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The empty chair at RightsCon

As digital rights debates continue to dominate the news, one political activist is still facing an uncertain future. Looking back to RightsCon 2017, this is his message to the digital world.

“This week I start my fourth year in prison,” opens a letter from Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an Egyptian blogger, political activist, and vocal critic of the Egyptian government.

“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.”

The letter is to RightsCon 2017, a digital rights conference held in Brussels in March. The venue was packed with human rights activists, politicians and technology experts. The last time the political activist attended a conference, he believes, was 2011.

On the same day that this letter was delivered to RightsCon, a letter from the UK triggering Article 50 was delivered to the very same city. Just as the stage was being set for Brexit negotiations to take place, he wrote: “We risk much when human rights advocacy becomes a weapon in a cold war.”

In the letter, he advocates for the internet to be used as a place for exploring social issues. He said: “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 US, to be Muslim and ostracised in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut back on greenhouse gases, and where all different modes of being Palestinian can meet.”

This comes at a time when online censorship and privacy are under threat, even in democracies. US citizens are facing the prospect of their data being sold to private companies, and the UK’s Digital Economy Act has now made its way into law, bringing with it a whole host of data sharing implications.

When the political activist was first sent to prison in 2006 following a protest in Egypt, the #FreeAlaa hashtag appeared, with people tweeting their messages of support. He was released after 45 days, but his freedom did not last for long. He found himself in prison again in 2011, following the Egyptian revolution. He missed the birth of his son.

The campaign grew, with the hashtag #FreeAlaa taking hold. Protesters gathered outside Egyptian embassies in different countries, and made their voices heard.

His wife Manal Hassan, an activist herself, said: “There was a huge pressure on the government to release him. The longer they kept him, the more pressure they got.”

After 56 days in prison, the political activist was released. His wife believes that this was a direct result of the campaign: “In 2011 it had a huge impact, because back then all eyes were on the Arab regime.”

However, 2013 brought with it another sentence under protest laws, and he spent the next two years in and out of a cell. In 2015, he faced a retrial, and was handed a five-year sentence - the one he is serving now. His wife said that he was accused of organising a protest: “He shared the Facebook event, but he was not the main organiser.”

The family now faces an uncertain future. Manal said: “He has an appeal in October, but we don’t know if something will happen or not.”

She attends events like RightsCon to “remind people of his thoughts and ideas and what he stood for.”

To put that into practice, she harnesses the power of social media, sharing news about his prison conditions, and what is happening to him. If, for example, books or letters are banned in the prison, she will tell the rest of the world.

She said: “The good thing is to keep him in the minds and memories of everyone. It’s very hard when a prisoner gets forgotten.”

The blog that Alaa Abd El-Fattah and his wife run has free speech at its core, and the digital world has featured heavily in their lives. Advances in technology and social media have added a new dimension to activism the world over, and Manal said: “It’s giving voices to more people, and that’s very important.”

However, there is also a dark side to this freedom. Manal said of her husband: “He is persecuted for his offline activism, but they are using what he wrote online as evidence.”

Deji Bryce Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at digital rights organisation Access Now, said that digital technologies are allowing people to express themselves in new ways, and decision makers are intimidated by the power this holds.

With the UN declaring that the same rights that apply offline should be applied online, he said: "The rush to criminalize free expression in the digital age is a short-sighted, knee jerk reaction that scores easy political points, but that ultimately tramples upon human rights. Alaa has demonstrated undaunting courage in the face of such threats."

In Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s letter to RightsCon, he fears for his diminishing grip on the ever-changing world, which keeps on moving while he sits still. He finds some words of advice, reminiscent of themes from conferences past: “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."

“Unlike me you have not been defeated yet.” - Alaa Abd El-Fattah to RightsCon attendees

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