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Time is running out to save Alaa Abdel Fattah

5 min read

The British-Egyptian writer and programmer, Alaa Abdel Fattah, is in the second month of a hunger strike at the maximum-security Torah Prison on the outskirts of Cairo.

He has now spent most of the last decade in jail, and is often referenced as holding the sad distinction of having been persecuted by each of the three governments in Egypt’s modern history. Imprisoned by the Mubarak regime, charged for his writings during the brief Muslim Brotherhood government that followed Egypt’s first democratic election, jailed in 2013 by the post-coup regime of Abdel el-Sisi, now regarded as the most vicious of the three. His stated crime, for which Alaa already served a five-year sentence, was organising a protest.

Any freedom within this time has been fleeting. A brief release in 2019 came with the proviso that Alaa return each night to the police station. Alaa described the arrangement as almost more cruel than outright incarceration, but for the fact it allowed him to develop his relationship with his young son, Khaled, who is once again without his father.

With so many years lost, Alaa’s health is deteriorating and his mental health can no longer be taken for granted

The British component in Alaa’s dual nationality is a new development. His mother, Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at Cairo University, was born in London in 1956, where her mother studied for a PHD. It remains the family’s hope that securing Alaa’s dual citizenship can help bring justice and in the meantime help Alaa access British consular visits while in prison, and the right to receive books.

This week Alaa’s sister, Mona, disclosed that his hunger strike is entering the phase where the body is critically weakened. Always spiritually strong, Alaa has recently, and for the first time, mentioned suicidal thoughts. Wrong as it may be that a passport can make such a difference, the family have been at pains to impress upon the UK public the urgency of Alaa’s case.

If the documentation attached to his UK citizenship is recent, Alaa’s connection is not. A masterful collection of his diaries and essays, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, were smuggled out of prison and published last year by London’s Fitzcarraldo Editions. Alaa writes of Tahrir Square and counter revolution, but also of the gig-economy and Uber’s erosion of employment rights. He writes of Vodafone and how it cut the internet on Egypt’s revolution at the request of the Mubarak regime, but also of Vodafone lobbying HMRC on UK tax policy in the so-called “sweetheart deals” of 2011.

As with all the best writers, his observation of life is itself enriching. During his 2019 release, Alaa writes of the oddity of seeing so much communication through messaging and emoji, puzzled that while he was incarcerated for the nuance and threat of the written word, on the outside, people became content in such simplified expressions of thought and mood. If it is a quirk of life that Alaa now has the British government to press his case, it is no less striking that one of the finest writers and thinkers in the Arab world is now also British.

Aside from the recent example of UK public and Parliament mobilising to secure the release of British-Iranian, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, there are reasons for hope. The Sisi regime recently released prisoners, including multiple dual nationals, who stood alongside Alaa in protests a decade ago. Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, imprisoned by Sisi for work in support of Palestine, was released following French pressure after more than two years in detention. Shaath was forced to renounce his Egyptian citizenship but was then deported to be reunited with his wife, Celine Lebrun-Shaath, in France.

Despite this, unpredictability is a defining feature of Egypt’s authoritarian system. The economist, Ayman Hadhoud, died in detention last month after suspected torture.

Twenty-eight year old Italian trade union researcher and Cambridge student, Giulio Regeni, was suspected to have been tortured and killed in 2016. However, that did not stop French President Emmanuel Macron awarding Sisi the Legion d’Honneur in 2020 (and past Italian recipients returning theirs in protest).

Despite this brutality, COP27 will make its way to Egypt and Sharm el-Sheikh this autumn. New solar farms have been announced, but the green movement has been silent so far concerning up to 100,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails. The Biden administration recently withheld $130m of its $1.3bn military aid to Egypt, but is allowing arms sales to continue.

For Alaa and his family, with so many years lost, Alaa’s health deteriorating and mental health no longer to be taken for granted, autumn is too far away.

The UK has close relations with Egypt and all its key strategic partners: the UAE, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It is within the gift of Boris Johnson’s government to press for the release of a British citizen who should never have been in prison and must urgently be let out.


Julian Sayarer is an author and journalist. 

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