Alaa Abdel Fattah: Moving to Tora Prison

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A young boy walks in the riot-hit Abu Zaabel prison in Cairo during the first week of the January 25 revolution in Egypt (Photo: AFP).

By: Alaa Abdel Fattah

Published Monday, November 7, 2011

“After a revolution that toppled a tyrant, I return to the tyrant’s prison.”

These are the words of prominent political activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah who is in jail after refusing to face interrogation by Egypt’s military council SCAF, the country’s new de facto rulers. Abdel Fattha’s mother Laila Soueif went on hunger strike Sunday to protest her son’s detention. Al-Akhbar translated Abdel Fattah’s letter about his relocation to Tora Prison.

Day 5, November 3, 2011

First Night in Cell 1/6, Tora Prison

I feel embarrassed as I write this blog entry. I was relocated to Tora prison based on my insistence and whining because I could not bear the difficult conditions in the Appeals Prison - the darkness, the filth, the cockroaches walking over my body night and day, no break, no sunlight, and darkness again. The most exhausting aspect was the toilet. I had no clue as to how to deal with its filthy conditions, its crowdedness, and absence of doors. I fasted for five days and had to go.

I was confused by Nawwara’s article celebrating my manhood. But the article by Najla Bdeir reminded me that in my previous incarceration, my blog post was my refuge, a place where I could be candid with myself.

I didn’t know how to be a man and square it with my condition,
even though thousands are putting up with similar or worse conditions. I have not had a taste of the atrocities of the War Prison or tortured like fellow prisoners of military trials.

I have let down fellow detainees of the Maspero incident, and those locked up by the ministry of defense and other politicians. I have let down prisoners who were mobilized by the stir caused by my arrest and who decided to tell me about the horrific acts of the interior ministry, so I could tell people in turn. They were happy that someone may be able to make the voice of the baltagiyya (thugs) and gang rings heard. And I ran away because of the toilet.

I have traded the prison dedicated to public crime convicts, where inmates are young and raucous and fun, for one housing those embezzling public funds, a place full of old people, depression, and boredom. Back in the previous jail, I discovered an important case or an injustice every day. Police officers were imprisoned after their first demonstration and accused of torching the ministry. I did not realize that there was a real issue among the ranks of the officers until I met them. Tamer Rashwan was embroiled in a mysterious case that makes us suspect that State Security are developing new subtle tools of oppression to replace those of arrest, torture and neglect that had been taking place in front of me ̶ things I kept count of to tell you about when I am released. 

Convicts were not the only ones who felt I could play a role inside the former prison. Intelligence officers were searching and insulting anyone who spoke to me and what I said was being relayed to management.

I left all of that for a roomy, clean and sunlit cell, and because I couldn’t be tough enough to tolerate the toilet back there. This is my capacity, my limit, my weakness.

Even my decision to be interrogated by a military prosecutor (something you are celebrate) involved a bit of cowardice. When we met to take that decision, I didn't have the courage to consult [my wife] Manal, whom I was to leave behind during her last days of pregnancy and who had to supervise the workers setting up the room of [our expected son] Khaled. While I would go to jail, she would have to run around looking after my needs and my visit permits, as well work on the campaign supporting my case.

I took the decision in a meeting in which I listened to my revolutionary comrades but not my wife, and took for granted that she would support whatever decision I take.

But I am also proud. It is true I am not the “man” that [activist] Nawwarah spoke of. But I am not a coward either. I was offered a deal by a prominent personality of the revolution that would guarantee my release provided I stop insulting the Mushir [Tantawi]. That’s it! A very simple request that I refused. How would I face my parents had I accepted the offer?

Let’s start from the beginning: How are you? I am Alaa, a foot soldier of the revolution. There are those who sacrificed a lot more than I have, there are those who are a lot braver than myself, and those that have a bigger role.

I am Alaa and I am very proud that I am doing what I can and that I am sometimes surprised at what I can do. I know myself and I know what is beyond my limits. I try to be there for the cause and to always overcome fear and be on the frontlines.

If you sense in me courage, valiance, or daring, know that it is derived from my mother, my younger sisters, and my wife, whom parting ways with is the most difficult thing in prison.

Graffiti on a wall in Cairo; on the left it says "Freedom for Alaa Abdel Fattah" and on the right it says "We are all the martyr Mina Daniel"Graffiti on a wall in Cairo; on the left it says "Freedom for Alaa Abdel Fattah" and on the right it says "We are all the martyr Mina Daniel"

Abdel Fattah's earlier letter from the Appeals Prison

Cell 19, Appeals Prison, Bab al-Khalq

Day 3, November 1, 2011

Memories of my previous jail time come back to me. All the details, from the skill of sleeping on the floor alongside eight colleagues in a narrow cell (2 by 4m) to prison songs and conversations with convicts. But I am unable to remember how I preserved my eyeglasses while I slept. They have now been stepped on three times in one day. Suddenly, I remember that they are the same pair that I had on me when I was locked up in connection with the 2006 Judges Uprising.

I also remember that I am detained today under the same grandiose and hollow accusations hurled at me the previous time. The only difference is that a military prosecutor has replaced a national security one - befitting the military moment we are living through. 

Last time, I was in the company of 50 colleagues from the Kefaya movement. Now, I am by myself, sharing the space with guilty and innocent felons, both suffering from injustice.

As soon as they found out I was one of the "revolutionary youth", they cursed the revolution and its failure to round up the interior ministry folks. I spend my first two days in custody listening to stories of torture at the hands of a police force that not only insists on resisting reform but takes its defeat out on the bodies of the powerless, both the guilty and the innocent.

From the stories that my cell mates recount, I discover the extent of the great achievements of restoring security. Two of the inmates are first timers. Their charge? Membership in a mob ring! Yep, Abu Malik is an armed mob. Now I know what the ministry of interior means when it comes out every day with news of arresting gangs. Blessed are we for the return of security!

During the few hours when sunlight enters the ever dark cell, we read what a former fellow inmate had carved on the wall in beautiful Arabic script. Four walls from floor to ceiling covered with Quranic verses, prayers, and reflections, and what appears to be an overwhelming desire for repentance. The next day, we discover in a corner the date of the inmate's execution. We are overtaken by a fit of crying. The guilty seek repentance. But the innocent are clueless about how to avoid a similar fate.

I drift away from engaging with the prisoners and listen to the radio. I hear about his Excellency the General as he inaugurates the longest flag in the world destined to enter Guinness world records. I wonder: By inserting the name of martyr Mina Daniel (who died at the Maspero massacre) as one of the inciters in my case an instance of another world record, this time in impudence?

Not only do they kill someone and walk in their funeral procession, but they spit on his body and accuse it of committing a crime. Or maybe the cell I am in is worthy of the title for the number of cockroaches it is home to. Abu Malik interrupts my train of thought: “By God, if the revolution doesn’t do justice to the wrongly accused, it will not succeed.”


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