British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak bringing up the issue of jailed British Egyptian writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah in a meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at COP27 has renewed hope for the release of the pro-democracy activist.
“The prime minister raised the case of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, stressing the UK government’s deep concern on this issue. The prime minister said he hoped to see this resolved as soon as possible and would continue to press for progress,” Downing Street said in a statement after Sunak’s meeting with al-Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday, 7 November.
Who Is Alaa Abd El-Fattah?
Alaa Abd El-Fattah is a British-Egyptian citizen who became a prominent figure in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising in Egypt. The massive protests led to the end of the almost 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Since then, Alaa, a pro-democracy advocate, has spent most of his time in Egyptian prisons.
Born in 1981, Alaa is a software engineer, blogger, author, and civil rights activist. He was brought up in an extremely politicised and intellectual family.
His mother, Laila Soueif, is a math professor and human and women's rights activist, while his father – Ahmed Seif El-Islam – who passed away in 2014, was a human rights lawyer. Both of Alaa’s sisters – Mona Seif and Sanaa – have also been activists and the latter has been jailed on several occasions.
Alaa became a British citizen in 2021, gaining the UK nationality from his London-born mother. This process was carried out in order to make his release easier. Many jailed Egyptian activists with dual citizenship are released on terms that they would denounce their Egyptian citizenship.
Alaa Abd El-Fattah: Arrests
Alaa has been arrested over eight times under four different governments in Egypt.
He was initially prisoned in 2006 for peaceful protests for an independent judiciary, and was released after six weeks.
Alaa was again arrested in 2011 for inciting aggression during bloody clashes in a protest by Coptic Christians. He was then released after two months.
Again, in November 2013, Alaa was arrested for protesting against an anti-protest law and military trials for Egyptian citizens as well as for riots and attacking public servants. He was released in March 2014.
In June 2014, Alaa was arrested by Egyptian authorities for unauthorised protests and allegedly for an assault on a police officer and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
As per The New York Times, since the judgment was given in absentia, a retrial was held in which he was released on bail. However, he was soon arrested in the case again and spent five years in prison.
Alaa was released on bail in 2019 but was soon arrested in a crackdown after a series of anti-government protests. He has been in jail since his arrest in September 2019.
In 2021, Alaa was sentenced to five more years in prison for spreading fake news and sharing a social media post regarding torture.
Speaking to news agency Reuters, Alaa’s sister Sanaa Seif who recently visited Alaa in prison said, "He looks very weak, he's fading away slowly, he looks like a skeleton."
Hunger and Water Strike
On 2 April this year, Alaa decided to go on a partial hunger strike to protest against his detention and the condition of the prison. He would just consume one piece of fibre a week and 100 calories of liquid every day, Reuters reported.
However, in August, he decided to escalate this and stopped all solid intake. At that time, after Sanaa visited him in prison, she told Reuters, "During the visit, he was leaning on the glass partition, he was struggling but is trying to keep it together."
Having been on a hunger strike for over 200 days now, Alaa in a letter dated 1 November, wrote to his family, that we would stop consuming tea, milk and honey and also stop drinking water from Sunday.
As reported by Reuters, he said in a letter, “I consider lights on around 10 am as a signal of a new day. With the turning on of the lights on Sunday Nov. 6, I'll drink my last cup of water...anything after that is unknown."
Campaign for Release of Alaa Abd El-Fattah
In August this year, the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is known to have raised the issue of Alaa’s release on a call with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Even Liz Truss as Foreign Secretary had promised to secure Alaa’s release from Egyptian prison.
Rights groups have raised the issue of his arrest on multiple platforms, bringing attention to the Egyptian government’s jailing of activists before the COP27.
Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard, in a news conference in Giza, Egypt on Sunday said:
“Let’s be very clear, we’re running out of time. So, if the authorities do not want to end up with a death they should have and could have prevented, they must act now; 24, 48 hours, 72 hours at the most, that’s how long they have to save a life.”
She further added, “If they don’t, that death will be holding on to COP27, it will be in every single discussion, every single discussion there will be Alaa there.”
Sunak, who is attending COP27 this week, wrote in a letter to Alaa’s family, which was released on social media that he remains a “priority” for the British government “both as a human rights defender and as a British national. Ministers”.
He said, “Officials continue to press for urgent consular access to Alaa as well as calling for his release at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.”
He further added, “The UK's attendance at COP27 is another opportunity to raise your brother's case with the Egyptian leadership.”