As Egypt frees prisoners, fears grow for prominent activist left behind

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CAIRO — The green tote bag contained items Laila Soueif hoped might bring her imprisoned son some comfort: two clean shirts, a bedsheet, a small radio, batteries, nail clippers and three books — including a comic.

But when she tried on a recent day to deliver them to Tora prison in Cairo, she said, she was told these objects were not allowed inside.

The refusal to allow in reading materials triggered Soueif’s latest battle with the Egyptian justice system that has held her son, Alaa Abdel Fattah, 40, behind bars for much of the past decade — eventually prompting a standoff between the mother and son and the guards overseeing their limited visits.

The government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi recently released a handful of the thousands of prisoners swept up in a broad crackdown on freedom of expression over the past decade, including journalists. These releases come at a time when Egypt is under renewed scrutiny for human rights violations. Earlier this year, the Biden administration withheld some aid to Egypt over such concerns.

In response, Sissi’s administration has tried to take some steps to polish its image. Late last year, it launched a national human rights strategy and formally ended the country’s longtime state of emergency. Some political prisoners were released in recent weeks, coincident with national holidays which often prompt such acts. Sissi also announced he would reestablish a presidential pardon committee and called for a “political dialogue.”

But Abdel Fattah — one of Egypt’s most famous imprisoned dissidents and a symbol of the country’s 2011 revolt — has yet to win a reprieve, compounding concern among human rights advocates that the government’s actions of late do not symbolize significant change and are instead intended to appease the international community.

Prisoners’ advocates have repeatedly raised alarm over Egypt’s prolonged use of pretrial detention. Abdel Fattah was held for more than two decades in this type of detention and is currently serving a five year sentence. To protest his conditions in prison, he began a hunger strike on last month. Ahdaf Soueif wrote that he would be allowed to read, exercise, and sun.

Hussein Baoumi, Egypt and Libya researcher at Amnesty International, said the Egyptian government “always promises there will be more releases, but what is certain and what we know for a fact is that they never signal a change in policy,” he said.

“We celebrate that of course that they’re free,” he said of those who were recently released. But, he added, “they should never have been imprisoned.”

The fate of an economic researcher who died in Egyptian custody in March has added to the families’ worries for those who remain locked up. Ayman Hadhoud was an open critic of the government when he was taken into custody in February. His family was not notified of his death until April, a month after it was recorded on his death certificate, according to Human Rights Watch.

The authorities said the cause was cardiac arrest, but his brother has alleged that Hadhoud’s body showed signs of physical abuse when he collected him from the morgue. Egypt’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement last month that Hadhoud’s body “did not have any traces of injury that may indicate criminal activity, violence, resistance, or any other suspicious indications.”

Abdel Fattah’s family says he continues to be denied basic rights in prison, where he is serving a five-year sentence on charges that he spread “false news undermining national security” — charges that rights groups have described as spurious. In December, he was sentenced along with his ex-advocate, Mohamed al-Baqer and Mohamed Ibrahim (known as “Oxygen”), to four years each in prison for the same charges. The U.S. State Department said at the time that it was “disappointed by the verdicts.”

Now, as Abdel Fattah’s detention drags on, Laila Soueif said, he is growing increasingly despondent about his prospects.

In early April, he launched a hunger strike — and has not consumed any solid food since. Soueif stated that she was able to see the weight loss through his blue jumpsuit.

“He is fed up. “He is desperate,” Soueif stated in an interview last week. “He says that he would rather die than stay living this way.”

Abdel Fattah recently claimed dual British citizenship through his mother, who was born in Britain, and is now seeking consular visits, in the hope they will add to pressure on Egypt to improve his prison conditions, or release him.

In response to an inquiry about Abdel Fattah’s case, the British Foreign Office said in statement sent via text message that it “is supporting the family of a British national detained in Egypt and are urgently seeking consular access to him. We are in contact with the Egyptian authorities about his case.”

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, Ramy Shaath, a Palestinian Egyptian who had been detained since 2019, was flown out of Egypt and released to the custody of Palestinian officials, before flying to meet his wife in France, on the condition he give up his Egyptian citizenship.

“This British process could eventually get Alaa out of prison,” Soueif said. But, she added, “I’m afraid of something bad happening before we can have that outcome.”

This month, his sister Sanaa Seif — recently released from prison herself — is touring the United States promoting Abdel Fattah’s new book “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.” The collection of writings includes some that were smuggled out of his prison cell.

And as his sister promotes his writing abroad, Abdel Fattah is still fighting for access to basic reading materials in prison. Abdel Fattah refused to drop off his mother’s books last month and refused to go outside the room that he sees Soueif in on visits. Soueif claimed that he was eventually forced to return to his cell.

Days later, when Soueif was allowed another visit, due to a holiday, they both refused to leave until he was allowed the books. They sat opposite each other for hours on the glass partition, fighting with guards. Soueif claimed that the warden threatened to deny her visitation rights and told them she would lose all access rights to the building if they didn’t leave. Family members hope that they can at least improve their son’s living situation, even if he is not released immediately from prison.

But soon after, his sister Mona Seif said, they also banned Abdel Fattah from sending or receiving letters in prison — cutting off the family’s main form of communication with him.

And he never got the books — although his mother is not done trying.

“If you’re going to deny us some rights, we’re going to give you a headache,” Soueif said. “That is the least we can do.”

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