Today, Access kicked off the third installation of our RightsCon conference series in San Francisco, with more than 600 people from 375 organizations and comapnies in attendance, representing 50 countries. One person who was not here is Alaa Abd El Fattah, of Egypt.
Alaa joined us at the first RightsCon, in 2011, as a keynote speaker on the relationship - often complex - among technology, activism, and true social justice. When he left RightsCon, he flew straight back to Egypt, to serve an unjust, politically motivated prison sentence.
Today, he is in prison again -- again, without justice or cause. His family shared the following statement with us to share today:
“When I realized this was not going to be like past arrests, I promised myself to use the time here more fruitfully. To read more. Exercise more. Write more. But then I realized that’s not what I want. I always made it a point to puncture the romanticism of prison. Viewing it as an opportunity is the worst kind of defeat I can imagine. It would not be my agency that I’d exercise more. It would be the authorities’.” Alaa Add El Fattah
Alaa Abd El Fattah cannot be here to deliver his keynote address today. He is in jail in Egypt. This is a brief message from his family and colleagues.
This is his third spell in jail in Egypt. For those of you that attended Rightscon 2011, you will remember Alaa gave a keynote address then, before getting on a plane back to Egypt to face the military prosecutor and a set of trumped up charges that kept him in jail for 55 days.
His stance and his sacrifice were of major political significance at the time. And today Alaa is in jail again. Today is the 93rd day of his incarceration. On November 28, his house was raided, he and his wife were beaten and he was blindfolded and thrown in a truck to prison. The charge: organizing a political protest.
He is one of thousands of political prisoners filling Egypt’s jails.
He is not here in person to deliver his keynote address. But this is how he feels, according to one of his letters. Here is an abridged version of that letter.
Tora Prison – February 2014
“It is not only impossible to live life fully under oppression, it is also dangerous and futile to pretend one can. I can only live here as a prisoner. To write regularly in s cell and claim this way I am free would be a crime. I’d be adding bricks and barbed wire to my prison with my own hands. I’d be myself from “non political” prisoners confirming the very myths that killed our revolution: that oppression was about the state’s political opponents, not all its subjects. I’d be complicit in making prison harsher for the thousands of kids who get arrested in protests and go in thinking they will have a good experience and achieve insight like all the famous heroes of the struggle, and then get crushed by prison.
No I can only live the broken life of a prisoner and in admitting that and never accepting it I will seek for a way to resist, even if my resistance is to continue to be lazy and grow fat or to refuse to play a sport I don’t enjoy just because it is the only thing available.
I remember how easy it was to pack up and fly back, how easy it was back in 2011 to walk to my prison with my own free will on my own terms.
I also remember how it felt to lie on the cold floor of the Cairo Security Directorate, barefoot, wearing thin cotton clothes, my head bleeding, my arms tied behind me, my eyes stinging from the dirty tag they blindfolded me with.
I remember how easy it was to pack up and go back home to continue my search for a people victorious. I remember how easy it was to walk to prison back in 2011. But I can’t remember why we found it so easy to be playful when death surrounded us. I can’t remember what it is that made me laugh that day in court. That person is just a literary device now. ”
- Alaa Abd El Fattah, Tora Prison
Today, Alaa’s imprisonment imprisons us.
Alaa’s presence matters not only because of his activism, but also because of his thinking. As a techie on the forefront of the political Internet, Alaa spoke much of how technology is more than just a series of tools but a culture of expression, mobilization and organization weaved by the community that is actively destabilizing and reconfiguring the established meaning and perception of the state. By day he would develop websites around social and political causes, and by night he would bring crowds who typically discuss things on Twitter to a less virtual setting that still bears the merits of the online space that made the conversation possible.
As a FOSS enthusiast, Alaa actively inscribed the values of collaboration and openness into his persistent concern to build communities at a time when the state actively disrupted any emerging social movement. And in a context where FOSS geeks operate in the margins, he has been actively working on strengthening the links between them and groups with critical social and political causes. And when back into the virtuality of the Internet, Alaa has been busy localizing and arabizing, adding content that challenges prevalent narratives on Wikipedia and writing code to tweak platforms to respond to the needs of progressive journalists and human rights advocates. His place is freedom.