Egyptian Dissident Alaa Abd El Fattah’s Hunger Strike Reaches a Critical Phase. Will the U.S. and U.K. Let Him Die?

On the campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden promised that he would condition aid to Egypt on respect for human rights. So why is one of Egypt's leading dissidents close to dying in jail?

CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 23: Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah stands inside a defendant's cage during  his new trial in Cairo, Egypt on May 23, 2015 with 24 other defendants including former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi on trial for insulting the judiciary. Cairo Criminal court postponed on Saturday, the trial of former President, Morsi, to July 27. (Photo by Mostafa el-Shemy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el Fattah inside a defendant's cage during a 2015 trial in Cairo. Photo: Mostafa el-Shemy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Alaa Abd El Fattah, a jailed writer and activist whose calls for democratic change in Egypt have frightened four successive authoritarian governments into prosecuting him for just attending protests or posting critical comments on Facebook, entered day 56 of a hunger strike on Friday. His deteriorating health has added urgency to calls for his immediate release from rights groups and lawmakers in the United States and Britain.

Abd El Fattah, known to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers as @alaa, rose to international prominence as one of the most compelling voices to emerge from Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Two Democratic lawmakers in Washington, Reps. Don Beyer of Virginia and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, demanded the immediate release of Abd El Fattah. The lawmakers also urged the Biden administration to make it clear to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former military leader who seized power in 2013, that “criminalizing peaceful dissent” from activists “jeopardizes the security partnership Egypt wants with its Western partners.”

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden pledged that he would indeed condition $1.3 billion in U.S. security aid to Egypt on respect for human rights from el-Sisi, who had been coddled by President Donald Trump. “Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists … or threatening their families is unacceptable,” Biden tweeted. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”

But in September, administration officials reportedly told Egypt that just $130 million of aid would be withheld until the country ended the prosecutions of one set of nongovernmental organizations and dropped charges against or released just 16 of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails. (A new report released this week showed that nearly 6,000 Egyptians were jailed for political activities during Biden’s first year in office.)

While there are scant hopes that the U.S. will use its leverage to free Abd El Fattah, the dissident’s family has focused their efforts on urging British lawmakers to have their government intervene to save his life. Abd El Fattah recently acquired British citizenship through his mother, the mathematician and activist Laila Soueif, who was born in London.

During an interview in London on Tuesday, Abd El Fattah’s sister Mona Seif, who founded the group No Military Trials for Civilians, told the BBC’s main morning news show that the British government could demand his release during meetings with the Egyptian government over plans for the COP 27 climate change conference, which is scheduled to be held in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, in November. With a single phone call, Seif said, “Alaa will be on board a plane. Tomorrow, if they want it, he’ll be free here with us.”

“I don’t think things are moving fast enough,” she added, given that her brother had decided to continue his hunger strike despite being moved to what el-Sisi has proudly called a new “American-style” prison. (A soft-focus promotional video for that prison, at Wadi el-Natrun, north of Cairo, was derided by Egyptians for offering a vision of a warm, nurturing environment that is totally at odds with reality for political prisoners like Abd El Fattah, who has been deprived of sunlight, books and a mattress for years on end, and not even permitted to know the time of day.)

At a subsequent appearance at the Frontline Club in London, Seif stressed that the situation is urgent. “We think Alaa has decided he wants an end to all of this,” she said. “He wants the end to be guided by him rather than just imposed on his body. We feel he has decided to take this hunger strike until the end. Either it pushes us enough and triggers enough pressure to get him out of this endless loop of Sisi’s prisons or it will end his life.”

At the same event, another of Abd El Fattah’s sisters, Sanaa Seif, a political activist who has also been jailed for violating Egypt’s repressive ban on protesting, read a passage from a book of her brother’s collected writings, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,” which includes reflections, smuggled out of prison, on the prospects for popular uprisings in other nations.

“I’m in prison because the regime wants to make an example of us,” Abd El Fattah wrote from the maximum-security Tora prison in 2017. “So let us be an example, but of our own choosing. The war on meaning is not yet over in the rest of the world. Let us be an example, not a warning. Let’s communicate with the world again, not send distress signals nor to cry over ruins or spilled milk, but to draw lessons, summarize experiences, and deepen observations, may it help those struggling in the post-truth era.”

“We were,” he added, “then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us. But we have not perished yet, and meaning has not been killed. Perhaps our defeat was inevitable, but the current chaos that is sweeping the world will sooner or later give birth to a new world, a world that will — of course — be ruled and managed by the victors. But nothing will constrain the strong, nor shape the margins of freedom and justice, nor define spaces of beauty and possibilities for a common life except the weal, who clung to their defence of meaning, even after defeat.”

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