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You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd el-Fattah book review — writing that’s dangerous to those in power

As the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution approaches, Miriam Scharf reviews a collection of writings by imprisoned activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah
Alaa Abd el-Fattah, author of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated

Alaa Abd el-Fattah, author of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated

You Have Not Been Defeated is a hard read. Author Alaa Abd El-Fattah is still suffering, imprisoned for years along with a generation of Egyptian activists. There are now about 60,000 held in Egypt’s prisons. They know the Arab Spring of 2011 was defeated and are anxious that revolutions to come could face the same fate.

Alaa, an activist years before 2011, built up a huge following on social media and was a major spokesperson for the left as the Egyptian revolution erupted. 

He reported from the revolutionary days in Tahrir Square in January 2011 to Mohammed Morsi’s victory in free presidential elections in 2012 to the military coup in July 2013. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested by Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s new counter-revolutionary regime in November of that year. 

The book is a running biography, from 2011 to 2021, of a man of immense bravery and integrity. He gives his thoughts on what went wrong with the revolution and what needs to happen for there to be a future. It is also an insight into what happens to such a man in prison as the years go by.  

The first piece from July 2011 is about the constitutional crisis. Alaa and others launched a movement to involve people across the country in writing a new, democratic constitution. This is because he worries the elites have “already agreed that the people’s role ends at the ballot box”. 

Western-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak had been forced to step down on 11 February. Millions of ordinary people had taken to the streets, occupied the main square in the capital Cairo while workers in key industries struck. The military, and other forces, hoped to divert the revolutionary energy into “safe” parliamentary channels. 

Another 2011 piece, a report on the massacre at Maspero, beautifully illustrates how solidarity can overcome sectarianism. Maspero was a mainly Coptic Christian sit-in, a protest against the sectarian burning of two churches. It was attacked, soldiers shot live ammunition and ran over protestors, leaving 26 dead and 350 people injured. 

Alaa, with other secular and Muslim activists, secured proper autopsies for the dead by protecting the forensics team. He captures the power of such action. “First we were responsible for securing our demonstrations, then we were responsible for securing public facilities,” he writes. “The forensics team began its work on our protection watched by our doctors and our lawyers and our unknown soldiers. 

“Vultures can’t pick at a united front…We had no weapons to face down their rage but our embraces and the tears of mourning managed to drive out the fallacy of a militaristic sectarian reality with the truth of the dream of a free Egypt. The forensic doctor caught the bug and was transformed from a bureaucrat into a guardian of justice.” 

Alaa returns from addressing a Silicon Valley audience to go in front of the military prosecutor for his actions at Maspero. He and his sister are heading a growing campaign against the military penal system being used to oppress demonstrations and workers’ actions that are going on across Egypt. The next entry is written from prison.

On his release in December 2011, his first words to the masses gathered outside are, “We have to bring down military rule. This revolution will have succeeded when General Hamdy Badeen is in cuffs in the courtroom and a cylinder of cooking gas costs five pounds.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected in the country’s first free presidential election some 16 months after the revolution began. He had mass support among Egypt’s poor, but only wants to bring in limited changes. 

Alaa’s Facebook posts and al-Sharouk’ newspaper articles mock the Brotherhood. But there is no sense, in this selection from 2012-2013, that Alaa is part of a movement. 

By June 2013, anger was growing against Morsi, who had turned to austerity and authoritarian measures, including against workers’ organisation. On 26 June, days before mass protests erupted, Alaa wrote, “The only solution is a revolutionary escalation that takes the issue to a different stage and different methods. But there is no time to prepare. Occupying institutions, for example, would have been useful.” 

The 30 June protests are enormous. The army had hoped in vain the Brotherhood could contain the revolution, so now it cynically sided with the protests against Morsi in a bid to regain control. On 3 July el-Sisi took charge in a coup. 

In a series of short posts, Alaa sounds confused and his attack on the Muslim Brotherhood is published on Facebook on 30 August. “The Brotherhood used state violence to target workers strikes, suppress social protests with unprecedented brutality and caused unprecedented levels of death by torture in police stations. Around 5000 were detained between January and April most of them were tortured.”

On 14 August, there was a massacre. The army brutally assaulted the pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa and El-Nahda squares, killing over 900 people. Whatever criticism Alaa has of the Muslim Brotherhood is buried in a passionate call for solidarity. He writes, “Sisi is a murderer and Rabaa is one of the most terrible massacres in our history.” 

As other state murders follow, he attacked those in power. Then, along with many activists, Alaa is arrested again.

He recognised the revolution was defeated. But it takes time to realise the arrests are not just about left wingers like himself, nor about the Islamists. The repression is not a temporary response to put down the revolution. It is a tool to be used more generally and permanently to suppress opposition, to stop change.

Each time Alaa had a chance, like when he was released for his father’s funeral, he spoke against the regime. From inside Torah Prison he continually analyses and questions what happened and why, theorising different scenarios. He has to cope with hope and despair, and communicates these complexities with poetry, metaphor and honesty. 

A number of extracts reflect Alaa’s continual legal battle for his case and his rights while imprisoned. He writes how those of his class and status get better treatment than others. Islamists get the worst. Some will never be allowed visits. He explains how bureaucracy and paranoia work to dehumanise prisoners, leading to lack of medical treatment and numbers of deaths. 

In March 2019 he was released, to another five year sentence of “probation”. He describes this as torture, having to be complicit in his own repression, “choosing” to return to the police station every night. He emerges into a world where surveillance and control are deepening everywhere.

In an essay with the same title as the book, he addresses those of us living in liberal democracies where we still have the freedom to act. 

A small anti-corruption protest, the first in years, took place in 2019. Thousands of other activists were swept up, accused of terrorism. Alaa was re-arrested on 29 September from inside Doqqi police station, after six months of “probation”. 

Quite a few essays show more “pessimism of the intellect” and less “optimism of the will”.  But suddenly hope bursts through in July 2020, in an essay on the pandemic. The prisoners are certain “that the judge’s son and prison warder’s mother aren’t safe unless the prisoners are safe”.  They launched the Egyptian Captives Forum initiative. 

In 2021 Alaa heard that in Sheikh Jarrar in the West Bank Palestinians called on Gaza for help. Again, he allows himself some optimism. He visited Gaza in 2011, hoping that the revolts in Egypt and the Middle East would help bring Palestinian liberation. 

Fittingly the book ends with an impassioned essay on Palestine. His activism had its roots in the Palestinians’ Second Intifada, the rebellion against Israel in the early 2000s. And he now asks, “As a captive do I have the right to dream of a road to Cairo that passes through Gaza?”

Alaa says he is in prison for his actions not his words, but it is both. He writes, “That movements need a captivating vision of the world they are fighting for, and not only rage at the system they are desperate to overthrow… 

“Our rosy dreams will probably not come to pass. But if we leave ourselves to our nightmares we’ll be killed by fear before the Floods arrive.” 

This kind of writing is dangerous to those who don’t want the world to change. Alaa Adb el-Fattah has stayed true to the revolution.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd el-Fattah. £12.99 Available from Bookmarks—the socialist bookshop

Miriam Scharf is a socialist and active in the MENA Solidarity Network 

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