The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A voice of the Arab Spring is being wrongfully detained. Let him go free.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah in Cairo in 2014. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
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You Have Not Yet Been Defeated” is the title of an anthology of writing by an imprisoned blogger and activist in Egypt, Alaa Abdel Fattah. He has been detained by every Egyptian leader during his lifetime. His family announced he began a hunger strike April 2 to protest harsh conditions in prison. He has not yet been defeated, and must not be.

Mr. Abdel Fattah was an important voice during the Arab Spring of 2011. He and his wife, Manal Hassan, created the online blog aggregators Manalaa and Omraneya — the first Arab blog aggregators to not exclude writing based on its content, according to PEN America. His work, which also included creating Arabic-language versions of software and platforms, kept him in the crosshairs of Egypt’s tyrants, most recently President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

In 2013, Mr. Abdel Fattah was arrested on a charge of allegedly organizing a political protest without a permit. He was released on bail in 2014, then sentenced to 15 years in jail in absentia, reduced to a five-year sentence, which he served until March 2019. In September of that year, he was rearrested amid a widespread crackdown on protests. On Dec. 20, 2021, he was sentenced to another five years in Cairo’s Tora prison on spurious “broadcasting false news” charges related to a social media post. The sentence was handed down by one of Egypt’s five “emergency courts” that lacked procedural protections for the accused, and continued to function even though the emergency was lifted the previous October. Mr. Abdel Fattah’s two years in pretrial detention were not credited to his sentence.

According to his mother, Laila Soueif, a professor and political activist, he began the hunger strike to protest solitary confinement, and because he has been denied books and exercise.

Mr. Abdel Fattah’s father was a Cairo human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and tortured under Egyptian leaders Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Abdel Fattah was behind bars when his father died in 2014. “From my father, I inherited a prison cell and a dream,” he writes in the book, forthcoming in the United States in English. His sisters took up their father’s passions and his legacy as well. One of them, Sanaa Seif, was unjustly imprisoned for 18 months on specious charges; she was released in December. Another, Mona Seif, is also a prominent human rights activist.

The travesty of Mr. Abdel Fattah’s treatment should reinforce how Mr. Sissi’s “human rights strategy,” issued last year, was a flimsy attempt to paper over the grim reality of his police state, where tens of thousands are unjustly incarcerated for their political views. The United States withheld $130 million in foreign military aid to Egypt, setting as a condition some modest requests for progress on human rights. Egypt failed to deliver.

The withheld aid is only a fraction of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. assistance to Egypt. If the Biden administration won’t be tougher, then it is up to Congress to firmly link U.S. assistance to sustained and genuine improvement on human rights. It could start with releasing political prisoners, including Mr. Abdel Fattah and others. To them, the United States must pledge: You will not be defeated.