EFF is deeply saddened and angered by the news that our friend, Egyptian blogger, coder, and free speech activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, long a target of oppression by Egypt’s successive authoritarian regimes, was sentenced to five years in prison by an emergency state security court just before the holidays.
According to media reports and social media posts of family members, Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed el-Baqer, and blogger Mohamed ‘Oxygen’ Ibrahim were convicted on December 20 of “spreading false news undermining national security” by the court, which has extraordinary powers under Egypt’s state of emergency. El-Baqer and Ibrahim received four-year sentences.
A trial on the charges held in November was a travesty, with defense lawyers denied access to case files or a chance to present arguments. At least 48 human rights defenders, activists, and opposition politicians in pre-trial detention for months and years were referred to the emergency courts for trial just before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi lifted the state of emergency in October, Human Rights Watch reported.
The profoundly unjust conviction and years-long targeting of Fattah and other civil and human rights activists is a testament to the lengths the Egyptian government will go to attack and shut down, through harassment, physical violence, arrest, and imprisonment, those speaking out for free speech and expression and sharing information. In the years since the revolution, journalists, bloggers, activists and peaceful protestors have been arrested and charged under draconian press regulations and anti-cybercrime laws being used to suppress dissent and silence those criticizing the government.
A free speech advocate and software developer, Fattah, who turned 40 on November 18, has repeatedly been targeted and jailed for working to ensure Egyptians and others in the Middle East and North Africa have a voice, and privacy, online. He has been detained under every Egyptian head of state in his lifetime, and has spent the last two years at a maximum-security prison in Tora, 12 miles south of Cairo, since his arrest in 2019.
It’s clear that Egypt has used the emergency courts as another tool of oppression to punish Fattah and other activists and government critics. We condemn the government’s actions and call for Fattah’s conviction to be set aside and his immediate release. We stand in solidarity with #SaveAlaa, and Fattah’s family and network of supporters. Fattah has never stopped fighting for free speech, and the idea that through struggle and debate, change is possible. In his own words (from a collection of Fattah’s prison writings, interviews, and articles, entitled “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,” order here or here):
“I’m in prison because the regime wants to make an example of us. So let us be an example, but of our own choosing. The war on meaning is not yet over in the rest of the world. Let us be an example, not a warning. Let’s communicate with the world again, not to send distress signals nor to cry over ruins or spilled milk, but to draw lessons, summarize experiences, and deepen observations, may it help those struggling in the post-truth era.
“…every step of debate and struggle in society is a chance. A chance to understand, a chance to network, a chance to dream, a chance to plan. Even if things appear simple and indisputable, and we aligned – early on – with one side of a struggle, or abstained early from it altogether, seizing such opportunities to pursue and produce meaning re- mains a necessity. Without it we will never get past defeat. “
Fattah’s lawyer said in September that Fattah was contemplating suicide because of the conditions under which he is being held. He has been denied due process, with the court refusing to give his lawyers access to case files or evidence against him, and jailed without access to books or newspapers, exercise time or time out of the cell and—since COVID-19 restrictions came in to play—with only one visit, for twenty minutes, once a month.
Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor and Fattah’s mother, wrote in a New York Times op-ed just days before his sentencing that her son’s crime “is that, like millions of young people in Egypt and far beyond, he believed another world was possible. And he dared to try to make it happen.” He is charged with spreading false news, she said, “for retweeting a tweet about a prisoner who died after being tortured, in the same prison where Alaa is now held.”
Fattah himself addressed the court at trial: “The truth is, in order for me to understand this, I must understand why I am standing here,” he said, according to an English translation of a Facebook post of his statement. “My mind does not accept that I am standing here for the sake of sharing.”
We urge everyone to order Fattah’s book and send a message to the Egyptian government and all authoritarian regimes that his fight for human rights, and our support for this courageous activist, will never be defeated.