I met Alaa Abd El Fattah in May 2013 in Cairo. This was about two years after the initial revolution occurred that removed Hosni Mubarak from power, and nearly a year into the presidency of Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time Alaa was out on bail, facing charges for his involvement in demonstrations several months earlier (he was organizing against provisions in the new constitution that allowed civilians to be tried in military courts). Alaa was honest but brief about the charges that he was dealing with at the time. His clear priorities were technology and organizing the Egyptian people.
Photo credit: Alaa Abd El-Fatah - http://www.manalaa.net/node/87368
Alaa was famous for blogging and building technologies to get out the word for the protests that drove the 2011 removal of Mubarak, so most of my questions for Alaa were around tech needs of Egyptians. I was expecting to talk about tech like Ruby on Rails, some flavor of functional programming, cloud solutions, SMS integration, or continuous delivery, but we spoke more about the challenges facing the digitization of the Arabic language. We spent most of our time talking about three topics: Arabic web fonts, necessary changes to the Internet for right-to-left languages like Arabic, and the Arabic Wikipedia.
I had never thought about fonts really being an issue because there are an overabundance of them for the English language (sadly the only language I am fluent in). Alaa explained the need for more font options because while English is very common for many people in Egypt, Arabic is still the mother tongue of the Egyptian people. Not only is it important that fonts be easily available to deliver information via the Internet, but organizers need to be able to produce signs, leaflets and newspapers to build movements.
Similar to how I had never thought about the lack of Arabic language fonts, I had certainly never considered how challenging the Internet must be if your language is written and read right-to-left. Links on web pages should be positioned differently, text layouts need to change, and form elements need to know that content will be entered right-to-left to display correctly just to name a few obvious issues facing the community of Arabic speakers on the internet.
Wikipedia has become one of the de facto sources for common knowledge. At the time of our meeting the Arabic Wikipedia had something like 200,000 articles while its English counterpart had over 4 million. This is a crude metric for how much information the Arabic speaking world has access to online as compared to the English speaking world, and makes it plain that something needs to change.
I remember a day after our visit Alaa was set to go to Gaza, but was notified that he would not be able to make the trip due to a travel ban that had been placed on him. He faced hurdles like this regularly and was well aware of the severity of the charges that he was facing, but continued his path without hesitation. And despite all the challenges, Alaa was very clear that he wasn't looking for charity or a handout. Alaa wanted the people and communities struggling with these issues to organize and produce solutions for themselves rather than having organizations like Thoughtworks take up their cause and try to assist from afar. He was and remains a long-term movement builder and a true advocate of people power.
On the morning of June 11, 2014 Alaa was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On Monday September 15, 2014 he was released on bail due to the need for a retrial. Alaa is now joining in a mass hunger strike in protest of a law that bars demonstrations and peaceful protests.
I find it appalling that there are people alive today that would seek to stifle the voice and passion of a person who so clearly wants what's best for his people. Alaa has joined a list of courageous people being aggressively surveilled, pursued, subjected to harassment, intimidation, and harsh punishment, including long prison terms. This vengeance is to deter other individuals and organizations from taking similar action and to stop the truth being revealed. These journalists, activists and whistleblowers need our support, solidarity and campaigns that are loud enough to deter, stigmatize and expose the repressive tactics of locking up those simply working for justice.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.