Cairo, Egypt – As Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi heads to New York next week for the UN General Assembly, he leaves behind a country with a growing movement of hunger strikers calling for the release of detainees jailed under a controversial Protest Law.
Several political parties and journalists began a symbolic nationwide hunger strike on Saturday to demand the release of detainees held for violating a law enacted last year that has been criticised by both domestic and international human rights groups, as well as prominent political figures, as curtailing peoples’ right to protest.
Laila Soueif, an assistant professor of mathematics at Cairo University, whose two children, Sanaa and Alaa, are in jail for demonstrating against the law, has been on hunger strike with her only child that remains out of jail, Mona Seif, since September 4.
I'm on a hunger strike until my children are released, and all those in their two cases are released with them. The circle of people joining our hunger strike increases every day.
“I’m on a hunger strike until my children are released, and all those in their two cases are released with them,” she said. “The circle of people joining our hunger strike increases every day. We haven’t reached the stage yet to achieve what is needed, but as long as more people keep joining our protest then this is a success.”
The nationwide strike coincided with the court session of Soueif’s daughter, Sanaa, a human rights defender, and 22 other detainees. They were jailed on June 21 after they denounced the law in front of the Ettehadiya presidential palace in Cairo. Their case has been adjourned until October 21, with all the detainees – which include prominent human rights activists, lawyers and journalists – remaining in jail.
Sanaa’s brother, prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, is also in jail in a separate case. In June, Alaa and 24 others were sentenced to 15 years in prison for participating in a protest outside the Shura Council, Egypt’s consultative assembly, last year.
His retrial, along with the other Shura Council detainees, resumed on September 10. During the hearing, the prosecution showed a home video of Alaa’s wife belly dancing as evidence against him, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Taher Abul-Nasr, the lead defence lawyer, told the court the video was taken from a computer seized from the couple’s home without a search warrant, and called the material irrelevant and defamatory. None of the video evidence presented showed Abdel Fattah or any other defendants in the case. The retrial is set to resume on September 15.
|Special – Inside Egypt’s Prisons|
Alaa and Sanaa’s father, Ahmed Seif, an internationally-respected human rights lawyer who was on their defence team, died on August 27. In January, at a press conference while Alaa was in jail, Seif addressed his son: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”
Sanaa and Alaa have joined at least 63 other detainees who are refraining from food in jail, according to the Freedom to the Brave campaign group, which was formed in January to call for the release of the increasing number of people they say are being unjustly detained.
“The hunger strikes are an expression of desperation, because of the extreme level of political and human rights abuses in Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington DC based think-tank.
“It’s become so difficult to protest in the ways Egyptians were used to in the past, because of the very draconian Protest Law. Even the media is more closed, and civil society is under threat,” Dunne said.
Egypt has come under increased criticism by domestic and international human rights groups since the army deposed former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, after a wave of mass protests calling on him to resign. Sisi, then acting as the country’s defence minister, led Morsi’s ouster.
In a joint statement on June 10, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Sisi would be taking office as president “in the midst of a human rights crisis as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history”.
They criticised excessive use of force by security forces, leading to the worst incident of mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s recent history, unprecedented large-scale death sentences, mass arrests and torture. They described it as hearkening “back to the darkest days of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule“.
The Protest Law was enacted in November 2013 by Egypt’s then interim president, Adly Mansour, banning protests without prior police notification. “The draft law seeks to criminalise all forms of peaceful assembly, including demonstrations and public meetings, and gives the state free hand to disperse peaceful gatherings by use of force,” read a joint statement issued in November 2013 by 19 Egyptian rights organisations.
The legislation has been used against supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group and Morsi, as well as secular political activists and youth protesters that led the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.
In order to protect the progress we have made in our rights and freedoms, we need a new system of government around the world, based not on repression, but on negotiation and compromise.
Supporters of the law say it is necessary to stabilise a country that has been rocked by protests since 2011. When Sisi was campaigning for the presidency in May, he defended the law, saying that “irresponsible” demonstrations threaten the state, according to the state-owned Ahram Online news website.
Since the 2011 uprising, Egypt’s economy has been stuck in its deepest slump in two decades, according to Bloomberg News, as tourists and investors have been deterred by political instability.
But as domestic and international rights groups have criticised recent moves by the government to impose greater state control over non-governmental organisations, Sisi does not seem shaken.
“Sisi and the Egyptian government have been quite insensitive to protests. It’s quite unlike the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled after Mubarak stepped down, and before Morsi’s election. Those leaders felt they were on shaky grounds, and they often did respond to street protests. That doesn’t seem to be the case here,” Dunne said.
Laila Soueif, the sister of prominent novelist Ahdaf Soueif, said she had no faith in Egypt’s judiciary and is relying entirely on public opinion to help release the detainees. “In order to protect the progress we have made in our rights and freedoms, we need a new system of government around the world, based not on repression, but on negotiation and compromise,” she said.