The Good Fight

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated
By Alaa Abd El-Fattah
441 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. £13.

Living in the affluent West, it’s easy to take the most basic of human rights for granted. The right to protest, say, the right to freely express yourself, the right to elect your own leaders. By taking these things as a given, for having the luxury to not even think about them, we often fail to realize when these rights come under threat.

I imagine it’d be different if you’d emigrated from a place like Egypt, where such rights are anything but the norm. For the Egyptian, Belarusian, or Syrian émigré, an assault on these rights in a place like the US or the UK is likely to raise eyebrows that may remain prone over eyes that have seen less and known such violations only from unsteady images on an iPhone.

Most problematic of all, those of us who are aware, who take the time to read the riveting accounts of individuals like Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, are left frozen with fear — shocked not into action when rights like free and fair elections are called into question, but into something closer to inaction.

It may be a symptom of these dark times, or perhaps just the consumption of too many news stories, but what amazes me isn’t that the countries of the Arab Spring have nearly all, one after another, fallen once more into states of inequity equal to if not worse than that experienced in decades prior to the revolution that shook Tahrir Square, but that individuals in these places have continued to stand up to protest what, in hindsight, seems to have been democracy’s inevitable descent in these countries. Were these individuals brave, or simply foolish?

In choosing to fight against forces that often had the backing of a majority of the people — which the Egyptian military in the early days under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi touted as justification for massacres against the country’s Islamists and a corrupt Muslim Brotherhood regime under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi — weren’t men like Alaa really just sealing their fates, giving up time that could have been spent with their families for years behind bars and brutal beatings at the hands of prison guards?

When reading “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,” Alaa’s breathtaking account of his struggle against three successive authoritarian regimes in Egypt, it’s hard not to feel like the author isn’t asking himself these same questions.

Citizens of authoritarian countries don’t have the luxury of complacency, of letting their guard down. A world where words are policed and the smallest of actions can lead to an interminable prison sentence invites a fight or flight response.

Do you stay and fight, when doing so is the harder thing, doomed to almost certain failure? Or do you pick up and get out while you can? What would any of us do in the same position?

Those are the thoughts I was left with after finishing this extraordinary collection of essays, most of which Alaa wrote while in prison and smuggled out using ingenious methods worthy of the Marquis de Sade, though the only sadists in this story are Alaa’s jailers and the corrupt Egyptian state.

While these essays all have a revolutionary theme, the topics range from Uber and the IT world to prisoners’ rights and Palestine. They’re all brilliant, of the very highest quality, and I’m most grateful to Fitzcarraldo Editions for publishing this and sharing Alaa’s story.

A just world would be one in which men like Alaa are celebrated, not jailed, where Western society didn’t hail banal superhero franchises and vapid celebrities but real-life heroes.

A world where children and adults don’t speak about the Kardashians, but about activists like Alaa? I’ve clearly been reading too much fantasy.

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