You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Selected Works 2011-2021
By Alaa Abd el-Fattah
Fitzcarraldo Editions, UK
ISBN: 978-1913097745
280pp.

Midway through You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Selected Works 2011-2021, we find our narrator, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, in his cell in Egypt’s notorious, maximum-security Tora prison complex — a detention centre dedicated to Egypt’s most high-profile political prisoners.

It is December 2011 and the much-heralded Arab Spring has already swept through most of the Middle East, with riots pervading the region, exerting pressure to curb the chaotic cycle of dynastic politics and put a final end to autocratic regimes.

In Egypt, the Arab Spring has ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and influenced the installation of a military regime as a counter-revolutionary tactic. Abd el-Fattah, one of Egypt’s most intrepid activists, is far from satisfied with the military’s accession to power and continues to revolt against the military-backed political regime with the same fervour he did in the build-up to the Arab Spring.

We access Abd el-Fattah’s inner world through his writings — the notes that he scribbles in jail — which are then mysteriously smuggled out of prison and make their way to various Egyptian newspapers and social networking websites.

Activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s first-ever book consists of writings he produced mostly in jail, which were subsequently smuggled out

It is through his writings that we understand his commitment towards pushing for a fairer, more democratic Egypt, with regular elections. In his smuggled-out notes, we recognise his conviction to bolster a revolution that would bring that reality closer: “We race towards the bullets because we love life, and we walk into prison because we love freedom.”

Eleven years on, Egypt is still a military dictatorship — this time under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Unrest has become the norm, with dwindling freedoms for journalists, an alarming rate of executions without trial, and as many as 60,000 political detainees languishing in Egyptian prisons.

One of the detainees is Abd el-Fattah, who returned to the Tora complex after being handed a five-year sentence in 2021 on account of “spreading false news and undermining national security.” His crime? Retweeting a social media post that exposed the ill-treatment of inmates in Egyptian prisons.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is Abd el-Fattah’s first-ever book. The essays, blog posts, speeches, tweets, reflections, ideas and interviews that he produced during the numerous times he was imprisoned since 2011 were originally written in Arabic, and were translated into English by “a collective” — an anonymous group of Abd el-Fattah’s followers.

The collective highlights the urgency with which Abd el-Fattah’s words need to be made available to an international audience; to provide not only a flavour of the suffering the activist and his comrades endured — and continue to do so — at the hands of Egypt’s carceral regime, but to dispel the narrative that the Arab Spring was a panacea for Egypt’s democratic deficit.

In the chapter ‘Who Writes the Constitution?’, Abd el-Fattah cautions that involving the military in drafting a constitution for the new Egyptian Republic would ultimately render the new republic a facsimile edition of Mubarak’s autocratic regime, where the constitution was tailored to suit the military’s political needs and bludgeon the interests of broader sections of society.

The author is most impressed by the Freedom Charter of the South African Congress Alliance and urges those drafting Egypt’s new constitution to seek inspiration from the way the South African document was produced by popular participation — that is to say, drafted by the very people it would govern.

As many as 60,000 political detainees are languishing in Egyptian prisons. Among them is Abd el-Fattah, sentenced in 2021 for five years, on account of “spreading false news and undermining national security.” His crime? Retweeting a social media post that exposed the ill-treatment of inmates in Egyptian prisons.

Similarly, Egypt’s escalating rate of human rights abuses has also drawn international attention to the country. The Maspero Massacre of October 2011 — in which 24 Coptic Christians were murdered for peacefully protesting the demolition of their church in upper Egypt — is a classic example of state-sponsored separatism and crushing the minorities to the point of voicelessness.

Then, in August 2013, 37 prisoners outside Abu Zabaal prison, north-east of Cairo, were gassed to death, simply for supporting Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

For its poor record on human rights, the United States-based research institute and think tank Freedom House has deemed Egypt a country “Not Free.”

Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah is greeted by his sister Mona Seif, holding Abd- el-Fattah's baby, following his release from the police headquarters in Cairo in 2011. Since April this year, Abd el-Fattah has been on a hunger strike, refusing to consume anything beyond 100 calories a day | AFP
Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah is greeted by his sister Mona Seif, holding Abd- el-Fattah's baby, following his release from the police headquarters in Cairo in 2011. Since April this year, Abd el-Fattah has been on a hunger strike, refusing to consume anything beyond 100 calories a day | AFP

Abd el-Fattah’s epistolary book is a fusion of the author’s personal history with the latest national developments that capture Egypt’s dramatic recent history. The author’s notes from prison provide a harrowing snapshot of a country embroiled in decades of socio-political chaos, but they are not simply loaded polemics against a regime fraught with injustices; they are also deeply inward-looking.

With each chapter, the reader voyages through time: from Abd el-Fattah’s first foray into activism as a teenager in the 1990s; the Arab Spring and Mubarak’s defenestration from public office in 2011; the various instances of Abd el-Fattah’s imprisonments, up to the Covid-19 pandemic infiltrating Egyptian prisons.

His opinions are also profoundly internationalist. To Abd el-Fattah, a revolution isn’t authentic till it rejects the “trap of masculinity as a tool of struggle”, and the nature of a movement isn’t “avowedly internationalist and feminist.”

In the same vein, he tackles the subject of the internet and the way he has used it as an instrument — he has almost a million followers on social media — for mobilising support for various movements.

However, as an information technology professional who has spent a large chunk of his life developing computer software, Abd el-Fattah insists that we now inhabit a “post-truth” world, where the media and its content on sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are controlled and manipulated by a small group of conglomerates.

According to him, this has triggered a decline in collective rationality and fostered a culture where people respond to the news “emotionally [rather] than objectively.”

Abd el-Fattah gets his radical streak from his family, and it is not surprising why. His father, the late Ahmed Seif el-Islam Hamad, was a well-respected human rights lawyer and his mother, Laila Soueif, is a mathematician, university professor and human and women’s rights activist. Award-winning writer and prominent human rights commentator Ahdaf Soueif is his maternal aunt.

Abd el-Fattah says he inherited from his mother “a stone cake” — a reference to the historical monument in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is the central meeting point for Egyptian protestors to voice their demands, opinions and grievances with the state — and from his father “the prison cell.” His parents were fiercely involved in activism since the era of Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, and Abd el-Fattah describes himself in possession of the same zeal as them in opposing the tyrants that are exploiting Egypt and its people.

At present, Abd el-Fattah remains detained at the Wadi el-Natron Prison. For six months, he has been on a hunger strike and his health is deteriorating by the day. There is international outcry not only over his mental and physiological state, but also his unlawful incarceration.

Unfortunately, despite being granted British citizenship in December 2021, no amount of international pressure or foreign intervention seems enough for Egyptian authorities to exercise clemency.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is an eye-opening insight into the ways autocrats from Egypt’s past and present have divided and isolated the country and its people for decades on end. Abd el-Fattah believes that the only solution to unshackle from this “torture” is for a civilian-led revolution to radically overthrow the dictators who have oppressed them through the ages.

His warning is that if the Egyptian people fail to take their fate into their own hands, they could be setting themselves up for a lifetime of continued terror and despotic control.

The reviewer is the digital director of the Lahore Literary Festival. She tweets @itsemanomar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2022

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