Everyone knows

The state insists that its prisons are free of political detainees. But everyone knows that the prisons are full of dissidents held “temporarily” against a background of investigations all related to political conflict.

Everyone knows that most of the detainees will be released after some months without being referred to trial. And everyone knows that most of those sent to court will be found innocent. The majority of the prisoners sentenced in the first hearings will have their sentences quashed in later ones, and most of those finally convicted will not be convicted of serious crimes against lives or security; their convictions will be based on the ill-reputed, ambiguous articles in the widely interpretable law which the Egyptian government has long used to suppress opposition. Or they will be based on the crippling new Protest Law that transforms an administrative irregularity — while practicing a constitutional right — into a crime punishable with a custodial sentence. And of course everyone knows that these laws are unconstitutional. Soon we shall be celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Assembly Law for 1914, issued by the British to enable them to quell the national movement when they declared Egypt a Protectorate. Every parliament since then has held onto this law, and every government has exploited it — even though it has been at odds with every constitution we have had since then.

Everyone knows that the great majority of those detained have been deprived of basic rights, and have been exposed to violations while being arrested, while being questioned, and while in detention. Everyone knows that according to the constitution and the law, imprisonment pending investigation is an exceptional precautionary procedure, intended to protect the investigation and subject to conditions: it is to be used only if there is a danger of the accused fleeing, tampering with the evidence, or threatening witnesses, or — in cases of major crimes or known and hardened criminals — in order to avoid a major disruption of security.

Everyone knows that these conditions do not apply to the majority of people currently detained. And everyone knows that they do apply to the police personnel accused of corruption, torture and murder, and yet the number of policemen remanded in custody in the last three years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

In fact, in one case where a court issued an order to detain two policemen on charges of assaulting a judge, their colleagues refused to carry out the order and staged a protest — without notifying the authorities — with arms, in front of state buildings, demanding a ruling against the police ever being held in custody pending investigation.

Everyone knows that most of the people working in the Police Department, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Courts are complicit in imprisoning thousands who will not be found guilty of crimes, and in trampling on their rights. And that this happens on the directions of security, military and political bosses for purely political reasons that have nothing to do with justice or laws or constitutions. In other words: open-ended political detention by order of the executive! And even though everyone knows that everyone knows all this, the state continues to claim that Egypt has no political prisoners and no torture and no pursuit of dissidents or journalists and no random targeting and no oppression.

All attempts to press or intervene for the release of prisoners — including in cases of extreme human need — are responded to with myths about the independence of the courts and the impossibility of interfering in their affairs. This, while the police inform us of the decisions of the prosecution before we’ve even been arraigned before it.

I don’t understand why the authorities need this whole show even though everyone knows — and clearly the majority doesn’t mind. And I don’t understand why so many public and media personalities and party leaders and writers and presidential candidates continue to play along with the show.

We’ve reached a point where every day the papers carry appeals to the Public Prosecutor to speed up his investigations so that he may free those who are proved innocent. For the show to go on we have had to give up the principle that everyone is “innocent until proven guilty.”

So much for the authorities and the “elite;” they know, but they pretend. And some of the general public knows but ignores, or ignores in order not to know. We’ve seen a mother report her son for belonging to “April 6 Youth Movement” and taking part in a protest, as though torture were an optional instrument in bringing up your child. But what about us?

Or let me say what about you?  You who reject the injustice of detention but remain free outside the prisons? What will you do? Will you share in the show? Or withdraw from it and wait silently to be taken from your homes? Will you abandon us? Will you be content to wait because this is a temporary situation? Or because other shows, like the elections, might ease things up a little?

We have parallel shows, like the discourse of “the small prison and the big prison,” which is our homeland.  I’m sorry. Enough acting; there is no prison except the small prison. In my cell I control nothing, but you have the choice to go out and challenge the authorities.  Perhaps the freedom to choose the time and place of your detention or injury or murder is the only freedom you possess, but it’s a freedom the detainee no longer possesses.

We receive many letters of solidarity that shower us with compliments and praise we don’t deserve. You say, “you are an inspiration and a source of hope,” and, “as long as there are people like you Egypt is in good shape.” In prison we resist despair. Inspiring hope is your role, so please: inspire us. Egypt would be “in good shape” if oppression was increasing the numbers of those willing to face detention, torture and martyrdom to fight it.

Perhaps this is why the authorities insist on their shows even though everyone knows they’re fake: the show helps to normalize the situation and make it acceptable, it encourages people to be diverted onto useless routes: negotiations, advice, legal representations, efforts with the media — until the common understanding becomes that anyone who’s accused is guilty, that it’s up to the revolutionaries to avoid being imprisoned or killed. It makes you, yesterday’s comrades, guilty for challenging the show and responsible for what happen to the victims.

We were defeated when we made ourselves responsible for the results of oppression. Everyone knows that you cannot evade oppression, everyone knows that oppression is in the hands of the people in power, it is their decision. In a not-too-distant past everyone knew that you defeat oppression by destroying the fear of oppression and the despair of stopping it. And everyone knew that to destroy fear you need to challenge it, to mock it; you don’t destroy fear by thinking about guarantees of safety and trying to create a suitable environment for protest. Everyone knew that what breaks despair is the constant incitement to direct confrontational revolutionary action, without calculations of profit, loss or popularity.

Everyone knows that the current regime offers nothing to most of the young people of the country, and everyone knows that most of those in jail are young, and that oppression is targeting an entire generation to subjugate it to a regime that understands how separate it is from them and that does not want, and cannot in any case, accommodate or include them. 

Everyone knows that there is no hope for us who have gone ahead into prison except through you who will surely follow. So what are you going to do?

This piece was translated from Arabic by Ahdaf Soueif.

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Alaa Abd El Fattah 
Alaa Abd El-Fattah is webmaster of Panorama, but is better known as an Egyptian blogger, software developer, and political activist. He is known for co-founding along with his wife Manal Hassan of the Egyptian blog aggregator "Manalaa" and "Omraneya", the first Arab blog aggregators that did not restrict inclusion based on the content of the blog.