Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 November 2011
Issue No. 1072
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The face of protest

The continued detention of Alaa Abdel-Fattah can only heighten tensions between Egypt's military rulers and the young activists who were at the forefront of Egypt's revolution, writes Khaled Dawoud

The name of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who turns 30 on Friday, is in many ways synonymous with Egypt's 25 January Revolution. In almost every demonstration that took place, leading up to the revolution and beyond, Alaa could easily be spotted -- a wide smile, long curly hair and small round glasses -- standing with his wife, Manal Hassan, calling for freedom and greater social justice.

When, late last month, the military prosecutor's office ordered that Alaa be detained for 15 days the move seemed to confirm the widely held belief among the young generation of activists that kick-started the revolution that the military council was determined to subvert any gains that had been made.

The decision to jail Alaa led to a wave of protests in Cairo and Alexandria in which thousands took part, demanding his release and an end to the referral of civilians to military courts. The protests are likely to escalate following Sunday's announcement by the military prosecutor's office that Alaa's detention is being extended for a further 15 days.

He will now miss the birth of his first child, which his wife is expected to deliver in the next few days. Alaa and Manal have agreed that the boy will be named Khaled after the young Alexandrian, Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by two policemen in Alexandria last year, and whose brutal murder helped mobilise the protests that culminated in the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.

Alaa's mother, university professor Leila Sweif, has also been on hunger strike for nearly two weeks, demanding not only her son's release but an end to the court marshal of civilians.

Among the allegations made against Alaa is that he stole a machine gun from a soldier during the 9 October clashes in front of the state- owned television building that left at least 27 dead. The majority of those killed were demonstrators, crushed beneath the treads of armoured vehicles which ploughed into the crowds. Alaa is also accused of destroying property belonging to the Armed Forces and attacking soldiers while on duty. Since his arrest he has refused to answer questions from the military prosecutor on the grounds that military courts have no mandate to try civilians.

While the SCAF insists only civilians involved in violent crimes are referred to military courts the fact is that dozens of political activists have been dragged before military tribunals. On Sunday, Major General Adel El-Mursi, head of the Military Judicial Department, vehemently denied that Alaa was being persecuted because of vocal opposition to the SCAF. Alaa was being referred to a military court, said El-Mursi, because soldiers were involved in the incident. El-Mursi also announced that Alaa was one of several "civilian and military" suspects currently being questioned by the Military Prosecutor's office about their alleged role in the Maspero clashes. This was the first time the military has indicated that members of the armed forces may face trial for their role in the clashes. No further details have been provided and under military regulations, even if soldiers are convicted, information will be withheld from the public.

The charge of stealing a machine gun from a soldier seems among the most bizarre to be levelled against Alaa. Initially, the military prosecutor's office claimed there were eyewitnesses, including a journalist on the daily Al-Wafd, who had corroborated the theft. Alaa's family -- he is the son of leading human rights activists Ahmed Seif and Leila Sweif, the nephew of Booker Prize short-listed novelist Ahdaf Sweif, a vocal defender of the 25 January Revolution and staunch advocate of democracy in Egypt, and the brother of Mona Seif, founder of the "No to Military Trials" pressure group -- questioned the evidence. Where was this machine gun Alaa is accused of stealing? The question was no sooner asked than the military prosecution office provided an answer. At the bottom of the Nile. A witness, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, had apparently come forward on Monday to report that he saw Alaa throw the weapon in the river.

Manal, Alaa's wife, appeared alongside Ahdaf Sweif in a television interview on Monday and made an emotional appeal for the release of her husband. The young couple together started one of the most popular blogs, criticising the Mubarak regime when to do so was a red line few dared cross. As a result Alaa was jailed and tortured. In the interview, Manal said she was shocked to see such things being repeated after Mubarak's removal and under a regime that claims that it intervened in support of the goals of the 25 January Revolution for which Alaa had fought, and for which many of his colleagues had died.

"Alaa has been my life partner and the companion in all aspects of my life," said Manal. "In each decision and discussion Alaa has been next to me. That is why it is difficult not to find him next to me when our son is being born. It is even more difficult to understand how he could be held in one of Mubarak's prisons, even after Mubarak was removed."

Six activists have joined Alaa's mother on her hunger strike. Leila Sweif condemned the decision to extend Alaa's detention. When the first order for his arrest was issued, she points out, Alaa was in the United States. "Nevertheless, he returned. There could be no clearer indication that he has no intention of running away. There is absolutely no reason he should be imprisoned."

Alaa, she says, is more than willing to refute the charges levelled against him in a civil court."

There have been demonstrations in support of Alaa on an almost daily basis in Cairo and Alexandria. The case has also attracted the attention of activists abroad. The spotlight will only grow stronger should he be referred to military trial.

A second activist, member of the National Association for Change Ahmed Darag, has revealed that he was summoned by the military prosecutor's office in the same Maspero case but refused on the grounds that civilians cannot be tried by the military.

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