A Letter to Alaa in Prison, Where he is Free

 

Dear Alaa,

“To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.” Gandhi. And so I will start my letter again,

My dear, honest friend, Alaa

I am writing this letter to thank you and to apologise to you.

I attended a workshop in Bristol last year. One of the professors speaking referred to you as a “problem” for new regimes that came into power in Egypt. They used you as an example of a “new type of youth”, one the repressive governments could not buy nor silence with power or promises of personal gain. I felt so proud at that moment. You were never one that trod on blood that was not given time to dry. You lived the expression of your understanding and conviction that innocent blood would not dry except with accountability, quick justice and with plans on how more blood would not be shed in the name of any flag or any religious book. It is with pride that you should know that this stand you take is not unnoticed, that it resonates in many consciousness’s as a reference point and that you have constructed in your own fight, a truth about what freedom and justice should be by taking this position. Rare are the opportunities to meet someone who is that brave, I do not take that for granted.

I am holding on to the image of you walking around in large groups during Tweet Nadwa giving the microphone to those who had gathered for a chance to have their dreams aired and heard and respected. You handed them in that microphone a tool of expression; literally and practically giving a voice to those who are often ridiculed for what others may call utopian dreams or naïve solutions to life’s complex problems. I hold that image of you because only when I saw how scared of you they were did I realise the power of what you were doing was. The value of that walking around in public spaces celebrating the agency and potential of your equals was a threat to the fragility of those who rule by terror and manipulation. It only made sense that they would try and find any way they could to put you in their cages, believing – foolishly – that those metal bars could keep in the value, the importance, the power, the affect of what you were trying to do. They thought, foolishly that they could imprison the ideas in your head that spread to us like dandelion heads every time they so much as walked past you or your cell.

Often, those who support my work, will attack me if I show discontent at a violation of the rights of someone with whom they, or indeed I, do not sympathise, as if rights were or should be reserved only for those with whom we associate. This often demoralized me and made me feel I was lucky to have an option not to be in Egypt, that I had the option to call another land “home”. But the idea that you represented, the philosophy that’s embodied in what you fight for, is part of what bought me back. The possibility of “fair”, or a collaborative “I”, that had to come together, gave me hope. I needed that the determination to work with the most vulnerable at home, my street kids. The justice and equal opportunity that I felt would come if everyone really heard, really understood, really lived what you were saying, was worth returning for. You made me feel that people at “home” understood the underlying values of equality, access to opportunity, freedom, dignity, integrity, they were free and so were asking for their freedom. It is people like you who gave people like me, with something to offer, no matter how big or small, the chance of coming back and offering it despite it not being profitable, not being progressive in a capitalist way.

I am incredibly humbled by your strength, by your determination and by the honour with which you live to remain true too your fundamental principles. I see how you are never compromising, never meeting an oppressor half way, never being silenced in the guise of neutrality. I admire that you are always taking sides – always – with the oppressed; no matter who that was because it was – always – the principle, not the idea, not the person, not the situation, that mattered to you. The abstract notions of justice and integrity that many construct in ways that suit them, were clearly well grounded and defined as far as you were concerned and I write now to reassure you that all those lessons are in my and many other hearts and continue to inspire us and give us hope. Hope is not a gift that is to be taken for granted in the world in which we live. It is the idea that is embodied in all those things that you do; which bought me back to my “home” country, it’s principles and potential like yours that kept me going was I worked with the street children.

Your family are incredibly lucky that they have you to support the remarkable work they have done, both in and out of prison. I was not surprised when I first found out that Ahdaf Sueif was your auntie. She had been my role model since I first picked up her book in 1992. I was only 12 at the time, and her message of merging the public and private, making the private political, has stayed with me 20 years on. I wanted to grow up and be like her. Then, one day, in a march for Michael Nabil, a lost cause in Egypt at the time, I found myself walking next to her, chanting for the freedom of someone whose ideology we both were not only unsympathetic towards, but fundamentally opposed to; both of us taking sides against the oppressor despite having nothing in common with the victim. I cannot begin to describe my euphoria in that moment. Mona and Sana are also incredible in what they do and when anyone compares my passion for street children with Mona’s work for her civilians tried in military courts, I am humbled beyond words. Your parents must be so proud of you all. It is true in your case that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Thank you for fighting the battle long before people had an avenue to express their opinions. Years before the squares and streets welcomed this generations protests you were out there fighting for freedom and getting punished for it. Thank you for the times you grew up without the presence of your own father because he was doing the same thing. Thank you for not being silenced, for being more than you had to be and making it like that was the only way to be. Thank you for not giving up and reminding me that abandoning the cause was an option, but one we did not have to take and one; which you refused even though you had so much to lose. Thank you for being and living the thing that you believed in.

And as I have said right at the beginning of this letter, I am also writing to apologise. I apologise, not only for not being in that cell with you since I share almost all of the ideas that you are in there for. I do not just apologise because you are missing out on so many “first times” your only son is performing without you cheering him on. I do not only apologise for every morning you are not waking up with Manal in your arms. But I am apologising because so many cathartic moments I have lived, have come as a result of all that has made you physically behind bars. My only consolation is that you are truly free, freer than the wildest birds could ever hope to be. And those things you say break inside you every time you are in prison, they are nothing more than the shell that reveals the next layer, the shiner, more refined spirit that brings about hope as soon as it is let go.

I watched a video of you saying that your greatest fear is to grow old one day and look back and see that the results of what you have done would bring sorrow and not joy. Fear not ya Alaa, because that will never be. What is happening now should not dishearten you, or me or anyone else. The truth is, the closer we get to justice, the clearer and purer the concept of justice is, and because of that, our struggle for it increases and the harder our fight becomes.

I am humbly your inspired, grateful and hopeful friend,

Nelly

Maikel Nabil: Two Years and a Two Hundred Pound Note

After a nine-month struggle and over 100 days hunger strike, Maikel Nabil was sentenced to two years in a military prison and a fine of 200 LE. The crime? Offending SCAF. Offending?! It worries me that the military council that is meant to protect 85,000,000 people from all enemies is so easily offended! I would have also liked to know that the tax payers money was being spent on things more serious in this critical time the country is going through than the 9 month trial and retrial of a university pupil picked up from his home for writing in his blog! But apparently, licking wounds to their pride was more serious than investigating the murder of the thousands of people killed by the central security forces during the past year.

Maikel Nabil has said he will escalate his hunger strike to include liquids. This will be the end of him and no matter how strong he has been in holding on to all the principles he held dear, his body functions will betray him. Why do we live in a time where we see the heroes while they are alive and not recognise them or celebrate their struggle till they die? Why?! How is it that the days we went to stand in solidarity with Maikel, only an average of 6 of us turned up and when the sentence was passed twitter and the news were flooded with news and mentions of disappointment? There is such a big disconnect between the people and the belief in the power of their involvement and their actions. It is heartbreaking to see how little people remember of the power of solidarity and how much they can move things when they come together.

I was taken aback by the amount of commiseration I received after the sentence was passed. I got phone calls from my friends abroad and people on Facebook and twitter who knew how passionate I was about this sent me condolences. I found it strange that other people started off telling me that they were sure I was either related to Maikel or that I must have known him well and that they were sorry for how upset I was. This angered me. I am not related to Maikel, I have never once met him and you know what else? I have never read anything he has ever written. Why do I need to be any of those things to care? I care about freedoms, I care for the space I am fooled into thinking I am afforded to express my opinions when people like Maikel prove that I am not!

In 2003 I wrote my Master of Laws thesis on freedom of expression in Egypt. I found that The Egyptian Penal Code restricts constitutional freedoms. Forty-one articles criminalise the expression of opinion, including instigating hatred of the ruling system, humiliating the authorities, the army or Parliament, and arousing public opinion by means of propaganda. It is only the “tolerance” of the government that either allows, or disallows, such freedom. This “tolerance” depends on the political or social situation at the time. For example, between 1984 and 1988, forty-eight decisions were taken to ban publications, most of them dealing with political issues.

Maikel Nabil’s trial, like most others relating to the same conviction, was void of many of the international legal guarantees of a fair trial. There is no appeal against a military court’s judgment for any of the violations to be rectified. It is imperative that Egypt addresses its human rights violations if it is to provide its people with the climate necessary for progress and if it is to fulfill the guarantees it has given in every human rights instrument, which it has signed and ratified. This is perfectly summarized in the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch in their 2002 report on Egypt:

“Abolish Military Order No. 4 of 1992 and seek regular legislative approval of all new laws, or amendments to existing laws, that the government considers necessary to protect the security of Egyptian citizens. Ensure that all trials conform to international standards of fair trial, including granting the defense adequate time to prepare their defense and ensuring that the defense is granted full and prompt access to all relevant court documentation at every stage of the proceedings. · Amend Article 80(d) of the Penal Code to bring that law into compliance with international human rights treaty law protecting freedom of expression and the rights to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Abolish the Supreme State Security Court and all other extraordinary courts, and insure that all Egyptian courts meet basic international fair trial standards, including by guaranteeing a right to appeal to a higher judicial body. Propose new legislation that grants legal recognition and guarantees full independence to non-governmental associations.”

As long as people in Egypt will continue to fight for the freedom of people and not the freedom of expression, then we are a very long way of understanding this struggle or the lack of commitment towards basic human rights. As long as those who fight for freedom are not on the same side of prison bars as I am, then I am not free.

Call to Stand in Solidarity with Mikhail Nabil: 4th December 2011

Today I woke up with severe period pains and decided I’d stay in bed all day… one of the many things that get in the way of women trying to just be involved in every day stuff (because every day stuff these days means getting out to protest in the rain and mud!) So I lazily reached out for my mobile to check twitter and catch up on what’s been happening during the few hours that sleep and I flirt with one another. The only thing that was getting my attention between the hundreds of tweets about the Muslim Brotherhood and the elections and whether people were going to vote or boycott the elections, were the tweets that there were only 4 people, yes ONLY FOUR people outside C28, the military prosecutors, where Mikhail Nabil Sanad’s trial was happening. Here was everyone, so caught up in the new frock of the mockery of democracy in a country where only 4 people turn up to support a conscientious objector, now prisoner, dragged from his own home for writing his opinions in a blog post.

I am told the lack of support Mikhail has inside Egypt is because not many agree with what he has to say. What an embarrassment of an excuse is that?! How can I deserve the freedom that so many are dying for if I cannot support the freedom of someone who is expressing views different to my own?! So, I decided to just deal with the pain and get out of bed and get out and stand not for Mikhail Nabil, but for myself, and for what I believed in. Mikhail was doing me a favour, not the other way round! He was giving me the chance to fight for what I believed in, a chance to deserve the freedom he was fighting for.

I arrived outside C28 and there were 5 people. 3 Egyptians, a German lady and an Irish man. There was no chanting and none of the familiar faces. The splitting had begun and there’s too much going on in the country to even expect a crowd, but three Egyptians?! Three?!! and the three had come all the way from AlHaram despite the rain, the mud and the callings from Tahrir and else where today.

We waited till Mikhails lawyer came out saying he was refused and that Mikhail had an appointed lawyer the judge had chosen (I was beginning to feel I was watching a badly written sitcom by this point). He said the case was postponed till the 4th December. This will be the 7th time the case has been postponed and Mikhail will have spent over 100 days on his hunger strike. He also said Mikhail was coming out to be transferred back to prison in a few minutes. We decided to wait. We wanted him to see that he was not forgotten and that people with faces unfamiliar to him were there representing many (or so I convinced myself)… and indeed a couple of minutes later, the military truck transferring him came out… we knew it was him because his voice came ringing “Down with the Military Rule” “Yaskot Yaskot 7okm El3askar”… He led our chants for all of 30 seconds… and we, sending every atom of love, strength and support to him back in our echos could not help but cry as they drove off with him. I am not sure why we cried. We may have been ashamed at how few we were, maybe because we weren’t sure Mikhail would make it through the hunger strike till next week, maybe because with the elections coming up we feel Mikhail will be forgotten…. but what ever the reason, we all cried… I haven’t heard chants that caused me goosebumps this way in a long time… and I know I will be hearing Mikhail Nabil’s voice for many nights to come.

(You can read how right Mikhail Nabil was here http://www.maikelnabil.com/2011/03/army-and-people-wasnt-ever-one-hand.html)

Whatever happens, I decided today that I would not look back and regret not having stood for the freedom to all that I believe in… and I am writing this today to tell you that I believe with all my heart, that the best way to fight for your freedom is to fight for the freedom of others, fight for the freedom of those you do not necessarily agree with. Be there for Mikhail Sunday 4th December. It counts. It matters.