The Hero of “The City Always Wins,” a Novel of Egypt’s Stifled Revolt, Is a Real Political Prisoner, Alaa Abd El Fattah

Omar Robert Hamilton explains how he mixed fact and fiction to describe the counterrevolution in Egypt that has ensnared his cousin, Alaa Abd El Fattah.

CAIRO, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 22:  Egyptian protesters look on from a raised structure during intense scuffles with police involving rocks, teargas, and molotov cocktails being thrown back and forth in the side streets near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on November 22, 2011. Graffiti is seen of political activist Alaa Abd El Fattah who was imprisoned the military for "inciting violence against the army" following his public criticism of the Egyptian military following the events of October 9, in which 27 people were killed in a protest by Coptic Christians.  (Photo by Ed Ou/Getty Images)
Egyptian protesters paused during a battle with police on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Nov. 22, 2011. Graffiti called for the release of activist Alaa Abd El Fattah who had been jailed by the military a mont earlier for his public criticism of an amry massacre of Coptic Christian protesters outside the state television center, Maspero. Photo: Ed Ou/Getty Images

Nearly seven years have passed since our timelines were flooded with urgent, anguished, hopeful, angry and sometimes humorous updates from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as Egyptian activists chronicled their uprising against Hosni Mubarak in minute-by-minute dispatches.

One of the most compelling voices coming from the square belonged to Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist blogger who had been jailed by Mubarak in 2006 and was working as a software developer in South Africa on Jan. 25, 2011, when the size and intensity of the protests caught even their organizers by surprise.

After spending the first few days of the revolt organizing support from abroad, @Alaa, as he is known to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, returned to Cairo just as the counterrevolution began on Feb. 2, with a cavalry charge into the square by Mubarak supporters on camels.

As his sister, Mona Seif, a leading activist in her own right, told Al Jazeera in an emotional phone call from the square that night, Abd El Fattah arrived to find himself on an active front line, defending the Tahrir sit-in with rocks against snipers firing live ammunition. During that skirmish, Abd El Fattah recalled later, the tech-savvy bloggers in the square even tried to harness an ancient technology, building a catapult, after looking up the plans for one on the internet.

Those instructions for the catapult are mentioned in “The City Always Wins,” a new novel by the British-Egyptian activist Omar Robert Hamilton who has drawn on his own first-hand experience of those days and what came next to produce a vivid chronicle of Egypt’s stifled revolution.

Hamilton, who happens to be Abd El Fattah’s cousin, also returned from abroad to take part in and document the 2011 uprising, as well as the bloody crackdown on dissent that followed, through Mosireen, a collective of activist filmmakers he co-founded.

His novel deftly mixes fact and fiction, weaving together shards of memory with imagined encounters, punctuated by news headlines and activists’ tweets, to describe in wrenching detail the steady progress of the counterrevolution.

Beginning not in Tahrir, but eight months after the chaotic, deadly, but ultimately triumphant 18 days of the sit-in, Hamilton’s narrative starts instead in a makeshift hospital morgue on the night of Oct. 9, 2011, when at least two dozen Coptic Christian protesters were massacred by Egyptian soldiers outside Maspero, the headquarters of state television in Cairo.

In the book’s opening scene, one of Hamilton’s protagonists, a young revolutionary named Mariam, is asked to stay inside a room filled with the dead, guarding the bodies to ensure they can be examined by a coroner before burial. Through a door, she overhears snatches of an argument taking place, between the parents of the victims, who want to bury their children, and an activist who wants autopsies to be performed first, so that the army can be held to account.

“Mariam recognizes the voice as Alaa’s,” Hamilton writes, “the first person she saw in the hospital, the curls of his hair framing his face as she had seen it on television. ‘We need the autopsies for justice.'”

Alaa Abd El Fattah was in fact in the hospital that night, urging the families not to allow the army to cover up the massacre, and he was jailed soon after by the military council that had taken power from Mubarak.

Fragments of real news reports on Abd El Fattah’s persecution at the hands of successive post-revolutionary governments recur throughout Hamilton’s novel, overheard or discussed by his fictional protagonists as they struggle to retain their optimism in the face of the increasingly oppressive counterrevolution.

The second section of the book culminates in a powerful account of the despair felt by witnesses to the pivotal event of the counterrevolution — the massacre of more than 900 Islamist protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in 2013, six weeks after Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had seized power in a coup from Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Hamilton’s book also includes a distressing account of a real family tragedy: the day in 2014 when Abd El Fattah and another activist sister, Sanaa Seif — who were both imprisoned at the time for taking part in peaceful protests — were brought in prison garb to the funeral of their father, the pioneering human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam Hamad.

While his sister was subsequently released, Abd El Fattah remains in the maximum security Tora prison, serving a 5-year sentence for violating a repressive ban on street protests by attending a peaceful demonstration in November 2013.

Hamilton, who completed his novel while living in Brooklyn, recently returned to Cairo where he is now leading a campaign to draw attention back to the crackdown on free expression in Egypt, and press for Abd El Fattah’s release.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I got to know Hamilton, virtually at least, when I used Mosireen videos in several reports for The New York Times, starting in 2011. Last year, I traveled to the West Bank to take part in the Palestinian Festival of Literature, which Hamilton co-founded with his mother, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif.)

I called the novelist in Cairo this week to talk about his book and find out more about the latest iteration of the #FreeAlaa campaign. What follows is a lightly edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.


Robert Mackey: One of the interesting things about your book is that, as opposed to what people might’ve been expecting, you don’t start in Tahrir Square, you don’t start during the 18 days of the revolution, you start with the Maspero massacre, a much more sobering place. Why not start in Tahrir Square?

Omar Robert Hamilton: I thought about this a lot obviously, and I think Maspero is important because it’s the moment at which the country catches up with the thing the activists have been saying since February, which is that the revolution is an ongoing thing and that you can’t think of it as 18 days, That this is going to be a longer and larger fight. Even though there had been several instances of military violence between the 18 days and Maspero, by the army, that was the point at which the country kind of woke up a bit and caught up. For me, it’s when the second wave of the revolution begins.

RM: Your novel charts in a very moving way the impact of death, the close first-hand experience protesters had of fellow revolutionaries being cut down in front of them, which cast a pall over the uplifting part of the revolution, and the hope for change. Is that something that you found among the people you were working with when you were taking part in and documenting the revolution, that there was just an accumulation of distress — that it didn’t happen in one day, but built up over time?

ORH: Yes, I mean I think it must have done. I think particularly, some of the people that I was working very closely with at Mosireen became very involved in the work at the morgue and with helping families find their children and with helping families identify bodies. Certainly for people like that, who I was very close friends with and worked with very closely, you could see with them, how much it would weigh you down and it’s definitely psychologically traumatizing.

Throughout the whole revolution, there was this very particular psychosocial space that the families of the martyrs would hold. Especially because many of them became very involved politically, and so if you were in revolutionary spaces often, and you knew the people who were in there, there was a very particular feeling of responsibility to them and to those families.

And I think the more that it mounted up… but, you know, at the same time, until Rabaa, there was always the sense that the revolution was ongoing and that part of the purpose and the motivation behind it, and part of what kept people working, was a conviction that justice was going to be possible. And that there was going to be a sort of prevailing over the police state and that the state security apparatuses piece by piece were going to be dismantled.

So then, when Rabaa happens and when the state reasserts itself so completely, then the years of those sort of deaths, and those crimes, when it suddenly becomes clear that there won’t be certainly any short-term justice for them, I think that’s part of what really rolled over people as a kind of tidal wave in the months after Rabaa. That’s part of what made that time so debilitating, was that kind of backlog of distress that maybe had been kept at bay somehow by the conviction that justice was going to be possible.

RM: Speaking of the possibility of justice, obviously your cousin Alaa’s a figure in the book, an important figure in the backdrop to all of the events that are happening. He was there at Maspero. You produced a very powerful film about Maspero for Mosireen. So when you came to write this book, why did you decide to write it as a novel and not a memoir?

ORH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I mean, I didn’t think about it so much at the time, it just kind of started, and it felt like a form that was very open to all the different impulses that I had at the point at which I began writing, which was summer 2014. It was sort of very accommodating of either deep introspection or wider historical fact or more sort of poetic abstraction. So actually the form of the novel is very accommodating of anything, you can put anything into it.

Having thought about it more now that it’s done, and why the form held up for me, is probably because I think that what I was trying to do, or the thing that it allows you access to, is a kind of emotional chronology that documentation doesn’t for me. I think a lot of the work and the effort that went into it, was recreating what a particular time and place felt like, and that is very different from October 2011 to July 2013 to July 2014. The revolution goes through these very severe emotional turns and specificities to do with the politics of each moment of its progress.

RM: It’s very true to life and affecting and moving in a way that might have been difficult to do in pure memoir, where you’re limited by your own recollections and experiences. You really take everyone who cared about and followed that time on a journey back through it.

ORH: Well, good, if it can do that kind of thing of taking you back. And I think also the thing is, the reason why memoir is not particularly appealing is that there is this thing where, you know, this is an event hundreds of thousands if not millions of people experienced in some way, and cared about in some way, and had their own kind of personal thing going through it. Obviously we’re all sort of grounded and limited by our own experiences but I did want to do something that had space for other people to feel like something of the thing that they recognized or the thing that they felt something about is in there.

RM: It’s remarkably successful, the way that you use tweets interspersed throughout the narrative, I think it probably does resonate for a lot of people. Obviously so many of the people whose tweets you quote had so many followers that it brings back powerfully how the revolution was experienced from outside Egypt, by lots and lots of people reading social media updates in real time.

ORH: I think tweets particularly have that collective memory power, don’t they, because we all sat and looked at the same tweet at the same moment but in a different place.

RM: The book is dedicated to your cousin Alaa, and one of his tweets from the first days of the uprising serves as as epigraph. He’s now been prosecuted by four successive Egyptian governments — starting with Mubarak’s regime, then the military council he ceded power to, then Morsi’s administration — and now he’s been jailed by Sisi. He has an appeal hearing (on Nov. 8) to contest the five-year sentence he was given for taking part in a protest in November 2013 outside the upper house of Egypt’s parliament, known as the Shoura Council. This was an event you describe in your book, the first protest after protesting was banned by Sisi’s government.

ORH: Yes, this was the Shoura Council protest, which was November 26, 2013, and the protest was originally to protest against a provision in the new constitution allowing for the military trials of civilians. But then they passed the protest law, I think the day before, so then it became the first protest to go up against the protest law. They basically accused him of being an organizer of this protest, and this was a whole fight back in the day, and the real organizers of the protest went and handed themselves in. There were like six of the women who were involved in running the group No to Military Trials for Civilians, and they went and handed themselves in to the prosecutor and they were told to get out.

So it’s the Shoura Council case. He’s been in now three and half years of what is a five-year sentence, and so that’s the one that is coming up for appeal.

It’s a little bit confusing but the way that it works is there seem to be three scenarios, and either you get your appeal accepted and a retrial is ordered, or you get your appeal accepted but no retrial is ordered, or you get your appeal rejected, and the second two are both as bad as each other. So there’s a particular kind of move that they like to do, where they accept appeals, but if they don’t order a retrial, you somehow just stay in prison, but it looks like something to do with justice has happened. Or some kind of independence of the judiciary has been asserted.

It’s all like that. Apparently the judges of the appellate court get notes on the case that are supposed to advise them, on what’s come before. And apparently these notes — not that they’ve seen the ones for Alaa, but Mona was saying when she’s seen ones for previous cases, she can’t even work out what the notes are advising, whether they’re saying this appeal should be accepted or rejected, because the language is so circuitous. And five different lawyers will have five different opinions about what the notes even mean. So it’s all very Kafkaesque, as usual.

RM: Except for Alaa and one other activist, everyone else who was arrested for attending that protest has been released, right?

ORH: Yeah, there were 26 in total convicted for the Shoura Council protest, and all except Alaa and one other guy — Abdelrahman Tarek Mokka, an activist with the 6th of April movement — have been let out. They all got presidential pardons.

RM: What is it about Alaa that makes him such a specific focus for the authorities?

ORH: I think it’s the combination that he has the strength of his ideas and his popularity with the youth. I think for them he’s a very dangerous combination: he has radical ideas and he knows how to write them down and he also knows how to speak them compellingly, and he speaks well publicly, and he can operate in the street and he has a level of very serious popularity with the disenfranchised youth.

RM: What conditions is he held in?

ORH: He’s in Tora, so he’s in a high-security prison. His conditions are difficult in the way that conditions in Egyptian prisons are difficult for everybody. I don’t think he’s getting exceptionally difficult treatment, except that he’s being kept very intellectually isolated. He’s being kept with very specifically non-political prisoners, his access to books is severely limited, he only gets state newspapers, so its an intellectual sterilization that they’re trying for, I think.

But physically, I think it’s the same conditions as your average person in prison. The problems are about how Egyptian prisons don’t feed of clothe the inmates and so, actually, it’s an incredible amount of work, having someone in prison. You have to prepare food for the whole week, and get the laundry in and out with your visits. You have to set up quite a significant infrastructure of support for a prisoner because the state just locks people up and doesn’t feed or clothe them.

RM: Is he allowed to have visitors?

ORH: His first-degree family members get a visit every 10 days. I’ve been in a couple of times, but the last time I was rejected, and I don’t know why. So there’s a fairly regular level of access, but you know, you go for your visit and you bring in the stuff and you get an hour. And so his wife and his mother get to see him for about an hour every 10 days.

The intellectual isolation seems to be the key goal and the key frustration in there now for him. Only being given the state media and the state radio and very limited access to books can grind you down.

RM: One of the themes that your book returns to very often is that not taking control of the state media building at the start of the revolution, when the police retreated one night in January of 2011, was a huge missed opportunity. Does state media still seem very oppressive?

ORH: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean it’s completely craven. If you read the papers, the papers are just completely in lockstep with government messaging, there’s not really any news in there, there’s just whatever bulletin has come from the president’s office, and it’s always to do with some sort of fake investment that is about to save the economy of the country.

State television is as straightforwardly propagandistic as it always was, but also now the independent channels, or the supposedly independent channels, that used to be owned by business tycoons of the country, I don’t really fully understand this, and I need to look into it, but they’ve all been kind of sold off one by one and they seem to have all been bought by vassals of the defense security agencies.

So there was a moment where there was a little space on ONTV or DREAMTV — the height of the Yosri Fouda show or Bassem Youseff — but now, even the independent channels, those don’t have any wiggle room.

RM: I know you did some public discussions of your book in Cairo recently, is the book on sale there?

ORH: Yeah, it is. It’s having a bit of a hard time because of the currency crisis, so booksellers are much less able to order books than they were a year ago. But yeah, the big three, Shorouk, Diwan and AUC have all ordered and it’s supposed to be available in bookstores now.

RM: Has it been translated into Arabic?

ORH: It’s nearly done, the translation, and so the hope is that the translation should be out by the end of the year or early January.

RM: I think it can be confusing for outsiders to understand how you can be there in Cairo now telling me this, and doing events for a book with a revolutionary view of recent history. So there seems to be some space, you are allowed to speak publicly, but then at the same time your cousin is in jail for speaking up. Is it fair to say that Egyptians just don’t really know where the lines are?

ORH: I think one of the things that they’ve been doing, or what they want to do, is create an atmosphere of paranoid uncertainty. So you don’t know where the lines are and you don’t know what you’re allowed to say and you don’t know if they’re listening to you. But you know they could be, and they have the technology to do it, and they have the judicial license to do it, and they have the capacity. But you don’t know if they are.

But what we’ve been seeing — if you look at, for example the NGO law, the way that the government has been threatening NGOs and human rights organizations is, basically since 2014, they’ve been making very loud, very public proclamations that they are coming for these NGOs. That they are going to stop funding, that they are going to force them to register with the ministry of interior, and that they are now going to clamp down on this thing. And so, since 2014, every human rights NGO has been almost waiting to be raided.

Although that hasn’t happened in the sort of mass way everyone was expecting, it puts you — because the messaging has continued, and because the government’s capabilities are still there, and they can arrest whoever they want and they’ve put hundreds of people on travel bans and people have long court cases looming over them… so even though we’re not in a moment of shock and awe, we’re in a moment of prolonged state-fostered paranoia, where you don’t know exactly where the lines are. Or whether the lines are moving.

RM: In the specific case of Alaa’s detention, and the delayed appeal hearing now scheduled for early November, does public pressure help, and is there anything that supporters outside Egypt can do?

ORH: The regime is susceptible to outside pressure. Their entire economic program seems to revolve around attracting foreign capital. That capital can be disrupted from the outside. For example, this week Germany announced it would no longer train the Egyptian police to monitor internet crimes and extremists websites due to fears that “these skills could be used to pursue” non-criminals.

The complicity of governments and international corporations with the regime’s repression — and their profiting off it — should be the first target of those in solidarity in interconnected struggles.

Top photo: Egyptian protesters paused during a battle with police on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Nov. 22, 2011.

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