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Jamal Mahjoub: Free Alaa

December 1, 2011

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How to save one of Egypt’s most prominent anti-regime voices.

By **Jamal Mahjoub**

Free-Alaa-575.jpgPhotograph via Wikimedia Commons.

As I write this, Alaa Abdel Fattah sits in a cell in the notorious Tora prison outside Cairo. His fellow inmates are hardened criminals, money launderers and suchlike. Being a member of the “revolutionary youth” does not do you any favors. In a letter smuggled out of prison he describes how he was cursed and insulted by his cellmates once they found out what he was there for.

Alaa has described himself as a foot soldier of the revolution. He is part of that new generation of smart, computer savvy activists who discovered they had a way of circumventing the government clampdown on the media by using ingenuity and technology. Much has been made of the role played by social networking in the Egyptian revolution, but people forget that it began long before the revolution. For years young bloggers have been keeping themselves and the world in touch with what is going on inside Egypt. I can remember sitting in a café with Alaa back in 2005 while he read out news from his beloved laptop of what was happening in Alexandria in the wake of a number of brutal attacks on Coptic churches, clearly coordinated and planned by state security thugs.

Together with his wife Manal, Alaa set up the blog www.manalaa.net, which became a stable reference for blog readers internationally. He became one of the most successful and well known figures in the blogging community, and in 2005 Manal and Alaa were given the Deutsche Welle Reporters Without Borders International Weblog Award.

The violence seen in the run up to the elections this week, not only in Midan Tahrir but all over Egypt, is a reminder that the removal of Mubarak on February 11th was only the first step in a long and complex process of reform that the country desperately needs. Frustrations that had been building since Mubarak’s fall, with both the military high command and the interim government, came to a head with the clashes outside the state TV headquarters in the Maspero building on October 9th. Some 25 people lost their lives due to the security forces’ violence, the kind of hard handed response familiar from the Mubarak era.

The Armed Forces army played a key role in the fall of Mubarak. Many enlisted men come from humble backgrounds and identify strongly with the key issues at the heart of the revolution: poverty, rising prices, and unemployment. During the 18 days of protests in January and February 2011, the actions of a few sympathetic junior officers managed to defuse what might have turned into a bloodbath. The declaration on January 29th that the Armed Forces were in Midan Tahrir to serve the people rather than protect the regime proved to be a turning point. “The people and the army are one hand,” became a popular slogan. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces vowed to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian rule. Instead, they appear determined to hang on and have employed a number of delaying tactics so that nine months on we appear to be back where we started.

The Maspero protesters wanted to call attention to the burning of church in Upper Egypt and the lack of response the authorities. There is much concern among the Coptic minority, who number around 8 million, that their plight, already bad, will deteriorate in the wake of multi-party elections that are likely to show an increased Islamist tendency with the influence of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

On October 30th Alaa was called to face charges of inciting the violence outside the TV station. The list of the accused includes that of Mina Daniel, a Christian activist who was actually shot dead during the October 9th clashes. The SCAF maintain that the military were not responsable for the violence which they say was caused by radical Coptic and sectarian elements.

Alaa refused to cooperate with the investigation, rejecting the right of military courts to try civilians. Some 12,000 people are believed to have been tried by military courts since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011. He also condemned the military’s investigation into the deaths outside the Maspero building on the grounds that the military police were involved. He was detained for 15 days subject to an ongoing military investigation. As he is not charged he can be held indefinitely. Alaa, who has managed to smuggle out a couple of letters, also claims that he was offered to cut a deal that would see him released in exchange for not “insulting” Field Marshall Tantawi, the chairman of the SCAF.

This is not the first time Alaa has been arrested. In 2006, along with 50 members of the Kefaya movement he was arrested during a demonstration in support of two judges who were being tried for protesting against election fraud and demanding an independent judiciary.

The protests last week are a testament to the conviction and courage of Egyptians to wrestle back control of the revolution. There are reports of over thirty deaths and over a thousand wounded, including a high number of eye injuries due to the rubber bullets the military and police aimed at people’s heads. A number of field hospitals have been set up around the square and pharmacies are donating supplies at reduced charges or free in some cases.

The resignation of the cabinet and prime minister along with the Field Marshall’s assurances that elections would take place and the presidential elections would happen next June are hardly likely to be enough to allay the fears of millions of Egyptians. Time will tell if the aging members of the SCAF understand that the days when the military ruled supreme are over and that transition does not mean holding on for as long as you can.

Alaa is not the only blogger to be imprisoned, but he is probably the most prominent. While he sits behind bars his wife Manal prepares to give birth to their first child. His mother, Laila Soueif, prominent activist and mathematics professor at Cairo University, has been on a hunger strike since November 6th. The revolution, far from being over, has entered a new and crucial phase.

On Monday, November 28 Alaa appeared in the State Security court. He stands accused of committing acts that indirectly led to the death of a soldier in the clashes outside the Maspero state television building in October, as well as allegedly dumping weapons in the Nile. An appeal hearing is set for Saturday, and this will be the first time he appears before a civilian judge.

To add your voice to the 24,000 already calling for Alaa’s release go here.

________________________________________________________________________

Jamal Mahjoub’s most recent novels are The Drift Latitudes and Nubian Indigo. His work has been widely translated, and his essays have appeared in a number of journals and The Best American Essays 2008 (Ed. Adam Gopnik). He currently lives in Barcelona.

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