What a Hunger Strike in Egypt Says About Power

As his refusal to eat approaches 200 days, political prisoner Alaa Abd El Fattah conveys strength in controlling the fate of his body

What a Hunger Strike in Egypt Says About Power
Alaa Abdel-Fattah behind bars with fellow defendants during their verdict at the Cairo Police Academy in Cairo in 2015 / Photo by Mohamed Mahmoud / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

It felt like a thousand little bees stinging me along my spine. My mouth contorted. The knuckles on my fist whitened. Yet my eyes stared forward, unflinching.

The guard touched and squeezed and poked, and my stomach roiled. I held the vomit back, and he ventured further — violating, relishing.

He and I both knew the purpose of this search was not to check for contraband; it was a statement of subdual.

You’re ours. We own you.

The message was established and perpetuated: as our gaze followed the lumps of hair falling to the ground with every forced head shave; when we stripped naked for lashes to our ribs and boots to our skulls; and when the cell door slammed into the wall for a 6 a.m. search accompanied by an avalanche of roaring curses that brought the room crashing down on our heads.

In his book “Between the World and Me,” the author Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses issues of race and segregation in the United States, arguing that power has always been about the right to seize and break the Black body:

“And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”

The guard probed, and my gaze drilled holes into the wall before me. As a 17-year-old political prisoner — arrested at a protest for speaking up and naively assuming detention would be brief, and now sentenced to 15 years in a maximum-security prison for “unlawful assembly” — my most daring act of resistance was to deny them the satisfaction of a reaction.

As the six years I spent behind bars trickled by, the list of what I had to lose diminished. The fight took on more confrontational forms.

And my body was the battlefield.

“Inta taht gazmety” — “you’re beneath my shoe.”

This is an old Egyptian insult that simultaneously expresses contempt and conquest. It’s usually delivered by egotistical individuals with an incurable superiority complex.

It is also what the police officer yelled at Ahmed Douma as he towered above his bound, frail body and kicked the shit out of him.

Douma, an iconic Egyptian political prisoner, had stood up and defended his fellow political prisoner and researcher, Ahmed Santawy, when the prison administration refused to move the latter to the clinic after he suffered from an acute respiratory attack.

It could have passed. They could have let him back into his cell. They did not have to haul him, with hands and legs cuffed, to the policeman’s office and turn his body into a canvas of mahogany and magenta as the bruises melted into one vast exhibition of abuse.

Yet if you know Egyptian police officers, even a little, you probably recognize this as the only possible outcome of speaking up. The right to break bodies constitutes their self-worth and power. In Egypt, it’s not just Black bodies that break, but bodies, period.

By protesting, whether passively or actively, you have jeopardized their sense of ownership over your body, and now they must reclaim it in the most brutal of ways.

The steel door rattled as I banged on the porthole, cursing at the guards, the officers and the universe. I channeled the rage to my now-bruised fists and strained vocal cords. When the guard hobbled to open the door, I dashed outside and fell to the ground cross-legged in front of the cell.

“I’m not returning until my study materials are in my hands.”

My exams were scheduled in two weeks, and the state security office held the latest materials my family had brought during their last visit. The guard spat profanities and threats, but I didn’t move. In my sixth year in prison, I had acquired a seasoned knowledge of inner prison politics: If he reports this to his superior, the block’s chief guard, he’ll be blamed for allowing me to leave the cell. If the chief guard takes it to the officer, that guard will be scolded for losing control over his block. This is the toxic chain of power that we learned to manipulate and navigate. The guard will yell for a bit with the hope of intimidating me, then he’ll relent, negotiate, try to at least get something out of it, before raising the issue with his superior.

The block’s chief guard will do the same before reporting to the officer, conveniently dropping the fact that I staged a sit-in in the corridor to force this to happen. He’ll also seek reimbursement from me. You have to wait for that right moment to dial the rebelliousness back and begin diplomacy. That’s why two packs of cigarettes lined my pockets, suggestively poking out as if by accident.

Half an hour later, I walked back to my cell, two plastic bags brimming with lecture notes swinging beside me, escorted by two guards who now had rectangular shapes bulging in the right pockets of their uniform trousers.

And I wondered — as I did every time — why?

What do they gain? Why did we have to fight tooth and nail for the right to an essential workout during the recess hour? Why do they ban books like their lives depend on it? Why do they set aside healthy food and vitamins from visitation bags and render them “luxuries”?

Again and again, I trace every act of absurd oppression back to the same idea — conquering and controlling the body. Attempts to exercise it or nourish it, even if mentally, must be quashed. Every battle fought behind the walls involved us waging war with them for mastery over our bodies.

Without that steel grip, without taking every possible second to hammer the same idea deeper, they become nothing. In breaking us, they are not propelled by logic; they are driven by the need to preserve their self-worth.

Because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

Alaa Abd El Fattah’s hunger strike nears its 200th day and shows no sign of ending. One of the highest-profile political prisoners in the Arab world, the Egyptian-British citizen Alaa has been systematically starving himself, after exhausting all other options of demanding and appealing for consular visits and basic human rights.

Alaa has spent the majority of the past 10 years in and out of prison for his activism since the Jan. 25 revolution. The current five-year sentence chewing away at his life resulted from a retweet about the death of an Egyptian political prisoner, landing Alaa in jail on charges of “spreading fake news” in September 2019, in the same prison where that prisoner lost his life.

The world observes Alaa’s desperate hunger battle for freedom, but the state is not budging.

I had always perceived hunger strikes in prison as an act of despair, a death wish. A prisoner stops consuming food and drink because they cannot endure any longer; they just want it to end. Instead of folding, they go all-in.

Only when I experienced prison myself and grasped the power dynamics did I understand: Prisoners go on hunger strikes not because they cannot resist anymore but because the only act of resistance left to reclaim their body is to destroy it.

You could deprive me of everything: family, books, moving my limbs, my hair, medical care, sunlight, fresh air. You could shackle my body and contain it to the point that I cannot stretch my legs or rest my back on the ground.

But you cannot stop me from breaking it.

It’s baffling how hunger strikes infuriate oppressors when one would assume the final goal is mutual: to destroy the prisoner’s body.

But no. By sabotaging your own body, you achieve the opposite: You take away the one thing their value depends upon and you make it yours.

As I watched a documentary on hunger strikes narrated by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay whose release orders had been issued yet for years never put into effect, I marveled at the backlash from the prison administration. The guards ruthlessly force-fed the strikers by inserting tubes through their noses all the way down to their stomachs and pumped the liquid food in.

The mission here was not about breaking the body but owning it. Their message was: If you attempt to sustain it, we’ll destroy it. If you aim to break it, we’ll make sure you survive.

It’s a tug of war that never ends so long as oppressors and tyrants roam the earth.

I stretch my legs and savor the pleasant aches across tendons and muscles, sighing at the sight of tiny lavender buds blossoming. Through the third-floor window at the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh, I take in the view in the distance of pine trees stretching up to touch the fluffy tufts of clouds on the horizon.

Since I arrived in Pittsburgh to start my master’s degree in creative writing, every day has been a striking exploration of the exotic. I breathe in deeply, wallow in the fresh, free air tickling my nostrils, rushing along the airways to my lungs, and feel euphoria.

The ultimate triumph — my body belongs to me.

Or does it?

The twinge in my gut never disappeared. That hollow space marking the part that every prisoner leaves behind amid the shackles is a piece of the soul that floats with their fellow comrades whose bodies remain broken and violated each day, on a collective battlefield branded with hefty wounds and grotesque scars.

Later, as I sat in the City of Asylum, an international nonprofit that supports artists and writers seeking asylum, listening to the brilliant book discussion by the author Elaine Castillo, one concept resonated deep in my core: Remembering is an act of “re-membering.”

Re-membering is about understanding with utmost clarity the fight and the twisted ways in which the minds of oppressors operate. It is about immortalizing the stories of individuals whose right to freedom of expression has been trampled, and sharing them with the world so others can partake in purposeful allyship. Re-membering acknowledges that breaking one body is a tragedy and breaking a million bodies is a million tragedies — never a statistic. This is the only way the grand body of humankind can ever be truly emancipated.

This has become my purpose: to create a path for the dismembered to be re-membered and whole again, to honor all the bodies shattered behind bars. This includes the ones we lost, like Shady Habash; the ones still struggling, like Alaa and Douma and my closest friend Ayman Moussa; and the bodies physically freed yet fractured, not knowing how to mend the fragments and salvage the shredded parts.

The fight continues until no boots can crush, no hands can violate, all bodies are relinquished and the last mountain topples to the ground.

The fight continues until no one is below.

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