A profile of the activist outside his prison

My generation came of age at the time of the second intifada. Our first real steps in the world coincided with bombs falling on Baghdad. All around us, fellow Arabs were shouting, “Not at the expense of our dignity!” and allies in the north were chanting, “Not in our name!” while comrades in the south were singing, “Another world is possible.” We understood that the world as we had inherited it was coming to an end, and we also understood that we were not alone.

We strove to understand more — company brochures, international NGO statements and the declarations of officials were not enough. So we read all that was available to us, contributed to translating some of it, discussed it and argued about it. Then we set off in every direction — to commercial as well as civil society projects, initiatives in any space we found that was relatively free. Our projects were intellectual, economic, developmental and philanthropic. We criticized authorities, chanted against rulers, and, when possible, we cooperated with institutions such as trade unions, universities and sometimes even ministries. We sought links with those who came before us; we learned from them and taught them. On the whole we respected their experiences but refused to inherit them.

We understood the importance of information technology in shaping the new world, but were also aware of our exposure to global monopolies, so we adopted free and open-source software as a necessity for societal development and autonomy, and as a key tool for understanding the economy and its dependencies. We began by spreading the word — we toured universities, and as students lectured our professors. We organized conferences and training workshops and targeted everyone, from middle school IT teachers and engineering students to judges and journalists. We drew connections between intellectual property in the field of software programing and implications for the pharmaceutical industry, and found ourselves involved in social issues such as the right to health. And when we linked criticism of corporate monopolies to that of neoliberal globalization, we found ourselves at an intersection along with a broad spectrum of activists around the world.

Software localization became our priority. We worked on the arabization of terminology, translated user interfaces, taught computers the Arabic rules for numbers, spelling and grammatical conjugation. We designed fonts, developed software and built websites. Our interest in localization and syntax intensified our interest in Arabic language and culture. We connected bloggers across the Arab world, and encouraged artists, writers, researchers and translators to share access to their creative outputs and collections. Through our work to support Arabic online content, it wasn’t long before we were confronted by the constrictions of censorship. This is how we joined the ranks of civil rights defenders, taking a stand for freedom of thought, belief and expression, for a free press and for academic freedoms.

As we built online networks and political movements we also set up businesses that offered solutions, services and consultancy for local markets. We backed innovative projects and persuaded investors to fund them and institutions to support them. We established IT labs and clubs in Cairo’s informal districts and in the villages of Upper Egypt. We built wireless networks to extend internet services to rural areas. Then we were invited to share these experiences in sub-Saharan Africa, and so we became part of networks that worked to establish online connectivity and local language support as key economic, cultural and social rights.

When the world noticed us and our story started to interest journalists and to become material for research centers, we insisted on our own narratives rather than those being imposed on us. We deconstructed existing narratives and revealed their connections to interests and biases that were not ours, and so were invited to speak at conferences in cities in the south and north.

We engaged with the reality of our situation and tried to change and influence it, to preempt it and contribute to its formation. We were of course one of the weaker parties present, but we were present. At every step we clashed with security restrictions, bureaucratic obstacles, rigid institutions and power imbalances. Our ambitions were limited and we wasted energy on absurdities.

This journey was shared by our peers in many other fields. After a decade of anger and dreams, of working and learning, of attempts to reform and to adapt to an existence on the margins, of experimenting and demanding and opposing, we all arrived at the same belief: that the whole world was in crisis and on its way to change, and that unless we were able to engage with its current challenges, our societies would be crushed. This led to an inevitable conclusion: the ruling regime and its institutions were a major obstacle to the possibility of societal renewal. This is why we were not surprised by the revolution — we had wished for it. Nor were we surprised when it inspired protest movements in Europe and the US, just as we were inspired by protests in Seattle and Genoa? Did we not protest together against the war on Iraq? Was not our work for change and reform linked to open debates, shared struggles and virtual communities that brought together people from every continent?

But then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us. And since our defeat, whenever a complex issue has been raised, it has been immediately trivialized, so that understanding it has become difficult and action virtually impossible. The energy crisis is caused by “a corrupt government employee messing with the grid,” “Gaza is to blame.” The dollar crisis was “because a nephew of a 1950’s defense minister was appointed to the Central Bank,” or because of “Muslim Brotherhood-owned currency exchange companies.”

The authorities made up their minds: meaning is dangerous, defending it is a crime and its advocates are the enemy. Communicating with the world in order to understand and affect it, criticizing the status quo, warning against impending crises, engaging in individual or collective action to impact markets or institutions — these are nothing but harbingers of “fourth generation warfare.”

It was over. We were defeated and meaning was defeated with us. But just as in every step we affected and were affected by the world, our defeat was a symptom and cause of a wider war on meaning. This is a war that criminalizes the quest for a public sphere that crosses borders, a sphere in which people can communicate, exchange ideas, disagree and debate in ways that allow for a common understanding of reality and for a multiplicity of dreams for a better world.

I am in prison because those in power want to make an example of some of us. Let us be an example then, but on our own terms. The war on meaning in the rest of the world is not over yet. Let us be an example, not a cautionary tale. Let’s communicate with the world again, not to appeal for help or to weep over ruins or spilled milk, but to draw lessons, sum up experiences, and fine-tune observations, hoping to be of use to those still fighting for meaning in this post-truth era.

Personally, I’ve come out of a decade of anger with a few simple lessons. I’ve realized that every step on the path of struggle or debate within society is an opportunity for understanding, connecting, dreaming and planning. Even when things seem simple or decided, even when we’re clear about which side of an argument we’re on, or about the need to abandon a particular argument altogether, seizing opportunities to pursue and produce meaning remains a necessity; without it we will never get beyond defeat. I have learned that ruling regimes are mere obstacles. The real challenges are international in nature, which is why debate is so important.

Finally, siding with power is generally unproductive. The powerful need nothing from you but to parrot their propaganda. The powerless, on the other hand, often cause as much trouble as they suffer. Their arguments and discourses are often as brittle as their positions in society and their diminishing chances of safety and survival. Taking their side, therefore, even as an experiment, is a catalyst for deeper reflection, deeper investigation, deeper analysis and imagination.

Once we were present, then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us. But we have not perished yet, and meaning too lives on. Perhaps our defeat was inevitable, but the chaos that is sweeping the world will sooner or later give birth to a new world, a world that will — of course — be run by the victors. But nothing will constrain the strong, nor shape the margins of freedom and justice, nor define spaces of beauty and possibilities for a common life except the weak, who insist that meaning should prevail — even after defeat.

Alaa Abd El Fattah

Translated by Nariman Youssef