The clock is ticking for a jailed Egyptian activist on hunger strike

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) – The family of one of Egypt’s top imprisoned pro-democracy activists warn the clock is ticking on his life as they implore world leaders to press Egypt for his release at the UN climate conference .

Alaa Abdel-Fattah – who has spent most of the last decade in prison for criticizing his rulers and was sentenced to five more years last year for a retweet – escalated a months-long hunger strike. On Sunday, the first day of the conference, he stopped calorie intake completely and then stopped drinking water.

Sanaa Seif, his youngest sister, said Tuesday the family feared the Egyptian government might force-feed their brother to keep him alive to avoid the embarrassment of him dying while the country is in the international spotlight.

“Force-feeding is torture. Nothing should be done against his will as long as he can say so,” she told the Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference in the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Seif, who has also been imprisoned in Egypt for her activism in the past and now lives in the UK, came to Sharm el-Sheikh to raise her brother’s case and spoke to international media and other activists. Amnesty International warned that he could die within days if he is not released.

The family is urging the British government to secure Abdel-Fattah’s release and bring him back to Britain, where he also has citizenship. In a letter to his family announcing his water strike, Abdel-Fattah said he was convinced the Egyptian government had no intention of rescuing him and that the conference spotlight was the only opportunity to make his case – and that he is ready to die if they are not freed.

“I want to be here to remind them (world leaders) that that 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 Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised the activist’s case in their talks with the Egyptian leader, their offices said, although Sunak answered press questions on the issue avoided

Abdel-Fattah is known for decades of pro-democracy activism, most notably in the 2011 uprisings that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and swept other parts of the Middle East.

For many, his imprisonment was another sign of Egypt’s return to autocratic rule under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a close ally of many Western governments. Since 2013, el-Sissi’s government has cracked down on dissidents, arresting thousands and imposing severe restrictions on independent groups and the media.

Days before the start of the climate conference, another jailed activist, Alaa al-Salmi, died in prison after being on a hunger strike for two months, his family said. Rights groups say poor conditions and abuse are rampant in Egypt’s prisons, and many have died in custody.

Abdel-Fattah has been jailed repeatedly under different governments for lobbying for civil rights. After el-Sissi’s government virtually banned protests, he was serving a five-year prison sentence for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration and allegedly assaulting a police officer.

He was released in 2019 but arrested again within months after retweeting news of another prisoner’s death. Back then, authorities arrested dozens of activists after a rare eruption of anti-government protests — though most, like Abdel-Fattah, were not involved. In December he was found guilty of spreading false news and sentenced to an additional five years in prison.

On the second day Tuesday, his mother, Laila Soueif, went to the prison where his son is being held to obtain evidence that he is still alive. On Monday she waited many hours outside the prison for a letter from Abdel-Fattah, but was told he refused to write one.

The return was also a risk for Seif. On her last visit to Cairo, security officials held her at the airport for hours before allowing her entry. She said she was not stopped or harassed when she arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday. She said she could see that she was being followed.

“I’ve stopped doing those calculations…because if you don’t have a lot of choices, you really have nothing to lose. And this is exactly where the Egyptian regime put us,” she said.

At a press conference she gave on Tuesday, a pro-government Egyptian lawmaker tried to disrupt things by taking the microphone and shouting that her brother is a criminal, not a political prisoner, and that she is inciting foreign governments against Egypt. UN security forces removed him from the room.

Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian rights defender and Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, urged all participants at COP27 to highlight what he described as “a full-scale human rights crisis” in Egypt.

“We ask you to join our demands to the Egyptian government to speed up the release of political prisoners and to save the life of Alaa Abdel-Fattah and release him,” he said.

Western governments have long been reluctant to exert strong pressure on the el-Sissi government over human rights, and officials often claim that behind-the-scenes negotiations are more effective in freeing prisoners.

Macron said el-Sissi told him when they met that he was determined to ensure “his health is preserved.”

“I say it with great caution, I hope that the coming weeks and months will bring results,” said the French President.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry gave no indication that Egypt was considering a release.

Speaking to US news channel CNBC, Shukry said Abdel-Fattah is “providing the healthcare that is available to all inmates.” He said the hunger and water strike was “a matter of personal choice” and hinted that it might not be real. He also suggested that the Egyptian government does not officially recognize his British citizenship.

Seif was skeptical.

“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,” she said. “I don’t trust the prison authorities.”

She doesn’t think about the worst: her brother’s death.

“It is not over till it’s over. As long as he’s still breathing alive, there’s room to save him. And that’s the only thing on my mind,” she said.


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