It is difficult to write about a friend like Alaa at a time like this.
Difficult to write something that stands apart from the sea of rhetoric and recycled terminology that has drowned us since the revolution. But more so, it is difficult to write about someone as famous and about whom little is actually known. Who is the person behind this loud, boisterous, often angry voice against injustice?
I first came to hear of Alaa and Manal in 2002, while I was volunteering with children of the informal zilzaal area in Moqattam. Alaa and Manal also worked with the children there, through activities that taught them about their rights. Alaa and Manal had both been part of “Al-Nusur al-Saghira” — summer camps organized by a collective of parents in the 1990s. The camps created a space for children that was as fun as it was conducive to their creativity, their sense of initiative, their consciousness of the communities they lived in and their values as individuals. Al-Nusur is where Alaa and Manal met and where, at 12 and 13 years of age, their love grew. As they became teenagers, they and others their age of Al-Nusur took over. They started holding summer camps for the younger children while preparing the eldest to take over as they themselves prepared for university. The last summer camp organized by Alaa and his generation was held in 2001: their motto was “Sughayarin ‘alatul” (Forever young).
Salma, our common friend, wanted to introduce me to Alaa in light of our shared dream of starting a summer camp or parallel school for children from all walks of life, where we could reverse the constraints of everyday schooling and focus on the children’s sense of creativity, imagination and critical reasoning. Alaa and Manal, at the time recently married, shared a similar dream after the dissipation of Al-Nusur al-Saghira.
But as life scattered us in other directions — I never really met Alaa until 2005 — after that now famous protest dubbed “Black Wednesday.” The protest against constitutional amendments by Hosni Mubarak in May of 2005 was for many a turning point. A realization that our existence on the streets was a battle, that putting our foot down for what is right would be a difficult, often costly, endeavor. After the protest I headed to Hisham Mubarak Law Centre with friends and discovered Alaa’s father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam. He was a man whose experience in jail for activism in his youth had brought him wisdom and the time to study law. His journey through ugliness transpired into the garden that is the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, a refuge for the many victims of an arbitrary and oppressive state. As soon as I was home, I wrote about him and sent the article into the ether. Alaa intercepted it and we became friends. He also encouraged me to blog.
My relationship with Alaa took off from 2005. For years onwards we shared notes and excitement about the possibilities of what surrounded us. We talked about movements, we poured over Assef Bayat’s writing on pre-revolutionary Iran, and we scouted the streets before and after the call for the strike on April 6, 2008. Something was coming, but what, and when?
Alaa was part of several movements, all with the idea of politics becoming fun and accessible everywhere. He was part of movements against torture in Egypt, part of movements for the access of information and technology and part of several movements inspiring youth and creativity.
Alaa’s activism may come as no surprise, given the family he is a part of. But the root of his activism came from his conviction that what is ‘right’ should be pursued without compromise. It was how he described his father to me in our first exchange in 2005: “The thing with my dad is he is not sacrificing, he is not doing anything special. To him it’s a normal thing and I suppose that is what inspires everyone. You don’t need to be special, courageous, strong or anything like that, you just need to be good.” This was the sentiment that landed him in jail during the rule of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in October of 2012. He refused to be questioned by an authority he did not recognize, and demanded to appear before a civilian court. To him, his arrest was an opportunity to shed light on the plight of civilians appearing before military courts and consequentially receiving exaggerated sentences, often in the absence of their lawyers. He paid a price for his stance, of two months in jail, and, more importantly, missed the birth of his first son, Khaled, on December 6.
But why is Alaa in jail now? The official story is that he is charged for protesting, in a country where political expression on the streets has recently been outlawed. Alaa has also recently been falsely accused of assaulting a police officer and stealing his walky talky.
But why is Alaa really in jail?
Alaa is in jail because he openly speaks against injustice. He is as open in his opposition to the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood as he was of the crimes of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, as he is with the new regime. As a result he has been tried by every regime, from Mubarak to the current military state.
Since the beginning of the revolution, Alaa has been part of various initiatives that create spaces for politics and activism to become more accessible to all. He worked on the initiative “Ta’alu niktib dusturna” (Let’s write our constitution), where a popular constitution was to be drafted through questionnaires, group discussions and interviews with people from different governorates, communities and vocations, whose voices would never reach the constitution otherwise. The goal was to have a popular constitution drafted, with a database of information of peoples’ aspirations so that it served as material for the constitution to be drafted by any power. He created “Tweet Nadwa,” an initiative that materialized a space as open as Twitter beyond the Internet, and brought it to various public spaces in Tahrir, and beyond Cairo. Tweet Nadwa covered topics such as which political economy was best suited to Egypt, and initiatives people could join, such as the initiative to restructure the Ministry of Interior.
Most importantly however, Alaa was a godfather to students in schools and universities, in Cairo, Mansoura, Assiut and Alexandria, who wanted assistance to organize better, to articulate their political aspirations or simply become aware of their rights. Alaa spent the year after the revolution touring the country and generously providing his time for anyone who asked for it.
There is no bigger threat to despotism than hope. And Alaa inspires hope wherever he goes, because he believes justice is an achievable reality, and because he believes in the rule of law, despite those who oppress us in its name. Alaa is dangerous because his ideas and enthusiasm are contagious. Where would we be if we all had hope? How could a system that breads futility, survive us?
In an article he wrote months ago, Alaa described the excessive arming of civilians (in popular committees) as well as security forces as “khan’ misahit hub al-hayah” (a stifling of the capacity to love life). The term has stuck with me since, because somehow, in the ugliness of battle, we tend to forget that the root of this struggle is the love of life.
If I were to articulate why it is that Alaa would risk so much, what it is he is resisting with all his might, it would be exactly that — he is resisting the stifling of our scope to love and to live.
The darkness of his solitary existence in that prison cell is heavier this time than any other. Because, whereas his willingness to risk being away from all those he loves to encourage others to speak out may have been effective in the past, this time the silence of a people defeated is deafening.
Alaa’s absence leaves us in a terrible silence, flustered and clambering for hope. We will find that will to resist only if we remember how it is we would love to live.