Alaa Abdel Fattah: the poet is mightier than the pugilist

The Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah's letter from his prison cell has generated a lot of coverage.

Which is interesting. Here we have a young online activist (not yet 30) whose criticisms of the army have apparently so enraged them that he's now being held in a six-by-12-feet cell with eight other people pending further investigation.

Set against the might of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah looks to be completely vulnerable, trapped in his horribly crowded cell "listening to stories of torture" being told by his fellow detainees. Except, not quite. By smuggling out a letter (at great personal risk) that's reached the pages of the Guardian and the Egyptian newspaper al-Shorouk, Abdel Fattah seems to have put the army on the back foot.

Such is the power of a well-timed letter (something Amnesty's only too well aware of). Blogging, letter writing, journalism, demonstrating – it's all about communication, something repressive regimes tend to view with suspicion.

The army seems susceptible to pressure at the moment. It’s announced pardons for 338 people convicted in military trials since the fall of Mubarak as Abdel Fattah’s case is starting to become a rallying cry for those already extremely dissatisfied with what they see as the failures of the revolution (or the “counter-revolution” as some see it). In fact, in an interesting move, supporters of Abdel Fattah have called for people to got to St Paul’s in London tomorrow to join the Occupy LSX demo for a “Talk about the Revolution in Egypt, and Military Trials” (it’s 10am-12noon, in the University Tent). Egypt goes global?

I think it’s fair to say things are not currently progressing well in Egypt. Back in April I was already blogging about the army attacking protestors in Tahrir Square and torturing them in detention (including by subjecting women to “virginity tests”). Since then we’ve seen dreadful attacks on Coptic Christians, huge numbers of arrests and little sign that the authorities care about Egypt’s massive slum-dwelling population.

Abdel Fattah’s arrest is a "major setback for the Egyptian revolution", according to Amnesty, and of course he’s not the only blogger behind bars. Most famously Maikel Nabil Sanad has also been swept up in the Egyptian army's mass arrests programme, and he now hovers perilously close to death after being on hunger strike for over two months.

There’s something almost symbolic in the cases of Abdel Fattah and Nabil Sanad. Two young, almost fragile bloggers (Abdel Fattah is kind of robust-looking, but there’s a touchingly gentle-looking image of him with his wife Manal Hassan on the Guardian site) versus Egypt’s monumental military machine.

In his often poetic prison letter Abdel Fattah says the Egyptian police force has been "tak[ing] out its defeat on the bodies of the poor and helpless", and you get the sense that this is a man who can sum up the state of a nation in just a few well-chosen lines. Sometimes the pen really is mightier than the sword.

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