SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — The family of one of Egypt’s top jailed pro-democracy activists is warning that time is running out on his life as they plead with world leaders at a U.N. climate conference to press Egypt for his release of.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah – who spent most of the last decade in prison for his criticism of his rulers and last year was sentenced to another five years over a retweet – escalated a months-long hunger strike. He completely stopped all caloric intake and then stopped drinking water on Sunday, the first day of the conference.
Sanaa Seif, his younger sister, said on Tuesday the family feared the Egyptian government could resort to force-feeding her brother to keep him alive to avoid the embarrassment of dying while the country is in international foreground.
“Force feeding is torture. Nothing should happen against his will as long as he can say it to say it,” he told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference in the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Seif, who has been jailed in Egypt for her activism in the past and now lives in Britain, came to Sharm el-Sheikh to make her brother’s case, speaking to international media and other activists. Amnesty International warned that he could die within days if he is not released.
The family is pressing the British government to win Abdel-Fattah’s release and bring him back to the UK, where he also holds citizenship. In a letter to his family announcing his water strike, Abdel-Fattah said he was convinced the Egyptian government had no intention of releasing him and that the spotlight of the conference was his only chance to press his case — and that he was willing to die if not freed.
“I want to be here as a reminder to them (world leaders) that this man is dying over there and you are all complicit. And you will have blood on your hands. And that’s why I’m here,” Seif said.
At the gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh, British Prime Minister Rishi Sounak, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised the activist’s case in their talks with the Egyptian leader, their offices said, though Sounak avoided press questions. on the subject.
Abdel-Fattah rose to prominence with decades of pro-democracy activism, particularly in the 2011 uprisings that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and swept elsewhere in the Middle East.
For many, his imprisonment was another sign of Egypt’s return to authoritarian rule under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a close ally of many Western governments. Since 2013, El-Sisi’s government has unleashed a harsh crackdown on dissent, arresting thousands and imposing severe restrictions on independent groups and media.
Days before the start of the climate conference, another jailed activist, Alaa al-Salmi, died in prison after a two-month hunger strike, his family said. Human rights groups say poor conditions and abuses are rampant in Egypt’s prisons and many have died in custody.
Abdel-Fattah has been imprisoned repeatedly under different governments for lobbying for civil rights. After El-Sisi’s government effectively banned the protests, he served a five-year prison sentence for participating in an unauthorized demonstration and allegedly assaulting a police officer.
He was released in 2019 but within months was arrested again after retweeting the news of another inmate’s death. At the time, authorities arrested dozens of activists after a rare outbreak of anti-government protests — though most, like Abdel-Fattah, did not participate. In December, he was convicted of spreading fake news and sentenced to another five years in prison.
For the second day on Tuesday, his mother, Laila Sweif, went to the prison where her son is being held to get proof that he is still alive. On Monday, she waited hours outside the prison for a letter from Abdel-Fattah, but was told he refused to write it.
The return was a risk for Saif as well. During her last visit to Cairo, security officers stopped her for hours at the airport before allowing her to enter. She said she was not stopped when she arrived in Sharm El Sheikh on Monday and has not been harassed. She said she could see she was being followed.
“I stopped doing these calculations… because when you don’t have many options, you have nothing to lose. And this is where the Egyptian regime put us,” he said.
At a news conference on Tuesday, a pro-government Egyptian lawmaker tried to stir things up, taking the microphone and shouting that her brother was a criminal, not a political prisoner, and that he was inciting foreign governments against Egypt. UN security removed him from the room.
Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian rights defender and the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, called on all COP27 participants to highlight what he described as a “full-scale human rights crisis” in Egypt.
“We ask them to join us in our demands for the Egyptian government to speed up the release of political prisoners and to save Alaa Abdel-Fattah’s life and release him,” he said.
Western governments have long been reluctant to put much pressure on el-Sissi’s government on human rights, and their officials often argue that backroom negotiations are more effective for prisoner releases.
Macron said El Sisi told him in their meeting that he was committed to ensuring “his health is preserved”.
“I say this with great caution, I hope that the coming weeks and months will bring results,” the French president said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry gave no indication that Egypt was considering the release.
Speaking to US news channel CNBC, Shoukry said Abdel Fattah would be given “the health care available to all prisoners”. He said the hunger strike and water were “a matter of personal choice” and suggested it might not be true. He also suggested that the Egyptian government does not officially recognize his British citizenship.
Seif was incredulous.
“The solution is very, very simple: either put him on a plane to London or give him consular access. Allow the British embassy to see him,” he said. “I don’t trust prison authorities.”
She doesn’t think about the worst-case scenario: Her brother’s death.
“It’s not over until it’s over. As long as he is still breathing alive, then there is room to save him. And that’s the only thing on my mind,” he said.