The Abandoned Children of Egypt’s Arab Spring

In early 2011, after huge protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade autocracy, many activists who had taken to the streets found themselves in high demand. They were guests on “The Daily Show.”Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, visited the square, remarking it was “extraordinary” to be “where the revolution happened,” and met with some of the activists.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the Egyptian activist, intellectual and blogger described as “synonymous with Egypt’s 25 Jan. Revolution” knew the world’s attention would soon move on.

“They’ll soon forget about us,” he told me more than a decade ago.

He was right, of course. Alaa was always cleareyed and realistic, but somehow never became a cynic. He protested in Tahrir Square in 2011, when he was 29, but afterward, too. Charismatic, fluent in English, and funny, he gave well-received talks abroad, but always returned to Egypt, even when faced with the prospect of imprisonment for his outspokenness. His writings, some smuggled out of jail, were published this year as a book, “You Have Not Been Defeated.”

Alaa Abd el-Fattah in Cairo in 2014.Credit…Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

These days, I wonder even if he would turn into a cynic, observing how far the world has turned its back on the Arab Spring generation of young men and women who dared to hope. Many are languishing as political prisoners, often under horrendous conditions.

I can’t ask what he thinks, though, because he’s been in prison for most of the last eight years.

Last week, I didn’t even know if he was alive.

After years of imprisonment under appalling conditions — he reports long periods of being deprived of exercise, sunlight, books and newspapers and any access to the written word — Alaa, a British citizen since 2021, started a hunger strike in April to protest being denied a British consular visit.

In late July, his family lost all access, with no proof if he was even alive since a visit in mid-July.After an international uproar, his mother finally got to see him on Sunday. Even then, it was through a glass partition — according to his family they haven’t been allowed to hug even once for the past three years. What had exactly broken down, and why did it take so long to even confirm he was alive? It’s an unending nightmare.

Alaa’s family is well acquainted with the cruelties of life under authoritarianism. Alaa’s sister Mona was born while their father, who later became a human rights lawyer, was in prison. Alaa’s son, Khaled, was born when Alaa was in prison. In 2014, both Alaa and his other sister, Sanaa, then only 20, were in prison, and not allowed to visit their dying father. In 2020, while waiting outside Alaa’s prison, Sanaa was attacked, and then charged with disseminating “false news” and imprisoned for another year and a half — a case Amnesty International condemned as a fabrication.

Alaa has the dubious honor of having been a political prisoner under Hosni Mubarak,the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, and then Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who is now Egypt’s president. During his brief release in 2014, Alaa kept saying how happy he was to finally get to change his son’s diapers; he was imprisoned again just a few months later. In 2019 he was released, again deliriously happy to spend time with his son.

But he was put in detention without charges just a few months later. In 2021, when he finally got a trial, he received another five-year sentence for spreading “false news.” Alaa said he hadn’t even been told what he was being charged with before being hauled to court.

Alaa’s family emphasizes he’s but one unjustly imprisoned person — his mother often notes how many others aren’t even talked about.

But Alaa’s treatment is an indication of how little care there is left in the world. He’s internationally known, a British citizen, described by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience who has been unjustly imprisoned. There have been op-ed essays and calls from human rights organizations — to no avail.

One need not be naïve about international politics to understand why this is so devastating. We know that many countries with stated commitments to democracy and human rights routinely cut deals with terrible regimes because of their strategic goals or for access to resources or cooperation.

But here, though, countries professing to care about human rights are the ones with leverage, as Egypt depends on foreign aid, trade and tourism to keep its economy going, and there’s no reason it can’t release a few political prisoners and improve prison conditions, even if just for appearance’s sake, since it would pose no threat to the regime.

That Egypt is not pushed harder to do even this little is a moral stain that cannot be justified by realpolitik.

In November, Egypt will host a global climate change conference. About 120 world leaders, including President Biden, went to the last one, in Scotland. They could, at least, ask for progress before showing up for this one, and acting as if all is fine.

Britain could declare no high-level representatives will attend unless their wrongly imprisoned citizen, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, is allowed to leave. Unfortunately, Britain is embroiled in a political crisis, making U.S. leadership even more important.

Admirably, one senator and 13 members of the House have signed a letter urging action. More of their colleagues could join them, especially since the United States provides more than $1 billion in aid to Egypt and billions in military sales require administration approval.

President Biden could pick up the phone and let the Egyptian government know that the maltreatment of political prisoners will be a consideration when approving future aid or military sales.

So what, a cynic might think, even if Egypt releases a few people and improve the conditions for others, many remain behind, and the political conditions won’t change. That’s true, and those thousands of political prisoners — the Arab Spring’s forgotten, abandoned children — would be among the least deluded about this reality.

But it’s also true that any limit, even a small one, to the impunity of a regime like this helps. I’ve known many political prisoners, some released after external pressure, some left behind. I’ve yet to meet one naïve about the process, but I also don’t know any who didn’t welcome progress — each person is a life.

In 2011, three days after he was born, Alaa’s son, Khaled, was allowed to visit him in prison, for half an hour — 10 minutes of which Alaa held him.

“In half an hour I changed and the universe changed around me,” Alaa wrote about the visit. “Now I understand why I’m in prison: they want to deprive me of joy. Now I understand why I will resist: Prison will not stop my love.”

Alaa then wrote of his dreams for a future with his son: “What about half an hour for him to tell me about school?” he wondered. “Half an hour for him and I to talk about his dreams?”

Alaa Abd el-Fattah has been robbed of all those half-an-hours.

Someone with power has to let the Egyptian government know that while loftier goals may be abandoned, the world hasn’t completely forgotten how it once admired those courageous young people who dared to dream of a better future. The least we owe them is more half-hours, to walk and breathe freely, to hold their children, and perchance to keep dreaming of a better world.

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