After three spells of imprisonment since the start of the revolution, Alaa Abd El Fattah has declared that he is starting a hunger strike. Alaa is one of 25 people who were sentenced to 15 years in prison for attending/organizing a protest in November. A protest in which a policeman who was filmed strangling a young woman fell over and lost his walkie talkie. All 25 men are charged with stealing the walkie talkie. 24 of those men were arrested at the protest at random. Alaa was taken from his house in the middle of the night two days later — he is a regular target of successive Egyptian governments because of his work as a blogger and activist.
In all his 238 days lost to prison since being identified as a leading ideologue of the revolutionary youth, Alaa has never chosen to go on hunger strike before. So why now and what can it achieve?
The Egyptian state thrives on stasis. Nasser’s sprawling bureaucracy is the foundation of this policy of grinding inevitability. Life is slow, papers are in triplicate, processes are obscure, the traffic is unmoving, your lives unchangeable. Egypt — it tells its subjects — is the vast, eternal, center of the Arab world, the tired cradle of civilization. Change is anathema to it. Change, in fact, can only bring chaos. Change, tiny bits of it, is only possible with a wasta, with influence, cash and corruption. And just as hospitals slowly collapse, so prisoners languish in jail: their cases caught up in the delays of the built-in mechanisms of the bureaucratic machine and the petty whims of its operators.
Alaa was arrested on November 28, 2013, taken to an unknown prison, kept without a trial date for over 100 days before appearing in front of a judge on March 23 and being released on bail after this unnecessary and unjustified detention. Then, on June 11, the judge barred the defendants from entering the courtroom and passed a sudden guilty verdict, in absentia, of 15 years. Alaa, who was outside trying to attend his own session, was grabbed by the police, labeled a fugitive, and hauled back to his old prison cell next to Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel. Because the verdict came down in absentia, an automatic retrial comes into effect, but that retrial has taken two months to begin – partly because the courthouse was being “redecorated”, with a giant glass cage for the defendants to stand in, a cage where the sound is fully controlled. When the court date rolled round, the judge flicked the silent button. The trial is ongoing.
Alaa’s sister, Sanaa, has been imprisoned since June 21 for taking part in a protest. She has appeared in court once, then her judge went on holiday and set the next hearing for September 10. There is, they tell us, nothing that can be done until then.
This is just the absurdity of the court schedule — the evidence and prosecutorial processes are even more grotesque.
So Alaa is going on hunger strike. It is a stand against the grinding and petty predictability of the courts system. It shifts the timetable from the potential millennia of the Egyptian state to the finite operations of the human body. Whatever they are lining up will at least come into play faster now.
And why now? Now because Alaa and Sanaa’s father, the internationally respected human rights lawyer, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, is in the ICU. I am sat outside his hospital room. He had pre-planned heart surgery a month ago, but after a series of severe complications, collapsed into unconsciousness on Friday night. This long, neon corridor tonight is lined with people, young activists, old comrades, doctors paying their respects: all hoping for a word of good news to hold on to. Khaled Ali, the lawyer and only decent presidential candidate in 2012, sat and talked by his side for an hour this morning. He says at one point a tear rolled down Seif’s cheek. We hold on to hope.
In prison, you only get news of the outside world when visitors are allowed in. The last news Alaa had of his father’s condition was on Thursday, when he was conscious and laughing. On Saturday, a special dispensation was granted for both Seif’s imprisoned children to be allowed to visit the hospital. But they did not know how their father’s condition had deteriorated.
Alaa saw his father late Saturday night. And started his strike on Monday. He believes he is out of options and out of time and this is the only card left for him to play.
Hunger striking is the last resort of the prisoner in an unjust and inescapable situation. Palestinian prisoners caught in the interminable web of Israeli administrative detention. Men in Guantanamo who have been cleared for release but continue to languish on the island prison. The inmates of Pelican Bay who are kept in solitary confinement for over ten years. The Iron Lady of India, Mahatma Gandhi, Bobby Sands — the list goes on.
In Egypt, Abdullah al-Shamy won his freedom through his noble determination to refuse all food. Mohamed Soltan, though, still waits in prison, unable to support his own bodyweight anymore.
In January, at a press conference, with his son in jail, Seif picked up the microphone. Leaning on his cane, he stood up and his voice filled the room: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”
Today, as Ahmed Seif’s body battles to keep breathing, Alaa offers his to be by his side.