Prominent Egyptian Activist Alaa Abdel Fattah Goes on Hunger Strike

Image design by Hugh D'Andrade, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Image design by Hugh D'Andrade, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has entered an open-ended hunger strike until he is released from prison, his family said in a statement posted on Facebook yesterday.

The 32-year-old, convicted of violating a controversial protest law that prohibits unauthorized demonstrations and attacking a police officer, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison this past June along with 24 other activists. Abdel Fattah announced his decision after he was permitted to visit his sick, unconscious father Ahmed Seif El-Islam, a prominent human rights lawyer, in the hospital on Tuesday. His 20-year-old sister, Sanaa Seif, who is also jailed for taking part in a demonstration demanding the release of those unjustly imprisoned in Egypt, was also allowed to see her father for a few minutes separately.

An initial statement, posted by the family on Facebook, read:

On August 18, Alaa has begun an open-ended hunger strike to challenge his third detention since Jan 25, this hunger strike comes on heels of news of his father's deteriorating health condition and continued imprisonment of his sister Sanaa since June 21st.

Alaa mentioned to his family that his hunger strike stems out of a decision that he will no longer cooperate with the country's broken injustice system.

A longer post explains that Alaa told his family: “I will no longer play the role they've written for me.” 

Alaa has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime. In 2006, he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest. In 2011, he spent two months in prison, missing his first child’s birth. In 2013, he was arrested and detained for 115 days without trial. And he now faces 15 years in prison.

The family describes the situation that has led Abdel Fattah to take this decision:

At 2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday August 17, Alaa visited his father, Ahmad Seif, in the ICU Unit of Qasr el-Eini hospital, after Seif had become unconscious.

Three days earlier we’d been on our latest visit to Alaa in Tora Prison. His father’s health at that point had been relatively good. Since then there had been no way for us to inform him that his father had gone into crisis. And so Alaa arrived at the hospital in the small hours of Sunday happy to be visiting, carrying flowers, looking forward to talking with his father. He found him unconscious in an ICU cubicle.

That spectacle crystalised matters for him. By the end of the few-minute visit Alaa had decided that he would withdraw co-operation with the unjust and absurd situation he had been put in – even if this cost him his life.

Alaa informed us of his decision when we went to see him next day at Tora. And it has been hard for us, his family. But, ultimately, we understand Alaa’s anger and his frustration, his need to inject something real into the tragic farce he has been made to live. Alaa’s decision is proactive and positive; his action reflects the seriousness of what is happening in his personal life. His action tries to match his pain.

The statement continues:

Alaa is in prison for the third time since the beginning of the revolution of January 2011. Each time, the authorities – whichever they were – have charged him with ridiculous, invented crimes. This has cost him a great deal: the authorities have deprived him of being with his wife at the birth of their first child, they separated him from his family, they impeded his professional career in the software company he established. Then they imprisoned his youngest sister, Sanaa, because she demanded – on the Ettehadeyya march June 21 – his freedom and the freedom of all those unjustly detained. And now, finally, they have done that which he cannot bear: they prevented him from being at the side of his father, to support him as he went into open-heart surgery, and they prevented him from visiting until his father fell unconscious.

We, the family and friends of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, hold the authorities responsible for depriving Laila Soueif and Ahmad Seif from the support of their son at this most difficult and dangerous moment in their lives, and we hold them responsible for the safety and well-being of Alaa himself.

Alaa is now on full hunger strike, starting the evening of Monday 18th August and continuing until he achieves his freedom.

According to his wife Manal Hassan, Abdel Fattah's lawyers were not able to meet with him today.

They have prevented the lawyers from visiting Alaa [...] today despite the presence of permits. Most probably it is because of Alaa's hunger strike. I am worried about him

The sentences borne by Alaa and the 24 others are the longest yet in a string of crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, and opinion in the country. The protest law has been used to jail other prominent activists, including outspoken human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Massry, and April 6 movement founder Ahmed Maher. In June, three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven and ten years in prison for “reporting false news.”

Activists in Egypt believe Alaa's case and others are merely political in nature, and meant to keep prominent activists behind bars while intimidating others to keep them away from the political process.

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