Against Symbolic Death
On the end of Alaa's hunger strike
Why did he write the word ‘celebrate’ three times in his letter? It must mean something big has happened. Alaa is so careful with his language, so purposeful in his actions, that he is telling us we all have something to celebrate.
We had two days to wait to find out.
Thursday came, and the hours passed by as his family - my family - drove out to the desert in the prison and waited to see if they’d be allowed in. They went in, they came out, and more hours passed. And then I got a long text on Signal, a family statement, and a note asking me to get into shape for the public.
There was nothing in it to celebrate. Instead, it was horrifying and painful to read.
Thursday 17 November 19:21
Family Statement after Visit to Alaa in Prison
We saw Alaa today for the first time since October 24th. We knew that on November 1st, he was going to drop the 100 calories that had been keeping him alive for over six months.
When we saw him today, he was exhausted, weak and vulnerable. He was very, very thin.
We knew that on November 6th, the first day of the COP27 conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, he was going to stop drinking water.
Beyond that, we knew almost nothing about what has happened to him inside prison, except for two short notes that we received from him on Monday and Tuesday this week.
We saw him in the visitation booth of Wadi El Natrun prison, with a glass barrier between us, with one very faint headset that we could talk to him through one at a time.
Just as we had no idea what was happening inside the prison, Alaa had almost no conception of what’s been going on outside it.
On Sunday 6th, Alaa stopped drinking water.
On Tuesday 8th, all cell inmates were ordered to the Medical Centre for a “routine examination”. This was unusual so it was not routine.
They were pressuring Alaa to submit to a medical examination so that they could produce a medical report. He said if it was officially put on record that he was admitted to the Medical Centre and that he was on hunger and water strike, then he would submit to a medical.
They instead brought plainclothes officers to intimidate him, but he refused to leave the Medical Centre, so a riot squad was brought in to carry him out. As he was being carried out he “lost it”, had a meltdown and promised to kill himself if he was taken back to the cell. When they put him in the cell he started to smash his head against the wall. He was restrained and tied down. The cell was put on suicide watch.
On Wednesday 9th November Alaa smashed his own head against his cell wall, to force the authorities to file an official report on his case and bring in an investigator. He did so repeatedly until he drew blood.
On Thursday 10th November the Public Prosecutor sent someone qualitatively different to anyone he’d met before to interview him. He recorded the demands of the hunger strike and what had pushed him to it. Alaa’s spoke about his previous experience in Tora Maximum Security Prison to the man, and talked about the effect of living with no music, books or time outside of his cell for three years.
On the same day my sister Laila was not allowed to wait at the prison gates, and her letter to Alaa was refused by prison authorities. Alaa’s lawyer was also denied access to the prison despite having a permit.
On Friday 11th, Alaa moved around a lot, tidied up his things and went to have a shower. In the shower he collapsed. For a while he lay on the floor, not sure what was happening, then waited to dry so he could put some underwear on and call for help. He tried to dress, and fell over and this time he fell unconscious. When he came to, he was surrounded by people and his head was cradled by one of his cellmates and there was a canula in his body which gave him a lactate solution and glucose. Then they gave him electrolyte fluid, a spoonful of honey and a pickle. There were lots of people there and they needed to save his life. He talked about all of this as a near-death experience.
This is how the hunger strike was broken.
At that point Alaa’s blood pressure was way down (110/50) and his sugar level was 41. He says he could see then that his wish for the end was getting the better of him. That there was a strong part of him that was ready to die.
He also recognized that this was partly to do with his physical weakness, and so he had to fight it.
He had thought that he would go straight back to hunger strike, but he decided not to, to give his body a small break, to give his cellmates a small break - he could see the effect his ordeal was having on them. He would gather a little strength and wait until the day came for the family visit.
On Saturday 12th he wrote the short letter saying he’s drinking water again and asking for the music player.
On Monday 14th, he began to eat of his own will again. They released the letter to us on this day. They allowed in the music player and Alaa heard music for the first time in 3 years. He felt alive again.
And today we saw him. He was very thin, very frail, but was happy to be back with his family for a moment.
There have been no negotiations with the authorities, and no promises have been made.
He has been completely in the dark as to what’s happening in the world outside.
We tried to tell him about as much as we could of the global wave of solidarity we’ve been witnessing. Alaa said “Any form of political organizing that may solve our global crises has to stem from personal solidarity. Like this.”
We hope that the incredible global attention on Alaa’s case and the tens of thousands of people who are now standing by him will lead to his release. Alaa came close to death inside, but decided to reach for life. He will have no choice but to resume his hunger strike imminently if there continues to be no real movement on his case.
So, that is everything that has happened in the last ten days.
I know we were all hoping for different news. And so the campaign for Alaa’s release will continue with all the same strength for him. He needs it now more than ever.
So here we are on the other side.
Alaa touched death, turned against it, allowed his strike to be broken and allowed himself to be comforted enough to hold on a little longer by having music in his ears, once again.
When the letter came out saying he wanted to celebrate, this was not what we were expecting.
We, on all sides, have built the man into such a symbol that we - or, at least, I - had removed the possibility of weakness. Alaa knows what he’s doing, I told myself, even if he doesn’t know what’s happening outside. He chose the first day of COP for his water strike, he is leading us all from the inside, we follow his choices because these choices are the only agency he has left inside. These things are all true: and Alaa’s actions did overshadow and inform the entire conference, collapsing the glaring hypocrisy of the world’s long embrace of the Sisi regime into an uncomfortable reckoning. Alaa was the main story at COP, making headline news around the world, generating more articles and media pieces than we could keep up with.
But, what was also true, was the parallel, dark world that Alaa was living through at the same time. One in which he was totally alone, starved and parched to the point of near-death, driven to the edge of what any human is able to bear.
We are conditioned to think of the hunger strike as strategic and disciplined and that its full meaning is only contained within the threat of death.
What does it mean that Alaa pulled away from death at the last moment? It means that our solidarity with him must be rooted in empathy and sympathy, not solely in strategy and cost-benefit calculations.
Had he let himself slip over to the other side, had he fulfilled the hunger striker’s strategic duty, what would be different today? COP27 would have been even more ruined, the regime in Egypt would probably be closer to its end, but Alaa would be dead. Would the tens of thousands of other prisoners have been released? There was no organised strike following on from his, because he’s been completely isolated from other politicals for thee years.
His death would have been symbolic, and the weight Alaa carries as symbol is not of his own choosing. He’s really just a guy with a lot of smart opinions, energy, a strong moral compass and who is never too tired to engage with an opposing opinion. He never stood to be leader of anything, never posed for a powerful photo, never crafted anything about himself - he was always just himself, and that self is powerful and self-assured and has very strong opinions, so people fall in behind him. The symbol was created by the successive regimes that thought that by punishing him, they would keep the populace in line. And, so far, they have been proven right. This is why it’s so hard to pry him from their grasp.
And it’s not just the regime that weighs him down with symbolic weight. We, the people who campaign for him, do it too. By translating and publishing his work, by rallying international cultural support to him, by talking about him as a ‘bottleneck’ case, by explaining the importance of the regime’s symbols and working to overpower them with our own. Doing this, of course, also feeds into the regime’s determination not to let him go. Hence the classic advice to prisoners’ families to keep quiet, to allow quiet diplomacy to rustle on in the background, to be patient. But we should remember that Alaa was simply not going to survive in the conditions he was being held in before he began his hunger strike: no books, no news, no sunlight, no exercise, no bedding, no clock. He began his hunger strike, his recently-acquired British citizenship was announced, and the long chapter leading to his contact with death began.
He chose not to die as a symbol, not to give up his life for whatever cost the regime will bear for it. He chose to live, if living meant having music.
So, right now, Alaa is eating, choosing to live for now, listening to music. So many thousands of people have come to his cause in solidarity, filling the COP plenary hall with chants of Free Alaa, Free Them All - and, as always in any struggle for liberation, what comes next is the most important.
Were it not for the letter saying he wanted to celebrate, there would be no surprise that Alaa is not out yet. Once COP27 began it would have been too much of a humiliation. It was always going to be in the period afterwards. At the same time, the regime knew that riding out COP27 was key - so it will be important in the coming period that the huge gains made in international solidarity, outrage and mobilization are not lost.
We in the campaign are going to take a few days break now to recover from the last period, and get ready for what comes next.
Alaa’s book will be launched in Berlin by the Heinrich Boll Foundation on November 30th. There is a Swedish issue forthcoming, and we’re working on Spanish and Portuguese too. And we are always pressing the UK to do more. You can keep up with everything at www.freealaa.net