He Was Detained. That Didn’t Stop Them From Kidnapping Him

Yasmine el Rashidi, New York Times

CAIRO — My last text exchange with the Egyptian activist and software programmer Alaa Abd El Fattah was Saturday morning, less than 24 hours before he was kidnapped by government security agents. We shared messages about our personal relationships and made a plan to spend Monday together. I imagined that he would come over for breakfast; then we might go to the pool at our local sports club. It was there that we had last spent the afternoon together a couple of weeks ago, along with his son and my goddaughter.

That day, over an extended breakfast that began on my terrace, we had discussed the writers Olga Tokarczuk and W.G. Sebald (shared favorites); the animal he most likes, the narwhal; and the writing projects we were each working on. Later in the pool, he had challenged the children to back-flips and underwater races.

Alaa was six months out of prison then, having completed a five-year sentence on charges of protesting in defiance of an anti-protest law. Yet he wasn’t fully free. Subjected to daily probation for the next five years, Alaa had to check in to his local police station each evening at 6 p.m. and stay overnight until 6 a.m. There, during the hours he was awake, he mostly wrote, longhand, and read fiction. As dawn approached, he would pack up his bedding and the gear he took to make his police-station cubicle habitable and head home to shower before trying to make the most of his 12-hour day. It was just before his dawn began on Sunday that state security agents took him away on the sly from his police cell — essentially, kidnapped him — and transferred him to a maximum-security prison. His mother, the university professor and rights defender Laila Soueif, had come to the station to pick him up and was told he had already left. When she saw that the street was in lockdown, she knew something was up.

Alaa has been arrested under four governments, which makes his new detention as unsurprising as it is hard to believe. The government seems to view him as something of a galvanizing figure and appears to fear his possible influence on what looks, just now, like a burgeoning opposition. Over the past few weeks, Mohammed Ali, an Egyptian building contractor who took jobs from the armed forces for 15 years, has posted numerous videos from exile in Spain detailing the excesses of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s spending on personal homes, palaces and projects of little apparent benefit to the country. The videos, in which Mr. Ali chain-smokes, speaks in local ghetto-slang and juxtaposes details of government spending with Mr. el-Sisi’s reminder to Egyptians that “we are poor,” hit a chord. With millions of viewings, the videos spurred small, spontaneous protests on Sept. 20 and again last Friday, leading to the security crackdown that Alaa was swept up in. Nearly 2,200 people have been arrested since those first protests, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, and vast numbers of police and special forces have been sent out to patrol the streets.

This is a major crackdown even by Egypt’s standards. And it suggests that the authorities — like some of us — see this rare and sudden outburst of dissent as a sign that Egyptians may be getting ready to openly re-engage in politics and clamor for change and greater justice again.

Alaa’s probation was illegal in the first place. Under the relevant law (Law 99 of 1945), such probation, or parole, is supposed to be handed out to convicted criminals who have served their sentences, on the theory that they may be a continued threat to society. But its more recent application to prisoners of conscience, following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, violates that framework and has been implemented haphazardly. The person on probation has the right to spend their probation period at home, except in the case of vagrants or if the place of residence is unsuitable, and it is stipulated to span “sunset to sunrise.” The probation should not interfere with a healthy personal or working life, or with generating an income.

Before he was taken on Sunday, Alaa had challenged his probation and its terms. Those cases, filed by the human rights lawyer — and one-time presidential candidate — Khaled Ali, hoped to change Alaa’s particular circumstances: Among the requests was that Alaa be allowed to have a phone and laptop in his cell so that he could work and have an income as a programmer. But the filings were also aimed at calling attention to the unsystematic implementation of the law. In late July, Amnesty International estimated that 400 people in Egypt were are on half-day probation.

Alaa was the second political prisoner to disappear from probation recently. While attending his interrogation by state security agents on Sunday night, his lawyer, Mohamed El Baqir, was also arrested. They are both being held in the maximum-security prison Tora 2 on pretrial remand for 15 days. Alaa’s sister has told me that he and his lawyer are facing charges of joining an illegal organization (unidentified), committing a crime connected to this organization’s foreign funding, spreading false news that endangers national security and using social media to spread such news. (The researcher Hamed Sedik, who is unknown to Alaa’s family, has been charged as part of the same case.)

Alaa had slowly been trying to rebuild his life, despite the constraints of probation. He was catching up with everything he had missed out on during his five years in prison, like advances in technology and changes in the city. He was trying to process his experiences of detention through writing. He was trying to generate an income despite not being able to take on a regular job. Most significant, Alaa was spending as much time as he could with his seven-year-old son and the rest of his family. Anyone who knows him knows that the latest charges against him are manufactured — and the state knows so, too. He was no doubt being constantly monitored during his 12 hours of daily freedom and was a threat to no one, least of all the government.

At our meeting on Monday, I was to lend him Nicole Krauss’s “Forest Dark,” and he had promised to bring Sebald’s “Austerlitz.” I had chewable pencil toppers for his son and a note from my goddaughter telling him he was due for a quiz in her imaginary school. I know Alaa would have written her back; he’s that kind of guy.