Freed @Alaa talks prison, parliament & Egypt's future Upbeat as ever, newly released activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah speaks to Ahram Online about his experience inside Tora Prison and Egypt's current political situation
At his parents’ house amid an exceptionally cheerful atmosphere, prominent blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah on Monday received a multitude of press and television reporters, as well as supporters and friends, only one day after his release from military detention. As people congratulated him, the activist spoke of his experience and views about Egypt’s current political situation.
Abdel-Fattah, son of revolutionary Cairo University professor Laila Sweif and lawyer Ahmed Seif, and brother of renowned activist Mona Seif, had a very busy day, along with his family, with the four of them running all over the medium-sized apartment giving interviews to reporters. In between, they welcomed friends and relatives.
Now more famous than his family members, Abdel-Fattah looks healthy and in good spirits after spending nearly two months in Tora Prison on a temporary basis pending investigation into the charges against him. He stands accused of stealing firearms and assaulting soldiers during the October clashes between military personnel and Coptic-Christian protesters in Cairo’s Maspero district.
Confident of acquittal
Although he has yet to be acquitted, Abdel-Fattah is sure he will be found not guilty. “My innocence will be pronounced sooner or later, that’s for sure,” he said. “Those detained with me on the same charges will be exonerated too, because there is simply nothing to convict us with. We did nothing, and everybody knows that.”
“There is a stark contradiction in the testimonies given against me … I was arrested after receiving a friendly warrant. The least they could have done had I really stolen weapons was to search my place and arrest me by force, but that didn’t happen because they had nothing on me, or on any of the other detainees.”
All the defendants might eventually meet the same happy fate, but they were not treated equally inside the penitentiary. According to Abdel-Fattah, no one tortured or mistreated him because of his stature as a political activist – but that, unfortunately, wasn’t the case for his fellow detainees. “No one touched me. This was expected because they knew I would say everything,” he explained.
“On the other hand, the rest of the detainees were beaten up and brutalized pretty badly. They suffered the worst kinds of agony, but eventually we were all freed.” The 30-year-old went on to stress that he had made fewer sacrifices than many others, stressing he would never abandon the demands of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution – even after serving jail time and, more importantly, becoming a father.
“I would be ashamed of myself if I decided to let up now,” Abdel-Fattah replied when asked about his future plans. “All I lost was a couple of months; others lost both their eyes, like Ahmed Harara, who is a real hero. Nothing will change; on the contrary, I will be more resolute while pursuing my objectives.”
“I owe my baby son Khaled [born during his detention] a better country; I and his mother promised that he would live in a better Egypt – and that’s not happening, nothing has changed.”
Punishing the guilty
Abdel-Fattah, like his family, is one of the renowned leftist figures to have supported the popular uprising from the outset and who later became staunch critics of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for referring civilians to military trials; failing to fulfil the demands of the revolution; and, more recently, using undue violence against protesters.
“Within less than two months, a couple of battles took place in Mohamed Mahmoud Street [adjacent toTahrir Square] and before the Cabinet office [in downtown Cairo]. Each one lasted for several days as dozens were killed. Before that, there was the Maspero incident and the assault on the March sit-in, which also saw people murdered."
“I’m sure I will not be convicted, but that’s not enough,” he added. “Those responsible for killing these people must be brought to justice. The killers aren’t ghosts, they’re human beings and they must be penalised.”
On the alleged “third party” blamed by the SCAF and interim government for the recurring turmoil, Abdel Fattah said: “This is absolute and utter nonsense.”
“Anyone who really believes there is some third party that is accountable for what’s happening needs a sort of psychological therapy. Since the revolt in January, such rumours have been fuelled and none have been substantiated … Videos and photos of excesses by military personnel are beyond doubt, we can’t just blame a third party.”
“The armed forces have been normalizing violence; soldiers got used to killing people in the clashes we’ve seen since March,” he said. “Moreover, the public and media have become accustomed to receiving such bad news. This must stop right away.”
“Some are suggesting a ‘safe exit’ for the SCAF [in the form of a legal amnesty], but that will be no guarantee for any of the SCAF generals. In some countries, such as Brazil, military figures thought they would walk away unscathed after committing crimes, but they were tracked and eventually imprisoned … We wouldn’t let any of the culprits get away with what they did,” he said.
On the role of parliament
Unlike several politicians who decided to boycott the ongoing parliamentary elections to protest SCAF rule, Abdel-Fattah defended his right to cast his vote from inside prison. He believes that having an elected parliament could put an end to many disputes, including that over military rule.
“I don’t support parliament because I like its members, but because it was elected by the people,” he explained. “For this reason, I believe the best way to end the struggle over ongoing military rule is for the speaker-elect of the People’s Assembly [the lower house of parliament] to temporarily assume the role of president.”
“Protesters, in general, need to give parliament a chance to sort out their problems. If it fails to do this, they can return to the street and embark on new demonstrations, so I disagree with those who say that parliament will finish off the revolution,” he said.
In the same breath, Abdel-Fattah expressed hope that the revolution’s first anniversary would see nationwide demonstrations, which, he stressed, he would participate in.
Optimism for future
Abdel-Fattah’s parents and sister are convinced that he was detained by the SCAF in an attempt to intimidate activists and fend off critics. Whether or not this was the primary motive, Abdel-Fattah’s detention only served to raise his political profile, while other anti-SCAF activists have only become more determined to end military rule.
Sweif, nonetheless, reckons the SCAF will maintain this approach towards the opposition. “I’m a teacher and I know there’s a kind of student that does not learn from his mistakes,” the mother told Ahram Online. “They tend to keep making the same mistakes over and over again and refuse to listen to anybody – that’s how the SCAF is. I don’t think they will change anything. They must leave.”
Recently, the SCAF appears to be getting more public support as the revolution seems to be losing steam. Commenting on this point, Abdel-Fattah’s sister, Mona, told Ahram Online: “We need to increase the awareness of these people and blow the whistle on the real assailants. That should be the perfect remedy for the misleading [state-run] media, which tries to cover up the violence like that which took place at the Cabinet building. ”
There has been some speculation that Abdel-Fattah’s release had only been ordered to soothe public anger following this month’s bloody confrontations. Veteran attorney Seif, however, dismissed this theory. “Once the judge took the time to look into the case, he decided that it wasn’t necessary for Alaa to remain in detention,” said Seif. “I was sure of that.”
On how she coped with the entire situation, Sweif said: “A lot of people have shown solidarity with us, and that meant a lot and helped me through this.”