Back in 2011, the world watched in awe as Egyptians took to the streets to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a physical focal point for these protests but, as the movement harnessed social media’s then nascent power to bring people together, a virtual square developed where a great deal of the mobilization happened.
The role of the digital space in the Arab Spring would eventually become the subject of multiple analyses and was even embraced by technology platforms like Facebook and Google as proof that they were moral agents. Indeed, many of the young people who were critical to the movement were employees of the world’s largest tech companies, leveraging their passion to amplify the cause.
One of these individuals was Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a blogger and a technologist whose story is a lesson for those of us who celebrate the Arab Spring and other revolutionary movements. El-Fattah comes from a long line of activists – both his mother and father have a history of resisting Egypt’s authoritarian regime. His sisters Mona and Sanaa have also been arrested for their activism. Alongside his wife Manal, an activist in her own right, el-Fattah built one of the first Egyptian blog aggregators. These sites were proto-social media platforms, showing the power of curation and bringing together different types of content in one place. Perhaps it is the combination of this ability to organize disparate voices online and offline that has made el-Fattah such a prime target for reprisal from successive Egyptian governments.
El-Fattah was first arrested in 2006 at a protest demanding an independent judiciary. He was released after 45 days and went on to be active and visible in the 2011 protests against the military regime. He would be detained again in October that year before being sentenced to a punitive five-year house arrest that involved returning to the police station every day at 6.00 pm. In September 2019 he was sent to prison, where he remains today, facing charges of spreading ‘false news undermining state security’. As of May 2022, el-Fattah has been on hunger strike for nearly two months in protest at his torture and inhumane conditions.
His case is not unprecedented in Egypt, although it is certainly one of the higher profile instances of backlash against the leadership of the Arab Spring. The military government has deliberately made an example of democracy activists while Western governments continue to finance, and even sell surveillance technology to, the regime. El-Fattah’s family has been campaigning ceaselessly for his release, but not only has the Egyptian government ignored their pleas, it has intensified its campaign of punishment. In May 2022 el-Fattah took up British citizenship through his mother to try and increase the pressure.
For those of us who work in technology and democracy, what has happened to el-Fattah is a reminder of our obligations to those whose stories we harness for our work. The Arab Spring was not just a theoretical event, but driven by real people who staked their lives on the promise of a better tomorrow. We owe them not only our gratitude, but also our efforts to ensure they do not languish in prison. Free Alaa and all political prisoners everywhere!