The sister of prominent Egyptian British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah has said she fears her brother may be in prison for the rest of his life.
Speaking to Al Jazeera’s The Take podcast on Wednesday, Mona Seif said her family believes President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi intends to keep her brother behind bars as long as he remains in office.
“We realised that as long as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in power, he does not intend for Alaa to be out of prison at all, and that whenever a case is over, they will just, [make] up a new case and new charges and make sure he spends the rest of his life in prison,” she said.
Abd el-Fattah, a blogger and software developer, is one of the most well-known voices to have come out of the uprising of January 25, 2011, when millions of Egyptians protested against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
He has been imprisoned for most of the past decade, and in April he began a partial hunger strike to protest against his arrest and sentencing.
On November 6, in the run-up to the COP27 UN climate summit taking place at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Abd el-Fattah escalated his hunger strike and stopped drinking water.
His youngest sister Sanaa, who has also been imprisoned in Egypt several times, is attending the summit to draw more attention to his case. She flew in from London, where she had staged a sit-in protest in front of the Foreign Office building for several days, demanding British officials act quickly to ensure Abd el-Fattah’s release.
Abd el-Fattah received his UK citizenship towards the end of last year as a result of family ties to Britain, after his family applied on his behalf. According to Mona, the hope was that the British government could help him.
“He feels that for the first time in years, there’s an opportunity for him to [get] out, an opportunity for him to change the plan the Egyptian regime has for him, which is to remain in prison until he dies,” Mona said.
“And he is trying everything he has, including putting his life at risk, to seize this opportunity and be reunited with us as a family and actually have a go at a future away from this madness.”
Previously, the British government’s public actions amounted to calling repeatedly for a consular visit, while relations between London and Cairo continued as normal.
But last week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he wanted to take advantage of the COP27 climate summit held in Egypt this month to discuss Abd el-Fattah’s case, which Mona says is a shift in the UK government’s behaviour.
“We first got a phone meeting with the foreign secretary, James Cleverly,” she said. Then came the statement from Sunak, who declared he would make raising the case a priority.
Mona described Sunak as her brother’s last chance but said that her family was “worried that stepping up or them taking it seriously [is] happening a little bit too late because, well, the Egyptians are going to try and stall as much as possible, and I truly believe they want Alaa to die”.
Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister and president of COP27, told reporters during the summit on Monday that Abd el-Fattah “is receiving all the necessary care in prison”.
Shoukry has also cast doubt on the hunger strike, and said that the Egyptian government had not yet recognised the activist’s British citizenship.
The family dismissed the claims and repeated calls for proof of life after Abd el-Fattah’s weekly letter to his mother did not arrive as expected.
Mona last saw her brother in September and was “horrified” at how much weight he had lost.
“All I could think of is if [only] people could see how he looks,” she said. “They would realise the severity of the situation, and I think this is precisely why they [Egyptian authorities] won’t allow the consular visit and they won’t allow any image or footage of how he looks right now.”
‘Brutality and oppression’
Abd el-Fattah was among the tens of thousands of Egyptians who were imprisoned following el-Sisi’s sweeping into power after overthrowing former President Mohamed Morsi. He was arrested in November 2013 for protesting without a permit.
After completing a five-year sentence, he was released in March 2019 but had to report to a police station every evening, where he stayed from 6pm until 6am. In the remaining 12 hours, Abd el-Fattah spent time with his family, reconnecting with his non-verbal and autistic son, who is 11 years old.
But in September of that year, he was arrested again and held in pre-trial detention. He was sentenced in December 2021 to five years in prison for “broadcasting false news” – for re-sharing a Facebook post about the death of a political prisoner.
Alaa was sent to a maximum security prison where, his family and rights groups like Amnesty International say, he was tortured.
Mona said it is hard for outsiders to grasp the “level of brutality and oppression” of the Sisi government. Human rights organisations say more than 60,000 prisoners of conscience have been jailed under the current president.
The arrests are not just limited to writers, journalists, political activists and human rights defenders. Thousands of people have been randomly arrested under el-Sisi, Mona explained.
“They want to set an example because they are constantly terrified that people will repeat their attempt to change things and overthrow the regime [just like in] back in 2011,” she said.