March 11, 2020
NEW DELHI — We are apparently resisting right now — in India against citizenship laws and procedures, in Hong Kong against the fugitive offender's amendment bill, and across the world against border controls. But is it enough?
In political theories, resistance came to be the most popular concept since the passive resistance model of M.K. Gandhi showed success, and the romance of the European resistance to Nazi occupation became well-known through literature. Today we use "resistance" to designate nearly every political activity, or activism, with an ethical claim. In fact, we assume that all the good people are resisters.
In a metaphysical sense, resistance is at least as fundamental as existence. These two terms came from the same etymological root sistere, meaning "to take a stand." Interpretation of things on the basis of "existence" would imply that all things stand indifferently "out there." But when we interpret the world through resistance, it shows that all things stand against each other, or resist each other, in being.
When something slows another thing down, or at the limit halts the progress of another thing we say that there is resistance. This kind of resistance is very useful, for it performs a work, or a function. When the flow of electricity is resisted by the filament of a light bulb it creates heat and light. Or when the tires of an automobile enjoy friction with the road we can maneuver it, accelerate it, and apply the brakes effectively. Now we can see that resistance is found within a system — electric or mechanical — and performs various functions in it.
In politics, we should investigate if our resistance is performing a work for someone else, a work that we did not intend, and is thus going well against our ethical claim. In the familiar example of factory workers resisting, we can see the way resistance often plays out. The factory management increases work hours and reduces wages as a part of cost reduction measures. The workers go on strike, resisting the factory management. Eventually there are negotiations, at the end of which the workers settle for a marginal increase in wage without any change in the increased work hours.
Resistance often results in the resisters resembling the opponent.
As we know, inflation eats into the value of currencies everyday, which means that the factory would not lose much by way of increased wages. But the increase in work hours surely adds to the profit for the management. That is, economism as resistance leaves that system qualitatively unchanged, and at best functions as a regulator slowing and hastening the innate tendencies of the system.
In the above example, resistance appears analogous to the militaristic notion of defending a terrain. That is, when something we perceive as malicious approaches the objects, institutions and terrain we created, we resist it. To give a contemporary example, we are today talking about resistance on behalf of the values of the constitution of India, which we must note is conceptually different from the Republic of India. The republic is a promise we make to each other that we will strive together to realize certain values — socialism, egalitarianism, secularism, climate security, destruction of the caste system, intolerance to racism and patriarchy.
In world politics as well as in India, the reality of all political systems might be that they are tending towards the critical limits of their innate possibilities — through dismantling of the universities; leaving workers without pensions; reducing the health care benefits to the people; privatization of the police and the military; and corporate surveillance displacing "intelligence gathering."
We should take note of a certain fact of the last few decades: Politics has been played on the basis of the co-ordinates of "left" and "right," where the line between the two has been drawn invariably by the "right." The notion of "centrism" then implies that a resister takes the space previously occupied by the right, who has now shifted to a position farther rightward.
In India, in recent years, we have started resisting the Hindu right's version of fascism with a "resistant nationalism" — by waving the national flag at all times, ensuring that Muslim protesters sing "Vande Mataram" despite its obvious religious imagery, and politicians of the opposition visiting temples and reciting religious prayers at press conferences.
But something repugnant took place on Thursday. A young woman, Amulya Leona, chanted slogans and wrote posts for the well-being of all countries and she was booked for sedition. This took place at a resistance event organized under the banner "save the constitution," and some of the organizers took offense at this internationalist young woman. Often those who lag behind in moving towards the ever right-shifting "center" (always drawn by the right) are "thrown under the bus."
Resistance often results in the resisters resembling the opponent — "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
The romance of resistance lies in the social illusion it provides with the noise of action, which is never political action, nor transformative participation. Instead, resistance often lets political systems reach the limits of its innate tendencies to the point of death while regulating their decay. Therefore, resistance creates heroes who knowingly regulate the innate tendencies of the system while seeming to be opposed to it. The classic example is the union leader who takes a cut from the workers and the factory owners. Resistance can be good business.
The most popular interpretation of resistance is "civil disobedience" which presumes that the natural duty of a human being is to obey. When the circumstances are not ideal we are supposed to make the exception and disobey under the condition that everything is "civil." In this case "civil" refers to the kind of relation between the agents of the state — the ministers, judges, and the police — and those who disobey; that is, the agents of the state remain obedient to the law and human rights conventions, and the protestors obey all laws except the one they choose to disobey.
For example, a crowd seeking to disobey the law against "freedom of organization" is expected to obey all laws except that one. The difficulty today with this notion of "civil disobedience" lies entirely in its premise of universal obedience. As we have argued, even the struggle against the CAA requires disobedience of not just the unjust law and its associated processes, such as the NRC and NPR, but also disobedience of the rules of caste oppression. Unless it tends towards universal disobedience — of all norms, codes, rules, constructs that keep the oppressive system intact — "civil disobedience" will eventually dissipate.
Concepts like "civil disobedience" and even "non-violence," which we recognize under resistance, work well in an idealized liberal state in which persuasion on the basis of moral hegemony changes the course of history for "the good." The trouble is that liberalism is founded on the superstition that all possibilities are equal in value and that they can co-exist in politics. As Martin Buber tried to explain to Gandhi, we know that the Jewish people and the Nazi state could not co-exist.
The difference between resistance and what we can call "revolution" for the time being can be explained through the encounter between M.K. Gandhi and P. C. Joshi in 1944. Joshi was the first general secretary of the Communist Party of India. Gandhi the resister feared the approach of "western civilization" through colonial rule, which for him reached the ultimate limit at the point when it began to transform the "eternal" caste order of Indian society, which he called "Hindu." Gandhi spoke of the feared ultimate event during a conversation with Sardar Patel at Yervada jail in 1932 — "the untouchable hooligans will make common cause with Muslim hooligans and kill caste Hindus." (emphasis added)
In this case, Gandhi was being a "bourgeois thinker" in the sense in which Wittgenstein used the term — "he thought with aim of clearing up the affairs of some particular community." Wittgenstein had opposed the "bourgeois thinker" with the philosopher who must be indifferent to the interests of communities, because the philosopher is concerned with the very meaning of "interest" and "common."
The most popular interpretation of resistance is "civil disobedience" which presumes that the natural duty of a human being is to obey.
P.C. Joshi was involved in the project of "people's struggle" to bring an egalitarian society, to create something new rather than resisting changes to the old. Gandhi, who had a limited conception of the people as "caste Hindus," found it curious and asked Joshi who these people were. Joshi responded: "People in people's war means all peoples the world over without exception."
This "without exception" implies that "people" is not just the sum of all men and women but the sum of all the possible inclinations and all the impossible desires of humankind. This drive for the infinite which we find in Joshi is something that confounded Gandhi but which is an essential for change. For this moment, then, revolution implies this: We must go beyond "resistance" to struggle for people, without exception.
*Shaj Mohan is a philosopher based in the subcontinent.
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Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.
October 28, 2021
CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."
Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.
According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.
While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.
Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.
Two letters per month
The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.
Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."
A form of punishment
Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.
Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.
Outside the gates of Tora Prison
Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.
This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.
During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.
Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.
He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.
Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.
It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.
In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.
Marked in red
According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."
Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.
Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.
According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.
Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."
Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court
Fear of being forgotten
Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.
"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."
Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."
Looking for something to say
During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."
After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.
Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.
Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.
News about COVID-19
In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.
Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.
Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.
Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.
"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."
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