Who is Alaa Abd el-Fattah and why is he imprisoned in Egypt?

The Egyptian-British activist stopped drinking water on Sunday in an effort to bring attention to his plight as COP27 began.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah
Alaa Abd el-Fattah's family has focused attention on the continued imprisonment of the Egyptian activist, in the hope that world leaders attending COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh will push for his release [Khaled Desouki/AFP]

Concern over the fate of jailed Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah is growing as he continues to stage a hunger strike in protest against his years-long detention by Egyptian authorities on charges of spreading disinformation.

On Sunday, as world leaders gathered in Egypt for the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Abd el-Fattah announced he had stopped drinking water.

Relatives and concerned observers fear he could now die within days and are demanding his immediate release. The United Kingdom’s government has said it is pushing for him to be freed.

Here is what you need to know about the case.

Who is Abd el-Fattah and why is he in prison?

  • Abd el-Fattah emerged as a leading pro-democracy activist and blogger during Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising, which forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office after three decades in power.
  • But the 40-year-old has spent most of the past decade behind bars. In 2015, he was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of violating protest laws two years earlier, when now-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coup against Mubarak’s democratically elected successor Mohamed Morsi.
  • El-Sisi went on to win the presidency in a disputed 2014 vote marred by low turnout and a sweeping crackdown on dissent. He has since been accused of jailing tens of thousands of critics of his rule.
  • Abd el-Fattah remained imprisoned until March 2019, when he was released on probation. But within six months he was rearrested and in December 2021 was sentenced to another five-year term on charges of spreading false news. Human rights advocates have said that the case against Abd el-Fattah and his continued imprisonment is unjust, and a “reprisal” against him for being a leader of the 2011 uprising.

Why did Abd el-Fattah choose to go on hunger strike?

  • In April, days after obtaining British citizenship while behind bars on account of his mother having been born in the UK, Abd el-Fattah launched a hunger strike to protest against his continued detention and treatment in jail.
  • Despite reportedly having been reduced to “skin on bone” since, he escalated his months-long demonstration over the weekend when he informed his family that he would stop drinking water.
  • Volker Turk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, on Tuesday warned Abd el-Fattah was in great danger and called for Egypt to immediately release him. “His dry hunger strike puts his life at acute risk,” Turk’s spokesperson, Ravina Shamdasani, told a news briefing in Geneva.

What has the UK said about his case?

  • The UK government has said it is “deeply concerned” by Abd el-Fattah’s case and is “doing everything it can” to secure his release.
  • Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office said the British leader had raised the Egyptian activist’s detention with el-Sisi during a meeting between the pair on Monday on the sidelines of the COP27 summit. “The Prime Minister said he hoped to see this resolved as soon as possible and would continue to press for progress,” Sunak’s office said in a statement.
  • But London’s efforts have proved fruitless to date, with Cairo showing no indication yet that it is planning to free Abd el-Fattah and Egyptian authorities having repeatedly stonewalled British consular officials’ requests to visit him in prison.
  • Meanwhile, critics have accused ruling Conservative Party officials of failing to apply sufficient pressure over the case. “For too long this government’s diplomacy has been weak,” David Lammy, the main opposition Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, tweeted on Tuesday. “The government must make clear there will be serious diplomatic consequences if consular access is not granted immediately and Alaa Abd el-Fattah is not released and reunited with his family.”

Could the Egyptian government back down?

  • Several dual nationals have been released from prison sentences in Egypt in recent years after agreeing to relinquish their Egyptian citizenship – a move that paves the way for individuals to be deported as foreigners.
  • In July 2020, Egyptian-American medical student Mohamed Amashah was released after spending more than a year in prison and allowed to return home to the United States. Amashah had been jailed for nearly 500 days. He had been initially arrested after protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with a sign that read “freedom for all prisoners”. Amashah relinquished his Egyptian citizenship as a condition of his release.
  • Fellow Egyptian American Reem Desouky was also freed in May 2020 after being held without trial in an Egyptian prison for more than 300 days over a social media post criticising el-Sisi. Desouky, a teacher from Pennsylvania, was similarly required to renounce her Egyptian citizenship to secure her release.
  • However, the case involving Abd el-Fattah, who was born in Egypt and lived in the country before his jailing, is inherently more complex.
  • While his family have stated that Abd el-Fattah is willing to relinquish his Egyptian citizenship in order to win his release, Egyptian officials have not publicly acknowledged his status as a dual national, meaning it may prove unlikely they allow him to walk free and leave the country.

Could COP27 increase the pressure on Egypt?

  • The Egyptian government had hoped that hosting COP27 would bring positive coverage to Egypt, and legitimacy to President el-Sisi.
  • Instead, Abd el-Fattah’s family and supporters have been able to use the event to bring international attention to his plight, and that of thousands of other Egyptian political prisoners. Journalists at the climate conference have repeatedly asked questions about Abd el-Fattah, and his sister Sanaa Seif has been able to freely speak about his case.
  • On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had received assurances from el-Sisi that the Egyptian leader was “committed” to ensuring Abd el-Fattah’s health “is preserved”. Macron said el-Sisi had told him during a meeting on the sidelines of the COP27 summit that “the next few weeks and months will bring results”. There was no response from Cairo to Macron’s remarks, but Abd el-Fattah’s relatives said the alleged exchange indicated he may have been force-fed by his jailers and called for Egyptian authorities to provide “proof of life”.
Source: Al Jazeera