One photograph I saw more than 10 years ago made me learn what I have since then considered an essential fact of life, one that I now appreciate more than ever. The photograph was of an Israeli soldier hiding inside the hatch of his tank, ostensibly to dodge the stone hurled at him by a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. Had this spectacle been staged for the sake of delivering this message, it wouldn’t have done that so perfectly. The courage you display in attacking your opponents does not necessarily mean they are weaker than you are and the fear your opponents display in defending themselves against you does not necessarily mean you are stronger than they are. This little shot can easily answer all the questions that have been raised since the release of activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah starting from the analytical “What makes anyone afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?” through the reflective “Who is afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?” to the naïve “Is anyone afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?”
Both the arrest and the release of Alaa Abdel Fattah were acts of fear and assuming otherwise would, I believe, mean underestimating his impact and overestimating the intelligence of his captors/releasers.
Alaa Abdel Fattah was arrested at a time when someone as well-known and as politically active as he is was badly needed to provide the proper distraction from the abominable crime of crushing unarmed protestors beneath the wheels of armored vehicles and when the Higher Council for the Armed forces needed to figure out what could be done to embellish that ugly face it was too quick to expose. Those two main objectives addressed two different types of people, for while the first targeted revolutionaries who were sure to raise hell the moment they hear the news, the second was to sooth average Egyptians who might see the army justified in its violent repression of a group of angry protestors who were out to undermine the state. In both cases, a revolutionary, and a prominent one for that matter, was the answer owning to his political and national value for the first group and the way he would come to represent all revolutionary youths for the second group. It quite worked!
Revolutionaries and activists in Egypt were joined by international groups and Western media to condemn the relapse of a revolution that erupted to topple a dictatorship into a different form of autocracy that again strips citizens of their basic rights. The fact that he was summoned by military prosecution and was to face a military trial endowed this mobilization of Egyptians outraged at the detention of their fellow freedom fighter with a national character as the Free Alaa campaign went hand in hand with the No to Military Trials protests. The charges leveled against Alaa —stealing a military weapon, attacking army officers on duty, damaging military property, and inciting violence against the military council — managed to fool Egyptians following the clashes from home and tuning in to state TV into seeing revolutionaries as saboteurs and believing that the army was in a state of legitimate self-defense. Between this and that, efforts that should have been invested in condemning army brutality and demanding a fast transition of power to a civilian government were channeled towards totally different issues.
Alaa Abdel Fattah was released at a time when the devil tried to force a halo around a pair of fiery horns and was counting in that on the gullible millions who believed mutation is an overnight process. The fast deterioration of the relationship between the army and the people manifested in two spats of bloody clashes that left dozens killed, hundreds injured, and hundreds of thousands appalled as well as worldwide resentment at the audacity of blaming the victims stripped the military council of the last, if any, shreds of credibility as far as siding with the revolution and protecting the revolutionaries are concerned and rendered any mention of the army’s code of honor no less hollow than Mubarak’s talk of reform. Provocative statements army generals made about the incidents only served to put the final repulsive strokes on an already abhorrent image and suffice it to recall the remark made by one of them about the protestors being a bunch of thugs who deserve to perish in Hitler’s gas chambers. Then came the video in which one of the two prosecution witnesses in Alaa’s case accused him and the revolutionaries of a series of crimes that made you think he was talking about some drug cartel in the jungles of Colombia and that made it very obvious what kind of a poorly-performed charade the whole thing was. Some serious PR was obviously needed here. A frantic search for a momentary sedative must have immediately started and must have concluded with a no better solution than setting free the man who was now turning a bigger portion of the population against them as his detention started to sound more and more unjustified even for those who initially believed he was the source of all evil.
Yet, going from one extreme to another is neither wise nor convincing, plus it burns the bridge you can still use if you want cross to the other side once more. Accordingly, Alaa was released but not acquitted. There will still be a trial and only God knows what the verdict would be like. It will most probably depend on how troublesome he will be in the coming stage and how far his freedom/captivity can influence public opinion.
I remember a friend of mine once told me how when her older son did anything wrong and saw some punishment coming his way he would hit his younger brother who would in turn start crying and have the mother running to pacify him while totally forgetting about both the original offence for which the older should have been punished and the subsequent one which was his way of escaping this punishment. However, at times he was stupid enough to overdo it so that it became very hard for the mother to overlook his behavior and very hard for him to escape punishment. Then, he would do his best to be good to his little brother and to show his mother how unfair she was to think of him that way. Yet this was never an eternal truce for the mother still knows what he is capable of and this is what he wants: to remain a latent threat, a time bomb that can go off whenever necessary. This in no way means that he is strong. He is just able to turn his fear of punishment into a well-devised defense strategy that has the flexibility of shifting from extreme aggression to kind-hearted amicability and vice versa depending on the situation.
Like any tyranny that feels insecure about the disconcerting presence of democracy advocates who are immune to the deadliest of threats and resistant to all sorts of power-seeking alliances, the military council is indeed afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah and is struggling to come up with a formula to approach the likes of him in a way that neither loosens their iron grip nor betrays their fear at opponents that are technically much weaker.
Alaa Abdel Fattah and all revolutionaries, activists, and politicians who toe the same line can realistically-speaking be squashed beneath the tracks of army tanks in a few minutes, but the totally unarmed remain unflinching while their fully geared adversary cowers behind its bastions. There might not be a scientific explanation, but in similar cases a moral one is more than enough although not always commonsensical for all. Those who are able to comprehend this complicated form of power relations would easily understand what it means to have faith in a cause endow you with a strength that not a million arsenals can give you an ounce of.
Look up the photograph that taught me this lesson and you will see where I am coming from!
(Sonia Farid teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)