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Alaa Abd El Fattah

Social media was one of the driving forces behind the 2011 revolution in Egypt, yet today, Alaa Abd El Fattah, blogger, software designer, and an icon of Egypt's digital revolution, is behind bars.

In an interview with Democracy Now in March 2014, Alaa Abd El Fattah said:

If what you're trying to do is to achieve a life of dignity and safety and prosperity for yourself and for your loved ones, then you have no choice [but to carry on the struggle].

From the early 2000s, Abd El Fattah has been at the cutting edge of digital technology, developing platforms and programs to enable Egyptians greater access to the Internet, and facilitating networks of Middle East technologists. He and his wife, Manal Hassan, have been commended for their groundbreaking websites providing what the Electronic Frontiers Foundation describes as an archive of dissent in the face of repression. Their site, Manal and Alaa's Bit Bucket manalaa.net, provided free storage and advice to bloggers. In 2005 it earned the Deutsch Welle/Reporters Without Borders Weblog award for being "crucial in developing a critical and engaged blogger scene in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world." Another of their sites, Omraneya, that collected blogs from across the region, is described as a 'house of alternative expression and ... the amplifier of muted voices'.

Abd El Fattah's first detention was in 2006, when he was among a number of others who were arrested when they protested for an independent judiciary. He was released after 45 days. His imprisonment sparked the Free Alaa website which today has evolved into the twitter hashtag #FreeAlaa.

Imprisonment did nothing to quash Abd El Fattah's activism. In 2011 he became one of the public faces of the democracy movement, developing on-line platforms that enabled citizens to be involved in the drafting of the Egyptian Constitution. His tweet symposiums (tweet-nadwas) brought together people at the heart of the revolution to debate issues ranging from Islamism to economic reform, filmed to illustrate "the effort and friendly spirit that exists in these conversations".

By the end of 2011, the euphoria of the revolution that had led to President Mubarak's resignation had turned sour. In October that year, Abd El Fattah was arrested for his coverage of clashes between Coptic Christian protestors and troops during which 27 people died and 100s were injured. He was released two months later.

Then, in November 2013 a law banning demonstrations was put in place. A few days later, Abd El Fattah was arrested again, and although he had not been at the protests, he was accused of being an organiser. He was bailed four months later, only to be re-detained in June 2014 when he was handed down a 15-year sentence in absentia – he and fellow defendants were not allowed into the court room. He was once again released on bail in September 2014, but ordered back into jail the next month. After trial hearings that were postponed several times and a stint in the hospital after going on hunger strike, he was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2015. He is currently being held in the notorious Tora Prison.

Abd El Fattah's family has stellar human rights credentials. His father, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, was a leading human rights lawyer who spent time in prison. His mother, Laila Soueif, a professor of mathematics, and sisters Mona and Sanaa Seif, are also dissidents and leading lights in the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations. Sanaa spent over a year in prison until her release under a political amnesty in September 2015. His grandmother, writer Fatma Moussa headed PEN International's Egypt Centre, and his aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, is a well known writer and activist. His wife, Manal, is the daughter of Bahey El-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

In recent interviews, Abd El Fattah speaks of the defeat of the 2011 revolution, and that there appears to be little hope for the future. However, this feeling of despondency, he reflects, may be temporary, and he feels that the struggle for change will continue.

Last Updated: 6 January 2016

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