One of Egypt's most prominent bloggers and revolutionary activists is behind bars.
Alaa Abdel Fattah, 29, was summoned before a military prosecutor on Sunday to face charges of inciting violence, stealing military weaponry and assaulting military personnel during an Oct. 9 military crackdown on a protest of mostly Coptic demonstrators that left at least 27 people dead and hundreds more wounded. The military court ordered Abdel Fattah to be detained for 15 days, pending further investigation, after he declined to answer any questions as a matter of principle.
The case, which has sparked widespread outrage, delineates a struggle that has been steadily growing against the ruling military council in post-Mubarak Egypt.
“It's a new level for the military to have committed a massacre in front of the world's eyes—it’s caught on camera and there are all sorts of witnesses—then they try and turn it around and accuse us of instigating it,” Abdel Fattah said outside the military court shortly before his interrogation and subsequent detention. “I didn't expect it, but I'm not really that surprised.”
On Oct. 9, Abdel Fattah says he arrived near the scene “a couple of hours after the massacre”—when military armored personnel carriers plowed recklessly into crowds of protesters. Many were also shot with live ammunition. It marked the bloodiest act of repression by the military since Mubarak's ouster.
Abdel Fattah says he arrived as the protest was still coming under attack by security forces and began to help the wounded, carrying them to the nearby Coptic hospital. At the morgue that evening and throughout the next day, he spoke to mourning family members and helped to ensure proper autopsies were conducted to hold the military accountable.
“I will never understand how security forces anywhere in this world could believe that violence is the way to bring discipline back into masses of angry or scared citizens,” Abdel Fattah wrote in a column published in the independent daily Al-Shorouk on Oct. 20. A few days later, the military prosecutor summoned Abdel Fattah and another activist, Bahaa Saber, for interrogation.
“For the military to summon known activists that have been working on the ground for years, like Alaa and Bahaa, this means they are escalating on their part and therefore we have to do the same on our side,” says Abdel Fattah's sister Mona Seif, a prominent activist in her own right who has helped lead the campaign against military trials of civilians. “It means that we should push for protests that call for confrontation with the Supreme Council.”
Abdel Fattah is considered one of Egypt's pioneer bloggers and one of its most influential and outspoken activists. In 2004, he, along with his wife Manal Hussein, created the blog aggregator “Manalaa.net,” which would grow to receive worldwide acclaim. Soon afterwards, Abdel Fattah began to document and condemn growing abuses by the Mubarak regime. In 2006, he was arrested at a peaceful protest in solidarity with Egypt's independence judiciary movement and was imprisoned for some 45 days.
He and his wife eventually moved to South Africa where they continued their online campaigns. Abdel Fattah returned to Egypt to take part in the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak and has been at the forefront of the debate during the transitional period, helping to organize protests, spearheading a police reform campaign and organizing popular “Tweet Nadwas”—town hall-like discussions on issues of the day. In July, he met with interim prime minister Essam Sharaf amidst a renewed mass sit-in in Tahrir Square.
On Sunday morning, Abdel Fattah arrived outside the military prosecution complex with his wife Manal, who is in the ninth month of pregnancy with their first child—a son, Khaled, named after Khaled Said, the young Egyptian businessman who became a symbol of police brutality in Egypt and one the catalysts of the revolution after he was beaten to death by two policemen in Alexandria in June 2010.
Abdel Fattah greeted friends and supporters gathered on the street outside and hugged Bahaa Saber who was arrested and jailed alongside him in 2006.
The military court is located on the eastern edge of Greater Cairo, in a vast, walled-complex commonly referred to by its military designation “C28.” A wide, imposing building bearing a bronze figure holding up the scales of justice in outstretched arms looms over the surrounding neighborhood. The street outside the main entrance has been the site of small but frequent protests over the past few months as thousands of civilians have been brought before military prosecutors. Bright paint clearly demarcates where a new wall was recently built to fortify the main gate and completely shield the inside from view.
Military police in red berets and fatigues occasionally open the doors of the metal gate and line the entrance, warily eyeing any protesters. Media restrictions are so severe that anyone seen pointing a camera or mobile phone in the general direction of the complex is immediately confronted by military police, taken inside and forced to delete the offending footage before being released.
Abdel Fattah's attorney—his father, Ahmed Seif Al-Islam—arrived an hour later. A renowned lawyer and human rights activist who helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Seif Al-Islam was imprisoned and tortured in the 1980s for his political activism. He quickly greeted his son and within a few minutes they crossed into the building followed by Bahaa Saber and several other lawyers.
By noon, around 80 friends and supporters had gathered on the street outside. They unfurled banners, held up signs and led chants against military rule and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Whenever the guards disappeared into the complex, protesters would rush to cover the large black gate with the stickers of the 'No to Military Trials' campaign. Their spirits were high.
Meanwhile, inside, Abdel Fattah and Saber were separated and questioned by different military interrogators.
The night before, Abdel Fattah had a meeting with friends and family to discuss the case. “My father, as his lawyer, discussed with him his different options and he took the most radical one and the most revolutionary one,” says his sister Mona. Both Abdel Fattah and Saber decided they would refuse to give legitimacy to the military prosecutor and decline to answer any questions. Not only was this to take a principled stand against the use of military trials for civilians, but also, they argued, because the idea that the military could investigate an incident in which its own soldiers were directly implicated in the killing of protesters ran counter to the nature of impartial justice.
“The military justice system is one of the branches of the armed forces,” says Abdel Fattah's father. “They don't have the ability to conduct a just and fair investigation because the armed forces are themselves responsible for this bloodbath.”
He presented the military court with video tapes, one of which contained footage of APCs running over protesters and another of state television anchors “inciting violence.” He also accused the head of military police of being directly responsible for the violence and accused the Supreme Council of obstruction of justice for instituting a curfew the night of the attack in order to “hide all the evidence of the army's crimes.”
The military prosecutor responded by ordering Abdel Fattah to detention for 15 days, pending further investigation into the charges against him. The news broke at around 1 p.m., sparking outrage and sorrow from friends and family outside. Mona ran to her sister, 17 year-old Sanaa—the youngest of the three siblings—and hugged her tightly. They wept in each other's arms.
As Abdel Fattah's father emerged from behind the gate, a group of supporters rushed toward the entrance led by Rasha Azab, a journalist and activist who herself had been summoned to the military prosecutor in June after she penned an article about military trials. Enraged by the decision to detain Abdel Fattah, she screamed at a group of soldiers lining the gate. Scuffles quickly broke out as military police began to shove Azab and others back.
Ahmed Seif Al-Islam began relaying the news to media outlets, speaking into two cell phones at once. It appeared that a total of twelve people had been charged with incitement in the Oct. 9 case. He said one of them was Mina Daniel, the 25-year-old revolutionary activist who was shot and killed that night and had become a symbol for activists of the army's brutality.
As the news settled in, Abdel Fattah's supporters quickly began to organize. The “No to Military Trials Campaign” began to draft a statement that read, in part, “As of today we refuse to co-operate with the military prosecution of civilians and we call on all Egyptian citizens to stand with us.” They planned a meeting and press conference the next day at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. Azab grabbed a megaphone and addressed the crowd. “We are not going to come here to be tried anymore,” she said. “From now on if they want us they can come drag us out of our houses.”
Hours went by as the crowd waited for news of Saber's case. It finally emerged that he would be released on bail. While Saber had also refused to answer the prosecutor's questions, he faced lesser charges than Abdel Fattah and was allowed to leave pending investigation. As the sun was setting, Saber finally walked out of the military complex to cheers from the crowd. Fighting back tears over his friend's detention, he turned to face the building and angrily shouted “Down with military rule.” The crowd echoed his chant in a loud reverberation.
Abdel Fattah's wife, Manal, wanted to know when she could visit her husband. The family began to discuss how to bring him blankets, clothes and food—items not readily available in Egyptian prisons.
“There's absolutely no confusion: the military is the counter-revolution,” Abdel Fattah said shortly before his interrogation and detention. “There's 12,000 people who have been prosecuted through military tribunals, denied their very basic rights for due process. There are people who faced bullets and people who were injured and people who died. My ordeal is minor in comparison to all that and I just hope it's a chance for people to hear about the nameless faces. Most of them are now imprisoned because of extraordinary justice.”