Q&A: Laila Soueif

The mother of the imprisoned Egyptian activist, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, on his book, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated

The World Today
3 minute READ

Laila Soueif

Egyptian human rights activist and Mathematics Professor, Cairo University

Roxana Raileanu

Former Interim Head of Marketing and Development, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,
Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99

Alaa Abd el-Fattah is a celebrated Egyptian software developer and activist considered a hero of the 2011 revolution. He is currently in prison, charged with spreading false news. You Are Not Yet Defeated is a collection of his writings over the past decade, some from his time in prison. It has been translated by an anonymous collective with a foreword from Naomi Klein, the ecofeminist author.  Here, his mother tells of his plight.

How is Alaa doing in prison?

Today (November 18) is Alaa’s 40th birthday, so it is a happy memory for me but it is a sad occasion for him and for all of us that he is in prison on his 40th birthday.

I got a letter from him yesterday. He was OK. He isn’t in very good shape, psychologically. He is completely fed up with the situation.

He has been in prison, now, for over two years. It is a maximum-security prison, and it is designed to break them. They don’t allow them any reading material – Alaa has not had anything to read for the past two years. 

They don’t allow them exercise so he is simply locked up in his cell all the time, except when he has a visit or a court appearance.

So, after two years, he is very angry and frustrated and annoyed and it doesn’t seem to have an end. 

In his letter yesterday, he said that he was feeling a bit flat after all these court appearances, but he was OK. I know that he is OK when he writes chatty letters, when he asks about things that are happening all over the world, what is happening in Sudan, what is happening in Libya. When that happens, I know that he is OK.

The book is a collection of Alaa’s writings over the past 10 years, including some which were smuggled out of prison. How was this book produced?

A lot of the stuff that was written in prison wasn’t exactly smuggled out. Before Covid-19, the prison visits were for an hour once a week. So, when we wanted to get out an article or an interview, each of us in the family would memorize three questions to ask him, and we would memorize his answers. As soon as we got out of the prison, we would write them down.

But some of the stuff was smuggled out, yes, obviously. I mean, we couldn’t have memorized the three long articles about Uber and the new economy. This would have been impossible. But for the production, family and friends, we put our heads together. This was a joint effort, everyone pitched in.

The message of the book keeps the 2011 revolution spirit alive. Why is the current regime still afraid of visionaries like Alaa?

I can’t answer that. I have stopped second-guessing. My impression is that the regime is a lot of cliques, different mafias. Sometimes, they are at cross purposes, and sometimes they are unified. It is all very opaque, and every mafia family has a foreign sponsor.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a message to those in other countries, not to us. We have been defeated. We haven’t stopped. Even if you are defeated, you don’t necessarily stop fighting

So, for me, it is really very difficult to try and guess the motives. All that I can do is just think what the consequences of their actions are and how to face them.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a message to those in other countries, not to us. We have been defeated. We haven’t stopped. Even if you are defeated, you don’t necessarily stop fighting.

But the message of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is to you in Europe, the US, Canada – in countries where you still have the ability to organize and to work and so on. So, that was the message. You have not yet been defeated and there is a job for you to do because you have not yet been defeated.

Egypt receives about $1.3 billion in military aid every year from the United States. Should it be doing more to pressure the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on human rights and democracy?

I would say that it is not about putting pressure, it is about lessening your support. There is a difference.

Sisi is propped up by all western governments to different degrees and these governments – the government of the US, the government of England, France, Germany, Italy –  they are accomplices.

Hold your governments accountable for their foreign policy

Hold your governments accountable for their foreign policy. Do not allow your governments to be accomplices in what is happening here, not just democracy in human rights but there is all this debt that is accumulating to be spent on unnecessary weapons because that is in the interests of the arms industry in America and in Europe.

The arms that come from America are aid, but the arms that come from Europe are debts, and the fact is that this regime would not survive without the help that it gets.

There is a very big difference between giving aid to projects that are building schools or developing hospitals or things that people need and giving aid to things that regimes need. So, the American military aid for Egypt and the accumulative debts from Europe are in the interest of the regime and the arms industry and the big power industry.

Neither are in the interests of most Egyptian people or most American people.

Your family has been fighting for democracy for a long time. How hopeful are you for the next generations?

You have to keep speaking out because there are others who cannot speak out or who are too afraid

I don’t know if I am hopeful or not. I really don’t know. I look around and – not just in Egypt – the whole world is in a very dire situation. Every single government on this planet, if you scratch the surface, you find horrors.

Egypt is in a worse state than most. You just have to continue. Right now, I am stuck with some children in jail, so I really cannot stop. I just have to keep going because I have to keep up with them and tell people about them.

My situation, my family’s situation, is one of the worst there is but we also have the privilege of being well known, of being heard, of being supported by many people, and this puts a responsibility on you. You feel responsible and that you have to keep speaking out because there are others who cannot speak out or who are too afraid.

One makes all these people in powerful positions feel uncomfortable. I always say the minimum role that we can play is that of Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s feast.

So, we are Banquo’s ghost and we will always be Banquo’s ghost. We will not allow them to feel comfortable.

What is your message to those who have been defeated and have been silenced?

Get your act together. Those who admit defeat are feeling very down now, but they need to come out of this. They need to realize that they need to start doing small stuff again.

You see, in the 80s and 90s, people who actively worked in a place like Egypt, for democracy and for human rights and for equality, were a small minority. And you kept chipping away at small things and this meant that you could go on working towards your goals however bleak your situation was.

This time there are so many more. There are far more of us than there were in the 80s and 90s, and so we can be far more effective. Do not underestimate the accumulative effect.

Nobody a year before 2011 would have imagined that we would have such a large upheaval all over the area. Nobody could have imagined this. In 2010, nobody could have imagined this.