When Egyptian journalist Alaa Abdelfattah was re-arrested in September 2019 for sharing a tweet with allegations of wrongdoing by a state security officer, he ended up back in prison under the same watchful gaze of authorities who had warned him a few months prior to stop reporting, or he would “regret it.” However, Abdelfattah did not stop writing, resorting to pencil-written letters smuggled out of prison.
Now, his new book “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,” a collection of Abdelfattah’s writings that includes essays, tweets, and those smuggled letters, has been translated from Arabic and published, offering English readers their first opportunity to read the thoughts and reporting of the journalist, who has been in custody since 2014.
Last month, Sanaa Seif, Abdelfattah’s sister, visited the U.S. to promote the book and advocate for her brother’s release. Seif sat down for an interview at CPJ’s headquarters in New York to discuss Abdelfattah’s book, hunger strike, and the injustices he and his family have been going through since his first arrest in 2011.
CPJ emailed the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police and prison system in Egypt, for comment, but did not receive any response. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about Alaa’s new book, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated”? What significance does it have to English readers?
Alaa used to write for local independent news website Mada Masrand other newspapers when that was possible, and he continued writing while in prison. Recently, some family friends decided to collect his writings, including those smuggled from prison, translate them to English, and put them all in a book for the English reader.
The title of the book is “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,” and “You” refers to the reader. The Egyptian uprising of 2011 was clearly defeated, and the way Alaa saw it, is that there is value in facing our defeat and learning from it, so a lot of his writings are about that. We think that our defeat could be an inspiration to others, especially to those who have not yet been defeated.
When I last visited Alaa in prison, he told me that he was very happy about this book getting published. The reason for him being in prison is to imprison his voice, so since the book is out, his voice is out too.
To what extent are you and your family in touch with Alaa?
Prison visits are allowed only once a month for 20 minutes, and only one person is allowed per visit through a telephone speaker and a glass wall, so we don’t hug Alaa. We don’t get much time with him, but it is always quality time with Alaa.
However, during the [COVID-19] pandemic, the only way we could get news of Alaa was through letters, and at some point, they [the authorities] decided to ban the letters too. One time, my mother, my sister, and I decided to stage a sit-in in front of the prison gate, demanding we get a letter from Alaa. We didn’t know whether he was fine or not, and we have been hearing very worrying news about him.
The next day, some civilian women with bricks and wooden sticks approached us while we waited and started beating us up and stole our stuff. I was badly injured, and all this happened while prison guards, whose job is to secure the prison, watched. Later, I found out that these women were sent by the police, and they had received orders to particularly humiliate me.
The next day, we went to the public prosecutors’ office to file an official complaint. There, they told me that they need to inspect my injuries, so I went with them while my family waited, only to find myself getting arrested. They took me directly to an emergency hearing where I was charged with spreading false news about the lack of COVID-19 precautions in prison and insulting public officials on duty, referring to the prison guards who were watching me getting beaten up. I was also charged with committing two terrorist crimes.
I was sentenced to one and a half years in prison after being convicted of spreading false news and insulting a public official. The terrorism charges did not go to court, and I am still facing them. They also made sure to tell me that they can use these terrorism charges against me to put me back in prison at any time.
Why do you continue your online advocacy for Alaa when it’s dangerous for you?
I was imprisoned three times, and there are different details for each time, but it all comes down to the fact that I won’t shut up about the injustices that my brother is facing. Each and every time I am released, I am always told that I can live my life peacefully only if I stop writing or talking about Alaa.
I don’t really have a choice but to continue talking about him. I would consider holding back if the other party was in any way reasonable, like if I had made a compromise — my brother would be out. But according to all the unofficial conversations they [the authorities] have had with me, it didn’t seem that any compromise would be enough to get Alaa out. It is clear they want to keep him in prison.
How would you describe Alaa’s prison conditions? And can you tell us about his latest hunger strike?
From my personal experience, prison conditions have been deteriorating over the years. But for Alaa especially, the past three years were much worse than anything we have ever experienced.
He spent five years in prison before being out on probation, where he had to spend 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in jail every day. But Alaa is always able to write if he has access to a pen and paper. For example, during the six months he was on probation, if he had an idea in his mind that he wanted to write about, he would collect all the material and study it before 6 p.m. and then write about it while in custody. Even then, state security officers repeatedly raided his jail cell inside the police station, blindfolded him, and threatened that he would go back to prison.
When Alaa was re-arrested after sharing the tweet that accuses officer Ahmed Fekry of killing a political prisoner in Tora maximum security prison, they placed Alaa in the same prison and under the authority of the same police officer [Fekry].
On his first day back in prison, they [the officers] did this thing called a “welcome party,” where they basically humiliated and tortured him. Ahmed Fekry was present. After that, they deprived him of his basic rights. Alaa is not allowed sunlight, fresh air, books, or even a paper or a pen, and when they allow him to send us a letter, they give him a pen and a paper and ask him to write to us on the spot, only to monitor what he writes.
Back in October 2021, Alaa was so fed up with being deprived of his rights and expressed suicidal thoughts, which is unlike him. But instead of giving up to that mental state, he decided to fight back and resist. Alaa started a hunger strike on April 2 to express how fed up he is with this nonsense.
[Editors’ note: CPJ cannot independently confirm any allegations of torture, but they are in line with Egyptian prisoners’ accounts. Abdelfattah described the “welcome party” in a 2019 article in Mada Masr. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police and prison system in Egypt, did not return CPJ’s email request for comment on the allegations against Ahmed Fekry and the Tora prison officials.]
How has being in and out of prison for over a decade affected Alaa’s family?
When Alaa was released on probation, it was energizing for us, especially for his son, who’s about 12 years old today and has not seen his father much. But during his probation period, they managed to create a very strong and intimate relationship. During Alaa’s first five-year sentence, his boy was young, and for him, Alaa did not exist. So now, it is much harder on his son, who now knows who his father is and is being deprived of him.
For all of us, that time was very refreshing, especially the brief six hours that Alaa would split between all of us during the day before returning to the police station. I remember being surprised by how he can fit so well and so fast in our lives after being away for so long. I still remember the first moment he entered the house after his release. He had never seen my dog before, and they greeted each other so well as if they have known each other for a long time. It [his home] is just where he belongs!