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Jailed activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah escalates hunger strike in Egypt, family seeks help

Alaa Abdel Fattah [Facebook]
Jailed Egyptian-British activist, Alaa Abd El-Fattah [Facebook]

Jailed Egyptian-British activist, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, has escalated his five-month hunger strike, a family member told Reuters, eliminating his meagre intake of solids as part of his campaign to protest his detention.

A leading voice in the 2011 uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, some rights groups say his case shows Western countries, including Britain and the United States, put national interests ahead of promoting freedom.

Egypt's most high-profile dissident was previously consuming one piece of fibre per week, an apple or a cucumber, as well as just 100 calories of liquid per day, to stay alive, his sister, Sanaa Seif, told Reuters after visiting him on Tuesday.

"During the visit he was leaning on the glass partition, he was struggling but is trying to keep it together," she said.

In June, his mother, Laila Soueif, expressed concerns her son's health could deteriorate rapidly.

Abd El-Fattah began his hunger strike on 2 April to protest his detention and prison conditions. He was jailed in December for five years on charges of spreading fake news, for sharing a social media post about the death of a prisoner. He acknowledges re-tweeting the post, but maintains his sentence is unjust.

Egyptian officials have not responded to Reuters' phone calls for comment on Abd El-Fattah's case, but have said he was receiving meals and was moved to a prison with better conditions earlier this year.

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The Egyptian government has defended judicial decisions against foreign criticism, including over Abd El-Fattah's conviction.

Neither Abd El-Fattah nor his family expect Egypt, a close ally of the United States, Britain and other Western states, to release him anytime soon, his sister said.

"We know for a fact that Alaa has become a well-known case to other governments so it's extremely frustrating that we did our part but we aren't achieving results, and that means that these governments are not doing their part," said Seif.

British Access

She said she pressed Abd El-Fattah's plight with numerous people, including members of the British Parliament and the UK's Foreign Office, only to be told Britain was "pushing to the highest level for consular access," she said.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: "We are working hard to secure Mr Abd El-Fattah's release and are urging the Egyptian authorities to ensure his welfare needs are met."

A UK government official said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had raised the case directly with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in a recent call.

Some critics also say the United States, a major source of arms and military aid, should suspend that aid due to Egypt's rights record. The US State Department declined comment.

READ: Five died inside Egyptian detention centres within two weeks since July

Abd El-Fattah's aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist who was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, tweets about him regularly. In June, she tweeted: "We are starting to think that it's the intention of Egypt Gov to let Alaa die in prison."

Egypt's state press office said questions about Abd El-Fattah's case and allegations about human rights abuses were beyond its scope and calls to the Interior Ministry went unanswered.

Rights Record

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Sisi's government of widespread abuses, from torture to enforced disappearances to the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Sisi denies there are political prisoners in Egypt. He says stability and security are paramount and authorities are promoting rights by trying to provide basic needs, such as jobs and housing.

Some analysts say Western powers are reluctant to take serious action against a strategic ally that has served as a mediator in long-standing issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and which controls the Suez Canal, one of the world's most valuable shipping lanes.

READ: Egypt military court refers 5 defendants to Mufti for death penalty

"I would say the difficulty is in governments in the West, (the) US and others, their unwillingness to change policy to better promote democracy and human rights," said Seth Binder from the Project on Middle East Democracy, a US-based advocacy group. "And people like Alaa are the victims of that."

Abd El-Fattah has been behind bars for much of the decade since the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak and which initially gave hope to a generation of activists in Egypt and beyond.

But as his protest enters a new, more perilous phase, Seif said her brother was shifting his focus from securing his own release to a symbolic call for the release of thousands of other prisoners.

"I've lost hope in my own survival. They're (the Egyptian government) stubborn and using me as an example," she quoted Abd El-Fattah as telling her during her visit.

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