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O brother, what is prison? On Malek Adly


The fire of injustice in the prison bars and huts is raging,
O brother, what is prison? Is there torture and deprivation in it?
Do bars and prison guards affect the free?
Those other than us fear the bars and are swayed by walls,
If we were sparks before, today we are volcanoes.
— From a collection of poetry written in the 1940s titled Israr (Determination) by the revolutionary Nubian poet Kamal Abd al-Halim

In 1946, Prime Minister Ismail Sidqy hysterically faced the Parliament, raising a book in his hand and yelling, “Have you read this poetry? A revolution is taking place while you are asleep!” The book in question was a collection by revolutionary Nubian poet, Abd al-Halim, quoted above. There are parallels between the authorities’ fear of Abd al-Halim’s words in the 1940s, and their fear of the human rights lawyer Malek Adly today.

Adly’s recent arrest was painful and saddening, and hit home for many. The prominent lawyer, writer and activist was detained earlier this month after the public prosecutor issued a warrant for his arrest following the April 25 protests. Adly was one of the lawyers who filed a lawsuit contesting the sovereign transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, claiming that it was unconstitutional.

His lawyers have submitted official complaints since his arrest claiming he was physically and verbally abused in detention, and kept in solitary confinement for 15 days without light or ventilation. He was denied clean clothes, food, water and daily walks. In his latest statement, Adly testified that around 16 policemen in civilian clothes entered his solitary confinement cell, forcibly sedated him and gave him an injection. He was not sure if a blood a sample was taken.

Thousands have recently been arrested in relation to calls for protests against the transfer of the islands. This is in addition to the administration’s wider crackdown on freedom of expression, thought and assembly in an attempt to quell all forms of criticism.

Who is Adly, whom the regime is committing all these violations against in an attempt to break his resolve? Does the regime know what kind of a human he is? What he represents, and the certitude that fuels him?

Radwa Ashour, the late iconic Egyptian novelist, academic and activist, mentions Adly in the first volume of her monumental autobiography Athqal min radwa (Heavier than Radwa, 2013). The story includes a quote from an article by writer Nawara Negm, which is no longer accessible online due to the systematic attempt to erase the history of the January 25 revolution. This is what Negm wrote and Ashour documented in her book.

“What precisely happened is that Malek, when he entered the morgue, was surprised that the prosecutor documented the cause of death as being, ‘… wound in the head … in the chest, etc.” Malek knew from his experience in the morgue during the Maspero massacre that the difference between an incised wound and a head injury is that the former can be penetrated with a finger. When the prosecutor refused to stick his fingers in the dead bodies, Malek Adly started sticking his finger in every corpse, separately, in order to ensure that the reports were written appropriately. From that day onward, Malek gave up food, except what is required to keep him alive.”

Adly is this kind of human. Whenever he attended the funerals of martyrs, Adly made sure to kiss the feet of every one of them.

Malek Adly

Malek Adly

The writer

Adly is also a prolific writer — his blog and published articles attest to his superb Arabic. He is often credited with paving the path for what many commentators see as a new language that combines the aesthetics of classical Fusha with the dynamism of modern standard Arabic. In his last article, written a few days before his arrest, he wrote,

“I vowed not to bow to anybody, not to cease doing anything that will force me and my daughter to live without dignity. I will not forget the blood of the martyrs, shed for the sake of livelihood, freedom and social justice. I know I will pay a price sooner or later. I do not write this to claim a fallacious heroism; nor am I a hero in the first place; nor should you believe that me and my comrades are so … The guards of hell, the Generals, have not yet understood that we fear no one but God. I say nothing to the Generals except: One day you, your priests and your bootlickers shall be mentioned in history with what befits you. The curses of your victims and the blood of the martyrs who died while defending the country will haunt you. In fact, every army boot that was consumed on the road between Cairo and Sinai will join in this haunting. As for us, we have nothing but this country, this land, and we want nothing but justice. We are certain that you’re destined to perish. And, until then, we shall not leave you in peace.”

Adly belongs to a group of writers who compellingly talk and write about the January 25 revolution less like a political event, and more like a belief system. They think of it more like a religion, born complete with all its essential elements: beliefs and ideals (agency, autonomy, moral consistency and the decay of the oppressor), emotions (empathy to the marginalized, defiance and magnanimity), sacredness (special iconography, embodied in the martyrs and their stories and legacies, historic moments, confrontations and places), rituals (anniversaries, collective remembrance and recitations of certain songs and chants), trials and tribulations that will surely befall its believers for the sake of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, and of course certitude. Other writers who share this revolutionary vision are poets Mustafa Ibrahim, author of the iconic Al-Manifesto (Manifestation), and Mahmoud Ezzat, who wrote the heart-wrenching poem Prayer of Fear, as well as the writers Rasha Azab and Malek Mustafa, among others.

The lawyer

He is determined to be free,
He’ll risk his life for liberty,
Of Moral worth and mind serene Polite, and of engaging mien.
This noble Patriot I admire
Who glows with such heroic fire;
This is the Man that I approve If he and I agree in Love.
 — Ruth Bryant, English poet (d. 1783)

For me personally, as an activist Adly belongs small circle of commentators that represent the first ethical compass I resort to when deciding what ethical stance to take in the face of Egypt’s daily moral battles. I naturally differ with all these commentators on particular issues, but Adly is by far the most engaged on the ground, the most savvy in combining ethical principals with versatile, approachable and, above all, almost never-failing street wisdom.

As a student and loyal disciple of the late Ahmed Seif, the inspiring human rights defender and social justice activist, Adly has surely put all the lessons he learned, as well as his heart, to practice. Adly defended many families of victims of police abuse and torture pro bono at almost every stage of his career. Among other cases, he defended the football fans detained following the violence in February 2015 outside Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium that left 20 dead. Scores of families have talked about his noble defense of their imprisoned children, arrested in protests or illegally detained, and how he sacrificed his personal time, worked tirelessly to help them and offered professional consultations and personal assistance. He also rallied for and took on the defense of national monuments and heritage sites against state negligence and demolition driven by business interests. Scores of his friends testify to his true and reliable friendship, and to the endless times he spent campaigning for and defending human rights. 

In several televised meetings and debates with staunch defenders of the administration, Adly shrewdly and courageously articulates what many believers in change would love to utter and scream. He is unflinching in his debates on police abuses, telling high-ranking police officials to their face what they hate to hear, describing the systematic abuses that they are keen to deny. In some cases, they openly threaten him on air, revealing their true brutality.

In the days prior to his arrest, Adly rallied against the Tiran and Sanafir deal, campaigning and collecting endorsements, and appearing in the media several times to express his views. In a symbolic and ironic incident, Adly made the purposefully generic statement, “Whoever sells the land of his country is a traitor,” in response to which a TV presenter loyal to the administration screamed, “I swear, if you utter the name of the president of the republic here I won’t let it pass.”

The Father of Baheya

… And reign your domination on the people,
With the aid of foreign armies, tomorrow we’ll defeat them.
The one who has no footwear will step on your neck,
And the one who built your imposing structures, shall tear them down.
My poems are daughters of a holy war, oft-chanting
‘Despair is death at the hands of hope’
 — Fouad Haddad, Egyptian poet (1928-1985)

Adly named his young daughter, whom he often mentions in his writings, Baheya (the splendid one), in reference to a song written by revolutionary poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. In the poem, Egypt (referred to as Baheya) is anthropomorphized as a persevering and splendid young lady. Today, Adly’s Baheya joins the countless other daughters and sons of prisoners of free speech and social justice. Asmaa Ali, Adly’s wife, explains how Malek made a promise to their daughter and her generation to hand them a country they would like to receive.

Regardless of how bleak the current moment is, we have to remind ourselves of the certitude that Adly embodies, the certitude that gives Adly fuel to endure, as beautifully expressed by Mostafa Ibrahim in his poem, With the Revolution: That’s Much Better. In the poem, Ibrahim poetically adopts the story the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey through the seven heavens: 

“The martyr told the martyr in the first heaven, the bullet is not aimless … the state is responsible; the martyr told the martyr in the second heaven, the land fell down dead beside me, murdered; the martyr told the martyr in the third heaven, luck is on our side, and we are no exception; the martyr told the martyr in the fourth heaven, where will the blood go? The circle is closed; the martyr told the martyr in the fifth heaven, this land is followed, not a follower. If you are summoned by descent, while I’m still among you, then, in my absence go down, that’s more conducive; who among the prophets was not a minority? The martyr narrated to the martyr from the seventh heaven about a second revolution … it shall come, stronger than the first.”

Despite his horrific detention conditions, when his lawyers and family attended his first hearing, the first thing Adly asked about was the latest news of the Tiran and Sanafir lawsuit. In protest against the prosecution’s denial to allow Adly’s lawyers their legal right to participate in the proceedings, the lawyers withdrew from the hearing.

While Egypt’s activists and civil society sector teeter on the brink of paralyzing grief, black and blue, neutralized, arrested, prosecuted against, we can only be inspired by Adly’s certitude and endurance. 

Tarek Ghanem