Incarcerated for most of the last 10 years, renowned Egyptian activist, voice of the Arab Spring revolutions and political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah began a hunger strike on April 2. He is 40 years old. With the most recent charge of spreading “fake news” — a phrase borrowed from former President Donald Trump — Egyptian authorities extended his sentence by five more years.
Abd El-Fattah’s activism began in the early 2000s. With his partner Manal Bahey El-Din Hassan, he spearheaded the blogging movement in Egypt, elevating the communication format to a powerful tool for campaigns demanding freedom of speech, democracy and an end to torture.
In 2006, Egyptian bloggers, with Abd El-Fattah, took their activism to the streets and organized a national protest in solidarity with judges who were prosecuted by former President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime for advocating judicial independence. Trained as a software developer, he provided technological support, including hosting the work of many activist bloggers and protecting them from targeting by the regime’s security apparatus. Abd El-Fattah was briefly detained.
During the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Abd El-Fattah labored on the front lines of Tahrir Square. After the ousting of President Mubarak, Abd El-Fattah launched two initiatives, “Tweet Nadwa” and “Let us write our Constitution,” to continue the mobilizations for the revolution and ensure the realization of its demands for freedom.
All along, Abd El-Fattah was organizing youth to continue mobilizing while ensuring their voices were heard and taken seriously in process like the writing of the new constitution. He is especially known for resisting government plans to cover up the “Maspero massacre” of Coptic Christian demonstrators of October 2011 when the military killed 24 protesters, injured more than 200 and sought to bury their bodies without forensic examinations. The Egyptian regime detained Abd El-Fattah on October 30, 2011, after he, with his activist comrades, documented this massacre and in response to his role as a leading voice of the revolution, especially his resistance against military tribunals for Egyptian civilians.
After her visitation on May 1, 2022, Abd El-Fattah’s sister Mona Abd El-Fattah posted on Twitter that he is physically deteriorating and banned from communicating with anyone. He told her that he may not ever see her again. On May 18, she wrote, “We need to make sure he is well and cared for and not terrorized and assaulted more.” To be sure, Abd El-Fattah’s life is at risk. Yet we also need to recognize how the Egyptian regime uses him, as one of the most outspoken revolutionaries, to repress all Egyptian society.
And it’s not just Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Before el-Sisi, every autocratic leader including United States-backed President Mubarak (in power for 30 years), followed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and President Mohamed Morsi, all detained Abd El-Fattah. These same rulers have incarcerated more than 65,000 political prisoners, many of whose cases were never tried in court.
Egyptian rulers made Abd El-Fattah’s family, all leading voices in the struggle against torture and for democracy and human rights, symbols of what could happen to anyone who attempts to challenge them. His other sister, Sanaa Seif, was arrested and incarcerated three times between 2014 and 2021 and beaten several times. The authoritarian regime was also behind the beatings of Abd El-Fattah’s mother Laila Souief and his sister Mona when they were protesting for his release. Abd El-Fattah’s father Ahmed Seif, recognized as the leading light of Egyptian human rights, was arrested for providing protesters with legal support during the Egyptian revolution of 2011 before he passed away in 2014.
The U.S. is complicit. Since President Jimmy Carter’s administration, the U.S. has provided billions in simultaneous military aid to Egypt and Israel resulting from the Camp David Accords. The human rights situation for Egyptians and occupied Palestinians has only deteriorated since then.
Indeed, the U.S. supports dictators across the globe whose policies align with U.S. imperialism. In the name of combatting “communism” and “terrorism,” the U.S. also provides direct funding to sponsor coups against democratically elected regimes (i.e. Venezuela, 2002-03) while the CIA has orchestrated military coups in places like Iran (1953) and Chile (1973).
Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid per year while the U.S. fails to hold Egypt accountable for upholding basic human rights, particularly after the fall of Mubarak. In the context of the Arab Spring, the U.S. backed the authoritarian Mubarak regime up until the very last minute before coordinating with the military to oust Mubarak in order to ensure a contained and limited transfer of power while maintaining U.S. interests in the region.
The U.S. supported all regimes that came after Mubarak, as well as the military coup of 2013, which ousted the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Beyond military aid, the U.S. administration continued sending tear gas, repression and surveillance technology to Egypt despite U.S. government and media rhetoric that celebrated Egyptian people’s revolution for democracy and calls from international human rights groups against such support.
To the U.S., Egypt is a “strategic ally” and host of U.S. naval medical research. The Egyptian government provides the U.S. with expedited naval access through the Suez Canal, and the U.S. government continuously expresses its admiration for Egypt’s role in what global superpowers call the “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians, and what Palestinians experience as the normalization of Israeli colonization.
Across the Arab region, the Arab Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have played one of the most critical roles in supporting the counterrevolution in response to the Arab Spring revolutions and their aftermath in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and more recently, Sudan. They fuel and fund religious sectarianism and support conservative and autocratic regimes spreading repression and fear. The U.S. also stood back and watched as Saudi Arabia supported jihadis in Syria, who formed the core of what is now known as ISIS, only because the U.S. perceived Assad’s as a rogue regime.
Despite the U.S. intelligence finding that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of exiled Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. continued to praise the crown prince for apparently promoting reforms related to free speech and women’s rights. All the while, the Saudi state continues to arrest journalists and feminists for striving for change.
Now, the life of Abd El-Fattah, one of the most iconic figures of the Arab Spring revolutions that were celebrated across the globe in 2011, is at risk. It is no surprise that Trump named el-Sisi his favorite dictator. It is also no surprise that cautious President Joe Biden prefers the status quo with el-Sisi rather than addressing fundamental injustices in places like Egypt, colonized Palestine and Saudi Arabia.
As leftists mourn the passing of former Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin and continue the struggle to free journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, we should not forget other political prisoners whose incarceration and repression is enabled by U.S. aid.
Egyptian revolutionaries inspired many U.S. social movements and helped us prepare for the Trump era. They taught us how to maintain hope in the face of state repression. Abd El-Fattah also supported our movements, such as Occupy Wall Street.
Many of us paid federal taxes last month that contributed to Abd El-Fattah’s imprisonment. Dollars misspent in our name do very real harm, including to inspiring individuals like Abd El-Fattah who is allowed to see his young son far too infrequently — and not at all now.
Pressure on our elected officials is imperative as is grassroots movement building. More political prisoners could be freed if social movements in the U.S. and Egypt joined forces. We could stand together against how the U.S. supports political repression in Egypt. We could highlight how that support helps to strengthen systems that criminalize Black communities, Indigenous communities, and other communities of color here. We could also grow our solidarity out of the vast connections between U.S. foreign military aid and enormous expenditures on the U.S. military and the rates of impoverishment we see at home.
To be sure, U.S. support for violent repression abroad should inspire resistance by U.S. taxpayers. Yet our society is generally numb to the impact of U.S. policy internationally.
More public debate about how U.S. support of dictators and global human rights abuses takes dollars out of our communities here could make a difference. The U.S. prison-industrial complex, for example, has been strengthened by maintaining and legitimizing mass incarceration abroad. When Egypt is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid, Egypt’s incarceration of activists and public intellectuals like Abd El-Fattah has a ripple effect in our own communities. Militarist, carceral global politics means feeding chickens that will come home to roost.
The pandemic of the past two years has isolated us from one another, but simultaneously shown just how interconnected we all are. The injustice of Abd El-Fattah’s incarceration may seem very removed from the disproportionate incarceration of Black communities in Chicago by a corrupt police force, but they flow from the abuse of power that starts in Washington and spreads across borders, transnationally.
On May 2, we organized an event featuring Abd El-Fattah’s sister Sanaa Seif in Chicago. She was speaking with journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous and advocating for Abd El-Fattah’s release while reading from Abd El-Fattah’s new book, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.
At the event, we were reminded that even now, Abd El-Fattah continues to gift us wisdom about what it means to maintain hope beyond despair and when or how to face defeat. We also noticed how the Chicago-based organizations that supported Seif and Abdel Kouddous’s visit — including the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter, Love & Protect, the United States Palestinian Community Network, MAMAS and the Dissenters — helped foster what Abdel Kouddous called “radical friendship” from Chicago to Egypt. During the discussion, the audience seemed to come to a shared sentiment: Hold on. Our friend is incarcerated by the regime the U.S. is funding.
Seif then reminded us that the struggle to #freeAlaa is not merely political. It is about his life and his death.
We hope everyone living in the U.S. committed to freedom, human rights and justice will support the struggle to free Abd El-Fattah and all Egyptian political prisoners. We also hope more people will organize to oppose the cruel impacts of U.S.-backed dictatorships on all people struggling to survive and thrive globally and right here in our own backyard.