Prominent Egyptian Activist, Seen As Threat By Past 3 Regimes, Heads To Jail Once Again

11/29/2013 11:02 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images

CAIRO -- Political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah is no stranger to Egypt’s often shady legal system.

Seen as a direct threat to the past three regimes, he was a political prisoner under President Hosni Mubarak, then detained for two months under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which charged him with assaulting soldiers after armored personnel carriers rolled over protesters. Controversial Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s government issued an arrest warrant for him, accusing him of insulting the president and Islam. And now, the current interim government accuses Alaa of thuggery, inciting protests, and resisting a new protest law that bans demonstrations not pre-approved by the government.

Late Thursday night in Cairo, as many Americans were at home preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, security forces invaded Alaa’s home and arrested him. Though the interim government is still widely supported, Alaa’s arrest has been met with condemnation among activists, human rights groups, and a now growing opposition from secular groups and Islamists alike. A familiar hashtag appeared Thursday night on Twitter: #FreeAlaa.

According to his wife, Mahal Hassan, who took to Twitter Friday night to voice her concern and outrage, police broke into their home, beat them, arrested Alaa, and took their laptops and cell phones. She uploaded a photo of their bloodstained bedroom floor, where Alaa was reportedly beaten. "If police already beaten me in our house, what are they going to do to @alaa," she tweeted. "I fear for his safety."

Alaa hails from a family of activists. His father was imprisoned for five years under Mubarak, and his mother was attacked during a protest by Mubarak supporters. His sister, Mona Seif, a graduate student studying cancer biology, was one of the founders of the group "No to Military Trials for Civilians." She was arrested and reportedly released in the desert earlier this week after security forces violently dispersed a demonstration against the new anti-protest law. And Alaa’s wife, an activist herself, helped Alaa create the blog manalaa.net as an Internet platform for political activism.

On Nov. 2, 2011, when Alaa was imprisoned under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a letter he wrote from his jail cell was widely published.

"I never expected to repeat the experience of five years ago: after a revolution that deposed the tyrant, I go back to his jails?" Alaa's letter began. He spoke of memories of his last time in prison -- memories of sleeping on jail floors, prison songs, stories from other inmates about torture and lives destroyed.

"From their stories I discover the truth of the great achievements of the 'return of security' to our streets," he continued, sarcastically. "Two of my cellmates are first-timers, ordinary young men without an atom of violence in them. And their crime? Armed gangster formations. Yes; Abu Malek alone is an armed gangster formation of one. Now I know what the ministry of the interior means when it regales us every day with news of the discovery and arrest of armed gangsters. We can congratulate ourselves on the return of security."

Alaa is not alone in his opposition to the interim government, which says it is maintaining and fostering security in Egypt.

Twenty-one young women who were arrested in October during a protest against Morsi’s ouster were sentenced Wednesday. Fourteen of them will spend 11 years in prison. The other seven, who are all minors, were sentenced to a juvenile detention facility until they are legally adults, when they will likely be sent to an adult prison.

On Thursday, two dozen detainees who were arrested during protests earlier in the week say they've been subjected to torture and began a hunger strike. Meanwhile, three former state security officers accused of torturing Islamist militants with electricity under Mubarak’s regime were acquitted on Thursday.

And at an Islamist protest Thursday at Cairo University’s campus, a 19-year-old engineering student was shot and killed during clashes with police, who used teargas, birdshot and water cannons to quell the protest. University campuses across Egypt have seen an upsurge in both peaceful and violent protests in recent months. Last week, a Cairo court sentenced 38 Al-Azhar University students to a year and a half in prison for their participation in riots. Earlier in the month, 12 students were sentenced to 17 years for their involvement in protests and storming the dean’s headquarters.

Though some Egyptians applaud the government’s arrest of protesters and Islamists, for many Egyptians, Alaa’s letter rings true today, two years after it was written. Protesters have demanded a reformed security sector, an accountable government, and an end to unfounded arrests and torture. As of yet, these demands have not been met.

"I swear by God if this revolution doesn't do something radical about injustice," Alaa’s letter ends, "It will sink without a trace."

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