The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Egypt frees prisoners, fears grow for prominent activist left behind

Alaa Abdel Fattah with his mother, Laila Soueif, outside court in Cairo in 2014. (Hussein Tallal/AP)
6 min

CAIRO — The green tote bag contained items Laila Soueif hoped might bring her imprisoned son some comfort: two clean shirts, a bedsheet, a small radio, batteries, nail clippers and three books — including a comic.

But when she tried on a recent day to deliver them to Tora prison in Cairo, she said, she was told these objects were not allowed inside.

The refusal to allow in reading materials triggered Soueif’s latest battle with the Egyptian justice system that has held her son, Alaa Abdel Fattah, 40, behind bars for much of the past decade — eventually prompting a standoff between the mother and son and the guards overseeing their limited visits.

The government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi recently released a handful of the thousands of prisoners swept up in a broad crackdown on freedom of expression over the past decade, including journalists. The releases have come as Egypt faces renewed pressure over human rights abuses. Earlier this year, the Biden administration withheld some aid to Egypt over such concerns.

In response, Sissi’s administration has tried to take some steps to polish its image. Late last year, it launched a national human rights strategy and formally ended the country’s longtime state of emergency. The release of some political prisoners in the past few weeks coincided with national holidays that often trigger such gestures. Sissi also announced he would reestablish a presidential pardon committee and called for a “political dialogue.”

But Abdel Fattah — one of Egypt’s most famous imprisoned dissidents and a symbol of the country’s 2011 revolt — has yet to win a reprieve, compounding concern among human rights advocates that the government’s actions of late do not symbolize significant change and are instead intended to appease the international community.

Prisoners’ advocates have repeatedly raised alarm over Egypt’s prolonged use of pretrial detention. Abdel Fattah spent more than two years in such detention but is now serving a five-year sentence. He began a hunger strike last month to protest the conditions of his incarceration — “to be allowed books, exercise and sunshine,” the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, his aunt, wrote this week on Facebook.

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Hussein Baoumi, Egypt and Libya researcher at Amnesty International, said the Egyptian government “always promises there will be more releases, but what is certain and what we know for a fact is that they never signal a change in policy,” he said.

“We celebrate that of course that they’re free,” he said of those who were recently released. But, he added, “they should never have been imprisoned.”

The fate of an economic researcher who died in Egyptian custody in March has added to the families’ worries for those who remain locked up. The researcher, Ayman Hadhoud, had openly criticized the government before he was detained in February. His family was not notified of his death until April, a month after it was recorded on his death certificate, according to Human Rights Watch.

The authorities said the cause was cardiac arrest, but his brother has alleged that Hadhoud’s body showed signs of physical abuse when he collected him from the morgue. Egypt’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement last month that Hadhoud’s body “did not have any traces of injury that may indicate criminal activity, violence, resistance, or any other suspicious indications.”

Abdel Fattah’s family says he continues to be denied basic rights in prison, where he is serving a five-year sentence on charges that he spread “false news undermining national security” — charges that rights groups have described as spurious. He was sentenced in December, alongside his former attorney, Mohamed al-Baqer, and a blogger, Mohamed Ibrahim, who goes by the nickname “Oxygen,” both of whom were sentenced to four years in prison on the same charges. The U.S. State Department said at the time that it was “disappointed by the verdicts.”

Now, as Abdel Fattah’s detention drags on, Laila Soueif said, he is growing increasingly despondent about his prospects.

In early April, he launched a hunger strike — and has not consumed any solid food since. On her visits to him last week, Soueif said, she could see his weight loss in the way his blue jumpsuit seemed to slip off his thinning frame.

“He is fed up. He is desperate,” Soueif said in an interview in her home last week. “He says that he would rather die than stay living this way.”

Abdel Fattah recently claimed dual British citizenship through his mother, who was born in Britain, and is now seeking consular visits, in the hope they will add to pressure on Egypt to improve his prison conditions, or release him.

In response to an inquiry about Abdel Fattah’s case, the British Foreign Office said in statement sent via text message that it “is supporting the family of a British national detained in Egypt and are urgently seeking consular access to him. We are in contact with the Egyptian authorities about his case.”

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, Ramy Shaath, a Palestinian Egyptian who had been detained since 2019, was flown out of Egypt and released to the custody of Palestinian officials, before flying to meet his wife in France, on the condition he give up his Egyptian citizenship.

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“This British process could eventually get Alaa out of prison,” Soueif said. But, she added, “I’m afraid of something bad happening before we can have that outcome.”

This month, his sister Sanaa Seif — recently released from prison herself — is touring the United States promoting Abdel Fattah’s new book “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.” The collection of writings includes some that were smuggled out of his prison cell.

And as his sister promotes his writing abroad, Abdel Fattah is still fighting for access to basic reading materials in prison. When authorities refused his mother’s book drop-off last month, Abdel Fattah in turn refused to leave the visiting room where he occasionally sees Soueif on her visits. Eventually, Soueif said, he was forced back to his cell.

Days later, when Soueif was allowed another visit, due to a holiday, they both refused to leave until he was allowed the books. For hours, they sat on opposite sides of the glass partition that keeps them apart, arguing with guards until, Soueif said, the warden told her she could lose visitation rights if she did not exit the building. Even if they cannot secure his immediate release from prison, family members hope to at least improve his living conditions.

But soon after, his sister Mona Seif said, they also banned Abdel Fattah from sending or receiving letters in prison — cutting off the family’s main form of communication with him.

And he never got the books — although his mother is not done trying.

“If you’re going to deny us some rights, we’re going to give you a headache,” Soueif said. “That is the least we can do.”