Alaa AbdElfattah, an Egyptian-British software developer and blogger from an activist family who rose to prominence in the Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak is now a symbol of suffering during the repression that followed.
The 2011 revolution gave hope to a generation of activists in Egypt and beyond, but Alaa Abdelfattah quickly fell foul of successive security crackdowns. He has spent much of the decade, since, behind bars.
In protest against his detention and treatment in prison, Alaa Abdelfattah, 40, began an open ended hunger strike on 2 April. He had recently obtained British citizenship, a move his family hoped would help secure his release and draw attention to the plight of fellow prisoners.
Alaa Abdelfattah’s sister said he was planning to stop drinking water on 6 November, the opening day of COP27, a climate Summit that has put the global spotlight on Egypt. British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has said he will raise Alaa Abdelfattah’s case with Egypt’s leadership during the Summit, the United Nations’ annual gathering of world leaders now in its 27th year.
Without water, Alaa Abdelfattah’s health could rapidly deteriorate in coming days, while the Summit is being held in the beach resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
Alaa Abdelfattah had already served spells in detention under former President Mubarak and shortly after the uprising. His fortunes darkened once former Army Chief, Alaa Abdelfattah Al-Sisi, ousted Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and a clampdown took hold, sweeping up Islamists, leftists and liberals alike.
In a book of his writings, some smuggled out of his cell, Abdelfattah said he would never have guessed that “after a revolution that overthrew a tyrant, I’d return to his prisons.”
He was imprisoned for five years in 2014, the year Sisi rose to the Presidency, for protesting without permission. Released on probation in 2019, he was reunited with his young son, but was required to sleep each night at a police station.
The partial reprieve was cut short in September 2019, when he was detained, once more, amid a wave of arrests that followed rare protests against Sisi.
In December 2021, Abdelfattah was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of spreading fake news, for sharing a social media post about the death of a prisoner. The accusation is commonly levelled at critics of the government and activists who post on social media.
Human rights groups say tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience have been detained under Sisi, often without due process, and that they have suffered a range of abuses, including torture while in jail.
The Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment about Abdelfattah’s case.
Authorities have previously said that the crackdown on dissent and freedoms were needed to the stabilise the State and that the government is promoting human rights by working to provide basic needs, such as jobs and housing. Officials have denied that there are political prisoners in Egypt or that detainees are mistreated.
In the face of foreign criticism, including over Alaa Abdelfattah’s conviction, the Egyptian government has said judicial decisions are fair, impartial and independent.
Alaa Abdelfattah grew up in a highly politicised, intellectual family. His mother, Laila Soueif, is a campaigner and Mathematics Professor and his father, Ahmed Seif, who died in 2014, was a lawyer and left-wing activist jailed under both Mubarak and his predecessor as President, Anwar Sadat.
Alaa Abdelfattah’s aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist, was short-listed in 1999 for the Booker Prize.
His close relatives have long campaigned for his release. One of his sisters, Sanaa, was jailed in 2020 after she tried to file a complaint about an assault on her and her mother as they campaigned to communicate with Alaa Abdelfattah outside Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, where he was being held.
In Tora, he was kept in a cell without sunlight, deprived of books, news and exercise, and suffered abuse from prison guards, his family said, after conviction in a trial they said was unfair.
“My conditions are but a drop in a dark sea of injustice,” he said in November 2019 in a statement to the Prosecutor, published in selected works in 2021 under the title, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated”.
Several political prisoners with dual nationality have been released in Egypt and immediately flown out of the country, on condition of renouncing their Egyptian citizenship.
On 18 May, the Interior Ministry announced that Alaa Abdelfattah had been transferred from Tora prison to a correctional facility in Wadi El Natrun north-west of the capital, at the request of Egypt’s government-appointed National Human Rights Council.
There, he was put in a cell with three others, informing his family in June that he had been allowed out of the cell for a 30 minute break. He was permitted books and his family received several letters in between monthly visits.
Having ingested only water and salt solution at first, Alaa Abdelfattah allowed himself very small amounts of food, up to a maximum of 100 calories daily, in order to keep his body and his protest going, his family said.
By June, his mother told Reuters that he had become too weak to climb to look out of a high window in the cell, or to do his own washing. Last week, he removed tea and honey from his diet.
During a visit, his mother said her son had told her: “‘Stop imagining that you’re going to get me out. I’m going to die in jail. Just make sure they pay for it'”.
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