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Egypt: New push to free activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah

March 18, 2023

The activist and blogger is Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner. Despite a dramatic hunger strike late last year, he remains behind bars. Now, his sister Sanaa Seif is calling on Europe and the UN for help.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah
Alaa Abdel-Fattah has been in and out of prison for years and is currently serving a 5-year sentenceImage: Kin Cheung/AP Photo/picture alliance

Alaa Abdel-Fattah ended his hunger strike in November last year after his situation had drawn high-profile international attention and there had been serious concern for his life. But very little has changed since, and the Egyptian-British pro-democracy activist remains in jail. 

Abdel-Fattah first rose to prominence during the 2011 Egyptian revolution and spent the subsequent years in and out of prison. He is currently serving a five-year sentence for allegedly spreading fake news. 

"Our family was advised to stay silent to allow the political wheels of pressure to work following the international calls during the UN climate conference COP27," his sister Sanaa Seif told DW. "It's now been four months, and Alaa is still in prison."

That's why she decided to re-start the #FreeAlaa campaign, traveling to Geneva to ask the UN Human Rights Council for an investigation into the imprisonment of her brother and other political prisoners in Egypt. 

But most of all, she met those politicians "who promised to help during COP27," Seif said.

During COP27, protesters on Waterloo Bridge demanded the release of British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is jailed in Egypt.
Global support and solidarity has helped keep Alaa Abdel-Fattah alive, his sister saysImage: Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

A 'campaign to supress dissent'

Officially, Egypt doesn't have any political prisoners, and political dissent or criticism is usually treated as "terrorism" or "causing unrest" in trials at the country's notorious Criminal Court.

But human rights organizations estimate that Egypt has jailed some 65,000 to 70,000 political prisoners.  

"Egyptian prisons are full of prisoners of conscience," Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Washington-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

"International pressure has been central to why there has been any movement on releasing a small share of them in the past year;" he said. "But we repeatedly see that more people are being arrested than released."  

He thinks the releases are "not a sign of a structural shift but an attempt to distract from the government's ongoing campaign to suppress dissent through jailing of critics, activists and even a number of their defense lawyers, including Alaa Abdel-Fattah's own former defense lawyer, Mohamed El Baqer." 

He also believes the releases serve another purpose: "Egypt seeks to improve its international image as it desperately seeks international financial support to overcome the current financial crisis." 

After years of economic slowdown, the crisis was further exacerbated by the pandemic and the Russian attack on Ukraine. Earlier this year, Egypt's economy was so close to total collapse that el-Sissi introduced reforms cutting public expenses and sold state-controlled companies and banks.

The reforms were also necessary to meet demands by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which made its current loan of $3 billion (€2.8 billion) conditional on reform and foreign investment. 

Meanwhile,  inflation rose to a record level of 31,9% in February, according to Egypt's Central Bank. 

Sanaa Seif
Sanaa Seif spent three years in prison herself and is now fighting for her brother's releaseImage: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance

A threat to press freedom

It's not just the economic situation in Egypt that is fragile. Since 2019, every non-governmental organization had to register under a controversial "associations law".

The last deadline to register is April 11 this year.

According to Human Rights Watch, some 32,000 out of 52,500 'civic' groups had registered at the Social Solidarity Ministry as of last October.

Journalists from Egypt's independent Mada Masr news website told DW that they have repeatedly tried to register and have been denied the necessary papers.

Failing to register will allow authorities to shut down the groups and freeze their assets.

"The authorities are forcing organizations to choose between operating under conditions that make independent work impossible or outright closure," Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, wrote in a statement on the group's website. "Constraining and silencing independent groups removes space for critical debate and hampers efforts to ensure government accountability, all to Egypt's detriment."

This view is echoed by Eberhard Kienle, professor at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "The only way to overcome the economic and the human rights crisis in Egypt in the long term is through inclusive and sustainable growth," he told DW.

Kienle considers freedom of thought and expression crucial to such growth.

"General improvement will only happen if Egypt operates in a way that respects human rights, but Egypt's authoritarian rule doesn't provide any of these measures at the moment," he told DW. 

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi
Critics say Egypt needs to address the economic crisis and improve the country's human rights situationImage: Ahmad Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Berlin promises continued support 

During last November's UN summit in Egypt, President el-Sissi told his US counterpart Joe Biden that Egypt had just launched a national strategy for human rights, an initiative for national dialogue and a presidential committee to look into amnesty for prisoners. 

"I personally believe that these pushes are nothing but a sham, but they still have some significance, as these claims show that pressure is working," Sanaa Seif said.

She hopes that this week's meetings in Geneva will have a similar effect. "International pressure is needed," she added. 

On Thursday, Germany's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Germany exchanged views on these efforts with Sanaa Seif in Geneva. "The German government has continuously advocated for the rights and release of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, as well as for his co-defendant lawyer Mohamed El Baqer, and will continue to do so vigorously," a ministry spokesperson told DW.

Meanwhile, Alaa Abdel-Fattah has promised that for now, he won't embark on another hunger strike. But that's not because he thinks that international pressure on Egypt will make difference. 

"Our sister Mona is pregnant, and we don't want to increase pressure on her," Sanaa Seif said. "So we agreed that he won't start another hunger strike until the baby is born, but that we restart the campaign to free him instead."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa