When he is on trial, he appears in the courtroom inside a cage. He told me through the bars that he’s going to die in prison. Earlier this year, two men, a journalist named Mohamed Ibrahim and known by his pen name Mohamed Oxygen, and the blogger Abdel Rahman Tarek, known as Moka, tried to take their own lives after spending years being held without charge in what is known as “pretrial detention.” These are just two among countless examples.
Alaa has endured two years of this slow torture, and there is no end in sight.
For most of this time, he has also been held without charge, in pretrial detention. But there has been some international pressure to end the use of these indefinite detentions, so in October he was referred to trial, in a new case, to be heard in an Emergency State Security Court. He is charged, along with Mohamed Oxygen and Mohamed al-Baqer, a human rights lawyer who was arrested while representing Alaa, with spreading false news. The judge refused to let the defense lawyers have a copy of the case file so they could not mount a defense. But we understand Alaa is on trial for retweeting a tweet about a prisoner who died after being tortured, in the same prison where Alaa is now held. Alaa and his co-defendants will be sentenced on Monday. The sentence cannot be appealed.
The pressure that the United States and Europe claim to exert on the Egyptian government to clean up its human rights act is meant only to placate certain portions of their constituents. The Egyptian authorities respond accordingly. They understand that “clean up your human rights act” actually means “we support you, but please try not to embarrass us.” So Egypt recently issued a very self-congratulatory National Human Rights Strategy. Two months later, after a meeting between the U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Sameh Shoukry, his Egyptian counterpart, the United States released a statement saying that it “welcomed the strategy” and plans to “continue the dialogue on human rights.”
Those who truly care about human rights shouldn’t be fooled by written strategies but look for actual deeds: To start, by releasing the generation being slowly murdered in prison for thinking freely and expressing themselves.
Alaa’s words in the essay I quoted above are addressed, in part, to the “Northern allies who chanted, ‘Not in our name!’ as the bombs fell on Bagdad.” People often ask me how they, living in America or Britain or the other countries of the global North, can help. I tell them to scrutinize the foreign policies of their governments as vigorously as they scrutinize domestic policies. Alaa’s answer, always, is this: Fix your own democracy. Safeguard it. There’s no better way to help.