Jan 25, 5 years on: The only words I can write are about losing my words

Five years ago on what would turn out to be the last normal day of my life I sat down at my desk in a small IT firm in Pretoria and pretended to be working while I was actually writing a short article for the Guardian. It was about why the Egyptian revolution should be taken seriously. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I can’t get back to that article now; it’s been more than a year since I had access to the internet. In Egypt, prisoners aren’t even allowed a phone call. But I shouldn’t complain: at least I get to see my family two or three times a month. Other political prisoners (mostly Islamists) are not allowed visits at all.

On that day, five years ago, I first engaged in the battle over the narrative of the revolution, a battle that would consume me completely for four years. But on that day I wasn’t even sure a revolution was happening in Egypt — I feared it would fizzle out even as I wrote about a new form of youthful pan-Arabism.

It would take me another day to fully accept that it was for real and three more before I could fly back to Cairo and join Tahrir. I moved from doubting the depth of the uprising to worrying about arriving too late and missing out on all the action.

After the fall of Mubarak, the battle over narrative grew in importance. The state was forced to compromise with the revolution while trying to contain it by appropriating its story. We articulated why we continued to protest and indeed why we ever protested at all. Are the kids who threw stones at the police revolutionaries or saboteurs? Should the prisoners who died in prison riots be counted among the martyrs of the revolution or not? What’s the role of the military in the Mubarak regime? Should education continue to be free in public universities? Do we need a new constitution? If so, who should write it? And so on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mostly in Arabic, mostly on social media but sometimes for a national daily. I was mostly talking to fellow revolutionaries and my voice became increasingly cautionary: how fragile the revolutionary moment was and how precarious our situation was were my main themes. And yet I couldn’t shake off the sheer sense of hope and possibility — despite setbacks, our dreams continued to soar.

People talk of a barrier of fear but to me it always felt like a barrier of despair and, once removed, even fear, massacres and prisons couldn’t bring it back. I did all the silly things over-optimistic revolutionaries do: I moved back to Egypt permanently, had a child, founded a startup, engaged in a series of progressive initiatives aiming at more popular, decentralized and participatory democracy, broke every draconian law and outdated taboo, walked into prison smiling and walked out of it triumphant.

In 2013, we started to lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarization between a rabidly militarized pseudo-secular statism and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism. All I remember about 2013 is how shrill I sounded screaming “A plague on both your houses,” how whiny and melodramatic it felt to complain about the curse of Cassandra warning of an all-consuming fire when no one would listen. As the streets were taken over by rallies that raised the photos of policemen instead of their victims, sit-ins were filled with chants against the Shia, and Coptic conspiracies flourished, my words lost any power and yet they continued to pour out of me. I still had a voice, even if only a handful would listen.

But then the state decided to end the conflict by committing the first crime against humanity in the history of the republic. The barriers of fear and despair would return after the Rabea al-Adaweya massacre. Another battle of narrative would start: getting non-Islamists to accept that a massacre had happened at all, to reject the violence committed in their name.

Three months after the massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role: to call on revolutionaries to admit defeat. To give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change. What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights.

I narrated defeat because the very language of revolution was lost to us, replaced by a dangerous cocktail of nationalist, nativist, collectivist and post-colonialist language, appropriated by both sides of the conflict and used to spin convoluted conspiracy theories and spread paranoia.

In early 2014, it was still controversial to ask revolutionaries to engage in a human rights campaign limited to revoking the protest law and the release of political prisoners. Most still believed the revolution was winning (defining winning as either the demise or the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood). The idea that the state of emergency was the new normal was rejected by most.

Today it seems like we won that final battle for narrative. While the state still has its supporters, their numbers are shrinking rapidly, especially among the youth. Most people are no longer debating the nature of the events of summer 2013. The coup versus revolution debate is passé. Even Sisi supporters don’t really believe that prosperity is coming soon. It’s harder to gauge the sentiment among supporters of the Islamists: sympathy with their plight is certainly increasing, but faith in their ability to organize an effective unified front against the regime is probably scant. Despair prevails.

I spent most of 2014 in prison yet I still had lots of words. My audience was much diminished, my message not one of hope, and yet it felt important to remind people that even after admitting defeat we can still resist; that going back to the margins we fought from during Mubarak’s time was acceptable as long as we continued to fight for basic human rights. But by early 2015, as I heard my sentence, I had nothing left to say to any public. I could only write personal letters. The revolution and, indeed Egypt itself, would slowly fade out even from those letters, and by fall 2015, even my personal words dried up. It’s been months since I wrote a letter and more than a year since I’ve written an article. I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights, nothing, absolutely nothing. Like a child showing signs of autism, I am regressing and losing my words, my ability to imagine an audience and mentally model the impact of my words on them.

I try to remember what I wrote for the Guardian five years ago on the last normal day of my life. I try to imagine who read that article and what impact it had on them, I try to remember what it was like when tomorrow seemed so full of possibility and my words seemed to have the power to influence (if only slightly) what that tomorrow would look like.

I can’t really remember that. Now tomorrow will be exactly like today and yesterday and all the days preceding and all the days following. I have no influence over anything.

But one thing I do remember, one thing I know, is that the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Alaa Abd El Fattah

This article has been published in coordination with the Guardian.