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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Prison as a Political Tool: Alaa Abdel Fattah is One of Thousands of Other Dissenters

Alaa Abdel Fattah
Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah gives an interview at his home in Cairo. Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

Justin Salhani

Egyptian activist and writer Alaa Abdel Fattah launched a hunger strike in early April to protest the conditions in the country’s jails. Abdel Fattah, a pro-democracy blogger and activist, was widely featured in the media during the 2011 rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that resulted in the ouster of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak. Since President Abdul Fattah Sisi entered power in 2014, the dissident has spent the most of his time in prison or under police custody.

In December 2021, while incarcerated, he was sentenced to five years in prison by an emergency state security court on allegations of distributing “fake news,” in a trial that was heavily criticized by human rights activists. A retweet was offered as evidence against him.

Since coming to power, Egypt’s Sisi, has used prison as a political tool and means of punishment for thousands of critics and opponents.

“Prison authorities… target certain prisoners to punish them for their perceived opposition to or criticism of the government,” Phillip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said in a 2021 report about the abuse inside Egyptian prisons.

The government arbitrarily targets political opponents with charges of “spreading fake news” or “supporting terrorist activities.” Up to 65,000 people have been detained in Egypt since 2013 for politically related reasons, according to a July 2021 report from the German institute SWP. Egyptian Authorities refuse to release official numbers. Once in prison, these people – who tend to be young, and well educated – face conditions that constitute “torture,” according to human rights organizations.

Political dissenters are not the only targets. Social media influencers, including at least a dozen women, have been prosecuted since 2020 for “attacking family values.” On allegations of “attacking society’s values” and “inciting human trafficking,” two of them, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham, were sentenced to three and six years in prison, respectively in 2021. More recently in April, three men known as the “Zorafaa el-Ghalaba” (Poor People’s Funny Band) were detained after they posted satirical videos on Tik Tok addressing the high cost of living and increasing food prices, sparking social media outrage.

Under Sisi, the number of prisons in Egypt has grown by over 33 percent. Still, overcrowding is common, leading prisoners to share cells with members of the Islamic State and other radical groups, according to the report by SWP. The groups like IS are allegedly using prisons to recruit members. Attention is so fervent on political opponents that prison authorities are more concerned about members of the Muslim Brotherhood than more radical groups like the Islamic State.

“Prison officials show utter disregard for the lives and wellbeing of prisoners crammed into the country’s overcrowded prisons and largely ignore their health needs,” Luther said. “They leave it to the prisoners’ families to provide them with medication, food and cash to buy basics like soap and inflict additional suffering by denying them adequate medical treatment or timely transfer to hospitals.”

Ramy Shaath, an Egyptian-Palestinian political prisoner who was released in January on the condition he renounce his Egyptian citizenship, told AFP that living conditions in Egyptian jails were like “rotting in hell.”

Deprived of adequate medical care, hundreds of prisoners have died since 2013, according to Egyptian human rights groups. And experts believe Egyptian authorities cannot fall on ignorance as an excuse.

“This gross dereliction of duty by the prison authorities is carried out with the knowledge and sometimes complicity of prosecutors in the absence of any independent oversight,” Luther said.

Instead of looking to improve the conditions of prisoners, the Sisi regime has responded to such claims with disinformation. In the case of Abdel Fattah, Egypt’s interior ministry has denied he’s on hunger strike and claims to have video evidence. The ministry refuses, however, to share the video with Alaa’s family or lawyers.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s President Sisi has repeatedly dismissed criticism that he is to blame. In January, Sisi said censure of Egypt’s human rights record was an attack on the country and an inaccurate portrayal of reality. He also rejected responsibility by laying blame on the judiciary. However, “contrary to what Cairo officially likes to claim, the country does not have an independent judiciary at all,” the SWP report reads.

While the situation has rarely been darker in Egypt’s recent history, recent developments have some activists feeling a sense of optimism often absent throughout Sisi’s reign. For the first time under his rule, Sisi released around 41 political prisoners in April, in an attempt to bring opposition figures to join him in national dialogue. Prisoners are released yearly around Eid or Sinai Liberation Day but this is the first time political prisoners have been included.

Some activists believe this is the first good faith gesture they’ve seen from Sisi in nine years and have responded to the invitation for dialogue for the first time.

In recent months, the Egyptian government has also published a rights strategy, appointed a national human rights council and lifted the state of emergency in place since 2017, according to Reuters. But despite these concessions and the release of political prisoners, many view this as a strategy to placate Western concerns about human rights violations.

“These were cosmetic steps for media consumption and not for the improvement of the state of human rights in Egypt,” Gamal Eid, an activist under investigation over the foreign funding of NGOs, told Reuters.

The Biden administration announced it would provide $170 million in military aid to Egypt but withheld a further $130 million after the Egyptian government failed to address concerns of human rights violations. Of course, Western powers have generally done little else to hold Sisi accountable.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron was a critic of Egypt’s human rights record early in his tenure but contradicted himself later by saying arms sales to Egypt wouldn’t be conditioned on human rights. COP27 – the UN’s climate change conference – is scheduled to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh later this year. The UK has also failed to act despite Abdel Fattah being a British national.

Egyptian authorities continue to deny him a consular visit from the British embassy. Multiple British MPs have signed to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss asking her to call for his release but that’s had little impact on the situation to date. British PM Boris Johnson and Sisi’s last public call was in late March, just days before Abdel Fattah started his hunger strike.

“It’s clear that my son’s life now lies in [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s hands,” Abdel Fattah’s mother Laila Soueif told the BBC.

Meanwhile, over 1,000 celebrities including actors Judi Dench, Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy; Mark Ruffalo, Riz Ahmed, and Olivia Colman, have signed a petition urging Truss and her US counterpart Antony Blinken to use their “diplomatic power” to help free Abdel Fattah.

Earlier in May, British MPs and peers had written to the UK government urging its intervention in the case of Abdel Fattah.

His sister, Mona Seif, too has announced this week that she has begun a hunger strike in solidarity with her brother.

Whether the calls of representatives of public and entertainment sphere, and above all Abdel Fattah’s family, are heeded remains to be seen.

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