Lost in the torrent of articles and commentary on the popular uprising in Egypt was the replay on al-Jazeera English broadcast about an Egyptian human rights activist's release from prison in 2006. While the story may seem old, the case of Alaa Abd El-Fattah is the story of a revolution, from genesis to fruition. The revolution is not yet over and it's unclear what the outcome will be, but the story of Alaa goes a long way towards explaining how Egypt got to where it is now and how to address one of the most fundamental steps the new transitional government must take if there's to be any kind of transition to democracy.
Alaa was 26 when he was arrested on May 7, 2006 with 10 other activists at a demonstration in favor of an independent judiciary, meaning independent courts and judges who rule based on evidence and written laws rather than political or personal whims. Such an act should not be seen as a major threat to public order or state security -- and Alaa is hardly what you would call an extremist or a radical -- yet he and the others were arrested under Egypt's strict "emergency laws," which give the state enormous powers to restrict freedom of speech, freedom to assemble and other basic features of daily civic life.
Egypt's emergency laws have been in place for 30 years and are used to harass, hamstring and oppress any who would question the state, and not much to do with actual security. The laws have been used to stymie Islamists seeking an Islamic state, but also factory workers agitating for labor protections, Arab nationalists supporting greater solidarity with other Arab states, timid opposition parties participating in elections and activists seeking basic human rights. They are catch-all laws that allow the state nearly unlimited and unchecked power while restricting the citizen's right to engage in any kind of meaningful political activity.
At the time of his arrest, Alaa was already a self-described "micro-celebrity" among Arab youth at a critical stage of the political revolution convulsing Egypt today: the rise of twenty-something bloggers in the Arab world. Arab bloggers started appearing in recognizable numbers around 2004. The writing of the best blogs was sharp, critical, alive and intimate, a far cry from the staid formal Arabic and shouting heads of major Arab or Western media. These young Arab bloggers pushed the envelop on social and political criticism.
A few of these bloggers went beyond criticism and started working to organize demonstrations. They tapped into an already-existing undercurrent of opposition that they have now helped catalyze into a more organized and politicized movement for change. As Alaa himself recently wrote:
"The Arab world has not been as stagnant nor as apathetic as is widely claimed. This week's events in Egypt, while unusual in their scale, are the continuation of a movement that can be traced back through my whole lifetime: from anti- Gulf war protests in the early 90s to protests against IMF structural adjustments in the late 90s, to second Intifada solidarity in 2001, massive anti-war protests in 2003, the pro-democracy Kefaya movement of 2004-2006, the struggle for a minimum wage in 2008-2009 and the anti-torture protests of 2010. The organizers and leaders have been active and involved for at least five to 10 years now."
While demonstrations against American policies -- such as uncritical support for Israel and the invasion of Iraq -- get lots of negative Western press, for Arab bloggers and activists like Alaa, those protests are part of a continuum of human rights activism. The demonstrators demanding dignity and rights for Arab citizens under attack or occupation are the same demonstrators fighting for workers' rights, against torture, for rule of law and the right to freedom of expression. And they fought nonviolently for this small political space, with brutal riot police, criminals-for-hire and the petty bureaucrats who then block activists' employment, housing and other opportunities because of their political activism.
The protesters in Egypt have succeeded in removing Mubarak, but the country is still ruled by the same military that has governed since 1952 and that supported Mubarak until a few weeks ago. What is needed for a democratic transition in Egypt is for the emergency laws to go. It will only be through their repeal that civic life, the rule of law and basic human rights will be respected and can be exercised. It's also the most basic of steps that Arab human rights activists throughout the region, where many other countries still govern through 'emergency laws,' have consistently called for. It's the first step in a true process of political reform.
A few Egyptians, such as Alaa, refused to be intimidated and silenced by the regime and with new social media they were able to stay a step ahead of the state. But now, more important than the question of who is in power in Egypt is what kind of protections are in place to ensure these basic rights, as it is only the ability to exercise these human rights during this critical period of transition that real democracy and lasting security can be achieved. Repealing the emergency laws is the most basic step the new government must take and can go a long way towards allowing an actual process of reform and bring the stability and security that all in the region crave.