Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Letters from Alaa (Abd El-Fattah) & Manal (Bahey Al-Din Hassan
Patrice Riemens on Wed, 19 Apr 2017 10:25:40 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Letters from Alaa (Abd El-Fattah) & Manal (Bahey Al-Din Hassan)

Wishing all co-readers, lurhers, and posters on Nettime KALO PASXA!
and here for some appropriate Easter reading:

(NB Since I am allergic to the feelgood, self-congratulary, and heavily 
PR-loaded intros which seem mandatory with (US?) NGO releases, I've left 
them out in both c+p texts, but you can read them in full thru the links 

"Unlike me, you have not been defeated yet":
(Alaa Abd El-Fattah)

Letter, sent from Tora Prison.

To RightsCon:

This week I start my 4th year in prison. I might be released in October, 
if my appeal is accepted. But then I might not. I might be released in 
March 2019, when I have served my full sentence. But then I might not. 
They have other, pending, cases against me. If released I might be able 
to attend this conference, but then I might not; my sentence comes with 
5 years of parole to follow, and who knows if you will be able to find a 
venue for this conference in a country that gives visas to people like 
me by the time I am allowed to travel.

Now I don’t mean to be too pessimistic; the best case scenario is as 
probable as the worst. The real problem is that there’s very little you 
can do to influence which of them will come to pass.

But that’s not really what worries me; we live in hugely reactionary 
times. My defeat was inevitable.

What worries me is that by the time I manage to make it to this 
conference or another like it I will simply be a total embarrassment to 
organizers and attendees. You see, in my isolation I can only build a 
fragmented picture of what the world outside looks like. And when it 
comes to tech that picture is solely based on what filters through 
state-controlled media of the views and actions of governments and giant 
tech companies. Not what people and communities are doing and saying.

Now you would not enjoy watching a Luddite ramble on about a terrifying 
dystopia in which labor rights are trampled by startups that don’t even 
plan to make a profit (or pay taxes) but are somehow able to raise 
enough capital to flood markets, overwhelm regulators, influence policy, 
litigate perpetually and still have enough left to spend on PR that 
spins all this as the glorious disruptive effect of the gig economy. A 
dystopia in which free debate in a shared public sphere, rooted in a 
commonly experienced very decentralized reality, is replaced with a 
newsfeed, selected by an obscure algorithm based on one’s circle of 
friends and choice of celebrities.

I can see you rolling your eyes already while I fret over the bot that 
will determine which news is not fake, the bot that will determine which 
policy is better and the question of who owns the data, who controls the 
cloud and how did it come to pass that we replaced the mystical notion 
that we are born with all the knowledge of the universe already within 
us to the no less mystical notion that the only learning we need is 
Bayesian and that the only abstraction we need is map reduce?

Now lest you think me too pessimistic I will admit that this dystopia is 
as probable as the utopian vision that insists the killer drones will 
turn out to be like the good terminators, that Facebook will defeat fake 
news with a truthbot and its human companions who are happily employed 
in glorious state of the art call centers as content moderators. That 
Elon Musk will solve the world energy problem, Bill Gates will end 
hunger, Google will find a cure for cancer and Uber or Foxconn’s effect 
on labor rights is irrelevant because we’ll all be paid a basic 
universal income, have unlimited credit lines, or run our own Bitcoin 
minting operation. The counter-revolution never happened, the naive 
dreams of early internet communities and the free software movement are 
not lost they have just been updated, cleaned up and stripped of any 
hint of ideology to make them more universal. And no, the fact that 
nobody pays tax any more is not a threat to democracy because they all 
give so much to charity. Yes this utopia is probable too, as probable as 
the vision of a coalition between Trump, Sisi, Doterti, Orban, Modi, 
Erdogan, Putin, Bin Salman, and who knows maybe even Le Pen, leading the 
civilized world into a new age of prosperity and security and stability 
and sustainable growth. Yes it could happen. Millions upon millions 
believe it and they can’t all be wrong, right?

However, you do have a chance to influence where in the broad spectrum 
between these equally unlikely (or likely) scenarios the future lies.

Yes, on the simple question of how to stop using the hashtag #FreeAlaa 
you have little if any agency, but on the question of whether the 
internet is a space in which we come together to enjoy, assert, practice 
and defend universal rights and freedoms you have much agency.

Unlike me, you have not been defeated yet.

I don’t have much to say by way of advice. I am, after all, out of touch 
and slightly outdated. The best I can do is repeat themes I used to 
touch upon when participating in conferences like these in the past. 
(The last time was 2011 I think):

1. Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the 
question “how can we help?” I still believe it is the only possible 
answer. Not only is where you live, work, vote, pay tax and organize the 
place where you have more influence, but a setback for human rights in a 
place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse 
for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile. I 
trust recent events made it evident that there is much that needs 
fixing. I look forward to being inspired by how you go about fixing it.

2. Don’t play the game of nations: We lose much when you allow your work 
to be used as an instrument of foreign policy no matter how benign your 
current ruling coalition is. We risk much when human rights advocacy 
becomes a weapon in a cold war (just as the Arab revolutions were lost 
when revolutionaries found themselves unwitting and unwilling recruits 
in proxy wars between regional powers). We reach out to you not in 
search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global 
problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the 
power of solidarity.

3. Defend complexity and diversity: No change to the structure of or 
organization of the internet can make my life safer. My online speech is 
often used against me in the courts and in smear campaigns, but it isn’t 
the reason why I am prosecuted; my offline activity is. My late father 
served a similar term for his activism before there was a web. What the 
internet has truly changed is not political dissent but rather social 
dissent. We must protect it as a safe space where people can experiment 
with gender and sexual identities, explore what it means to be gay or a 
single mom or an atheist or a christian in the Middle East, but also 
what it means to be black and angry in the U.S., to be Muslim and 
ostracized in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut 
back on green house gases. The internet is the only space where all 
different modes of being Palestininan can meet. If I express this 
precariousness in symbolic violence, will you hear me out? Will you 
protect me from both prosecution by the establishment and exploitation 
by the well-funded fringe extremists?

4. Assert your right to be a creator not a consumer: we love this tech 
because it allows us to be the performers in our own spectacle, the 
story-tellers in our own narrative and the philosophers of our own 
discourse. Not an eyeball for advertisers or a demographic for 
pollsters. Keep it that way please. Keep it that way.

and "There is always light": on digital rights in Egypt
(Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan interview)

Wafa Ben-Hassine: Hi Manal, how are you, and how is Alaa doing?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan:  I’m keeping myself busy. As for Alaa, he is 
very bored. His moods go up and down. The good thing is that I can bring 
him books, although this ability is very limited —  especially if the 
books are in English — they cannot be too political or historical. They 
[law enforcement] once tried to take away his right to read in prison. 
Thankfully, some advocates launched a campaign against this, and the 
officers backed off a bit. On visiting day, officers ask us for every 
material item we carry with us, including books and whatever other 
material we have. The officers then take those items to national 
security authorities. They are typically cleared in the span of anywhere 
from two weeks to two months — you can never really know. The positive 
side of this is that we are actively educating the national security 
agents with our books. Someone reads it, writes a report about it, 
reviews it — all for the sake of controlling what Alaa may read in a 
literary book. [She laughs].

Wafa Ben-Hassine: How does it make you feel that Alaa went from being a 
symbol for freedom and revolution to the face of prisoners of conscience 
all around the world?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan: The government wants to make an example of 
him. He is not alone: there are so many like him in the world. But Alaa 
is the face of self-perpetuated legend. It is the state itself that 
creates a legend out of him; then that very same state apparatus fights 
the legend they created. It is very hard to see him in prison, but 
sometimes you think: Is the government that small-minded? To target a 
peaceful techie [and dedicate so many resources to this endeavor]?

Wafa Ben-Hassine: Manal, where did human rights advocates go wrong? How 
did we fail Alaa and others in his situation?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan: The strategy must change. We used to name and 
shame; and that used to be an effective mechanism. It worked. Now, the 
state just does not care about that. Even on the international stage – 
none of it matters anymore, especially with Drumpf’s administration: who 
will shame who? Al-Sissi and Drumpf are good allies.

Wafa Ben-Hassine: How can we get people around the globe to contribute 
to Alaa’s release?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan: Well, this is the current status: Alaa faces 
multiple charges, and there is no guarantee that he will be freed after 
his current five-year sentence. There is one pending case that seems to 
have been closed. There is also one investigation that did not make it 
to the judiciary. Another case [under the charge of “insulting the 
judiciary”] is still open, and April 8 is the next session. The case 
will most likely be decided in May. This particular case involves 
several defendants, one of which is former president Mohamed al-Morsi. 
Internet users around the world can contribute by focusing on their 
respective communities at home. As Alaa says in his letter, people in 
the “global north” — or people who have real, actual human rights in 
their societies — should keep fighting to protect those rights. I say 
this because rolling back acquired rights in “democratic societies” 
becomes an easy justification for scaling back on human rights in other, 
less-democratic contexts — and in other countries such as Egypt. Fight 
for human rights in your own contexts so that our rights cannot be 
further eroded.

[Editor’s note: One case that speaks directly to Manal’s point is 
Bahrain. U.S. President Donald Drumpf’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex 
Tillerson, recently announced that the U.S. will no longer condition the 
sale of arms to Bahrain on the latter’s compliance with international 
human standards.]

Wafa Ben-Hassine: Do the authorities bother you for speaking about 
Alaa’s case internationally?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan:  The most public conference I’ve attended so 
far is this year’s RightsCon. So far, the authorities have not bothered 
me when going in or out or out of the country – we will see if they will 
after this.

Wafa Ben-Hassine:  What are you working on now?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan:  A tech group called Mushtarak. The group 
works on building the tech community in Egypt, and is based in greater 
Cairo. We have two distinct target audiences: people who want to learn 
about tech (CSOs, journalists, etc.), and we help them learn about 
digital security such as securing their communications and devices.

And then we have the “techies,” who are involved in our Web School. Our 
Web School is especially created for new web developers who want to 
advance their skills. It’s a year-long program. The program concludes 
with a mentoring period so that they can connect with groups and 
initiatives who need these skills.

We also have some more advanced, shorter-term crash courses: our Tech 
Pill. The Tech Pill focuses on a different subject each time, and is 
presented by a volunteer from the community.

Mushtarak wants to be a place where all technologists from all fields 
can come together and exchange ideas and support one another. This idea 
was born in 2011 and 2012 — and it is finally picking up again. I should 
also mention that our offices offer co-working space in the morning.

Wafa Ben-Hassine: That’s quite impressive, Manal. Thank you so much for 
sitting with me today. I hope you enjoy the rest of RightsCon, and see 
you soon.


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org
#   {AT} nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: