Open-internet and political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah’s appearance in court this past Sunday wasn’t his first—Abdel Fattah is considered one of the Egyptian security state’s main antagonists, and as such, he’s become a familiar fixture. In fact, Abdel Fattah has the unlucky distinction of having been arrested under each of the four iterations of power in Egypt following the overthrow of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, who have all seen him, with his energetic online following, as an instigator of social unrest.
The narrative pushed by talking heads and columnists after Mubarak was brought down is that he was more or less tweeted out of power. But it’s clear now, three years on, that the situation was much more complicated than that. Social media may have connected many Egyptians who didn’t know each other before, but the biggest gains were made by demonstrators with grit while the Internet was cut off. Now with his most recent arrest, the question is more acute than ever: What makes Abdel Fattah so dangerous?
In his previous life, Abdel Fattah was a web developer focusing on two areas. First, he advocated the use of open-source software, and second, he helped get NGOs and human rights organizations online. He worked on an Arabic language Drupal platform designed specifically for activists and human rights bloggers, and with his wife, Manal Bahey Eddin Hassan, also started the Egyptian GNU/Linux User Group and manalaa.net, the Arab world’s first blog aggregator that didn’t discriminate based on content. They both helped to start Arab Techies, a gathering of geeks from across the Arab world.
In the leadup to the 2011 uprising, websites allowed a secondary narrative to form and contradict the government-controlled press. "It created a network of people that didn’t know each other physically, and it created a free flow of thoughts and it created a different public opinion of what was formed in the press," says Ahmed Mekkawy, a fellow open-source activist. "This digital public opinion, if I can call it that, made the revolution."
Abdel Fattah had moved to South Africa, where he was working on developing open-source software for native African languages when protesters began fighting their way into Tahrir Square. He flew back in February 2011, just in time for the "Battle of the Camel" clashes, when pro-Mubarak demonstrators and government-hired thugs attempted to storm the square on camels and horseback, in what was considered a last-ditch effort to push demonstrators out. Protesters fought back by throwing paving stones ripped from the sidewalks and the square itself. "What do you think is the technology I used most while in Tahrir?" Abdel Fattah asked the crowd at a Personal Democracy Forum in 2011. People yelled the usual guesses: SMS, email, and Twitter. His response was a bit less high-tech. "Rocks." Their eventual victory cemented the perception that only Mubarak’s resignation would send them home.
"Alaa represents this kind of un-understood, or un-understable youth," says Omar Robert Hamilton, an activist, filmmaker, and Abdel Fattah’s cousin. "A globalized advocate of freedom of expression and ideas, and they"—those in power—"don’t understand how these things happen," says Hamilton. "I think that’s why he’s on their list now."
"He focuses on splitting the technology activities and political activities," says Mekkawy. "But they are based on the same point: free and open knowledge and free software, which are both sides of the same coin." Among the charges Abdel Fattah faced then were organizing via Facebook and participating in an illegal protest, acts he gladly admitted to in court. "He’s about empowering people and then says, ‘Let’s see how that goes,’" Mekkawy continues. "This kind of stuff is the kind of thing that makes him very close to those that know him, and is the kind of thing that makes the political regime, who doesn’t like the idea of empowering other people, nervous."
In the summer of 2013, after the military deposed democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the most prominent member of the reigning Muslim Brotherhood party, it crushed protests in the street made up mostly of Islamists, but it didn’t take long for them to go after all activists and demonstrators. When a Facebook group set up a protest in violation of a law banning unauthorized gatherings of 10 or more, soldiers arrested two-dozen activists, and dumped a number of women on a desert road after beating them.
At the time, Dandrawy al-Hawary, the editor of a pro-military paper with connections to the Mubarak regime, demonized activists in an op-ed amid a media frenzy that attacked activists in general as traitors. "The male activist is unemployed, soft, and effeminate, with long hair that is either braided or disheveled," he wrote. "He has a Twitter account, a Facebook page, likes to curse and use disgusting obscene expressions." Five days later, Abdel Fattah was arrested, and he and his wife were beaten in their home while their infant son slept—this despite his announcement that he would hand himself in to authorities, as he had done before. There was little public outcry outside revolutionary circles.
When Dandrawy spoke to Fast Company, he pointed to tribal traditions as among the things that define Egypt. "I’m against any arrest without good evidence," he says. "But Alaa is only an activist on Twitter. If activists only help achieve a democratic path and promote security and stability, then yes, they are important for political advancement. But as soon as they start becoming condescending and accuse us of being slaves of the regime then [they start becoming detrimental]."
Abdel Fattah appeared in court Sunday just after a Brotherhood member, who screamed about torture and oppression from the cage that Egyptian courts keep defendants in.
As Abdel Fattah walked into the cage, visible to the public for the first time after more than 100 days in a notorious prison complex, he was greeted with applause from his dozen co-defendants, young men who had been arrested at the unauthorized protest. Abdel Fattah greeted them, cracked jokes, and was in such good spirits as to seem almost defiant, more so given the two-day hunger strike he’d launched after prison guards put him in a cage hardly larger than the size of his body—this after Abdel Fattah protested their taking away his newspapers.
The courtroom was a retrofitted lecture hall at the Police Academy, inside Tora Prison. Press sat in one column of desks on the right, the huge defense team for the 23 defendants in the center column; separating them from the defendants was a row of teenage riot police sitting quietly with their hands folded. Sparrows chirped and flew around, landing occasionally on security cameras above the three-judge panel.
This was the first session in the trial, and the defense was only there to file a case. Abdel Fattah’s father, a prominent activist and human rights lawyer, led his defense team. When the judges took a recess to deliberate, Abdel Fattah yelled over the riot police to respond to journalists and family. He said he wanted to leave and see his young son. Somehow, the dour-looking presiding judge was sympathetic: He ruled that Abdel Fattah would be released on 10,000 EGP bail. Cheers erupted. One lawyer climbed up on the desks and blasted past the police to greet him in celebration, causing a small scandal in the court.
It was only a small victory; the charges against Abdel Fattah still stand. After the court adjourned, his father said that Abdel Fattah was free, but in the same way that all Egyptians are: out of prison but not allowed to speak their mind.