate nightmare: a jailed man who makes others dream of freedom.

Unquestionably, the revolutionary camp has lost both its bearings and its standing within Egypt at large and political circles, to be specific. But the kiss of life for an opposition political camp is a ruler lacking political IQ.

Injustice is the eight-cylinder engine which drives revolution - and if that is so, Sisi, with the imprisonment of tens of thousands, including the most popular figures of both the January 25 and Islamist fronts, is helping to rev up a Rolls Royce.

It is only a matter of time and increasing anger at an imploding economic picture, political strong-arming, and failing bureaucracy before cries for the freedom of Alaa and countless political prisoners leave the internet and explode to the streets.

Only state terrorism masquerading as security measures have quietened the streets for now.

But leaders such as Alaa are a rare currency: a leader by example, a leader by a politically realist instinct, couched in a stoicism that belies his young age.

It would be the height of arrogance to ignore the rising voices of opposition, particularly when you realise many of those voices actually supported Sisi only a year ago.

It is a regime that fears not the people that has, in the long run, much to fear.

Alaa understands this. Sisi doesn't.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.