The race against time to save Alaa Abdel Fattah: Q&A with Sanaa Seif

Analysis - illustration - Alaa Abdel Fattah
7 min read
07 November, 2022

After more than seven months of a partial hunger strike, jailed Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abdel Fattah fully refrained from food on 1 November.

On Sunday, as the 12-day COP27 climate summit in the Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh began, he stopped drinking water in his last push for freedom.

A figurehead of Egypt’s 2011 uprising that ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Alaa has been in and out of jail for nearly a decade.

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He is currently serving another five-year sentence on charges of spreading false news. As of now, he is detained in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison. His book 'You Have Not Yet Been Defeated' compiles a selection of his deeply influential writings from 2011 until today.

Ahead of COP27, The New Arab spoke to Sanaa Seif, the sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah who’s been staging a sit-in outside the UK’s Foreign Office in London for more than two weeks to demand his release.

The New Arab: For months now, you have been campaigning against the clock with your sister Mona to secure Alaa's release. His imprisonment is taking a growing toll on you and your family. How are you? What keeps you going?

Sanaa Seif: I’m constantly scared. Since Alaa decided to escalate his hunger strike, I panic sometimes and feel like I’m going to lose it but then I pull myself together. I feel like I don’t have another choice, the target is personal and the stakes are high. We’re surrounded by a lot of solidarity, people are trying to ease the burden on us, so that really helps.

TNA: Your family obtained British citizenship for Alaa hoping that it could help get him out of his ‘impossible ordeal’. You have ramped up efforts in calling on the UK government to increase pressure on Egypt to free your brother. How has the UK dealt with his case during these past months?  

SS: With incompetence. What I expected is that it would take a lot of effort to get high-level attention to the case. What I didn’t expect is that we would get attention from members of parliament, the press, and officials, and yet we would be faced with so much incompetence. We've had three governments so far, none of them has managed to get consular access from Egypt. Egypt and Britain are strong allies, it shouldn’t be hard to assert such a right.

TNA: On 18 October, you started a sit-in demanding UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to push for your brother's freedom. There has been little engagement by the Foreign Office with the case. Do you expect the British government to take action at this point in time?

SS: If I think of it rationally, this government and the previous ones have proven to be so incompetent that my expectations are very low but I don’t have any other resort. I know that if they have the political will and they put their minds to it, it’s not hard…however I’m not optimistic, I’m very worried. But when I see the amount of international outcry and solidarity, I say maybe they will feel something.

"Alaa is a very clear litmus test to see if the regime is really willing to make even cosmetic changes to the human rights situation"

TNA: How’s the sit-in going? What activities have come together? How have people gotten involved and shown solidarity?

SS: We’ve had some MPs visiting the sit-in such as David Lammy, Layla Moran, and Caroline Lucas. We’ve had several climate activists joining, among them Greta Thunberg, and many others. We held an event with the publishers of Alaa’s book, Fitzcarraldo Editions, where people read Alaa’s words. A group of ten poets came to recite some of their poems that resonated with Alaa’s writings. An activist community choir passed by to sing 'Free Alaa'. We did an activity with kids making 'Free Alaa' t-shirts. We’ve seen so much lovely solidarity but I don’t know if people inside the [Foreign Office] building have feelings.

TNA: Alaa is Egypt’s highest-profile political prisoner. He has spent nearly a decade behind bars. He has suffered terrible conditions in jail including torture and long-term solitary confinement. What is the importance of his case in highlighting the plight of the thousands of other political prisoners in Egypt?

SS: The Egyptian regime chose to imprison Alaa to set an example for tens of thousands of others. It’s a kind of bottleneck case in that if there’s hope for Alaa there’s hope for others, but if that fails then what chances do unknown prisoners have? Alaa is a very clear litmus test to see if the regime is really willing to make even cosmetic changes to the human rights situation.

TNA: Alaa has been on a hunger strike for more than 200 days. Since the 1st of November, he stopped consuming 100 daily calories to go on a full hunger strike. Then, on Sunday, the first day of COP27, he stopped drinking water. What toll could this take?

SS: I don’t know. The last time I went to visit him was in August, he looked to me too frail to take anymore. In a letter we received from him a month ago, he wrote: “I feel stronger than how I look”. So he thinks he can endure more. It’s freaking me out. Then I always remind myself that there is a camera 24/7 in Alaa’s cell, the only thing that keeps me a little bit calm. If Alaa’s body collapses, there’s no excuse, they will need to act quickly…though I don’t trust the robustness of Egyptian security forces. And we know since 2013 there was a decision from the president's office to keep Alaa in prison for good. What Alaa is living is not a life, he didn’t choose this destiny but he’s only taking agency to control the timeline.

TNA: Calls are growing for the release of Alaa, who’s at risk of death. The COP27 climate conference will be a critical time of public scrutiny on Egypt over human rights abuses. But there is also a concern that Egypt will ‘greenwash’ its ongoing repression of citizens. Do you think the call for a prisoner amnesty might be brought onto the agenda, and could it help push world leaders to intervene?

SS: I know civil society and the media will be raising the case, and I hope the more pressure we make the more likely world leaders will take a strong stance. I still have a little bit of hope that Alaa can be saved and others can be saved too, but time is running out. I’m glad and thankful that we’re all doing our best as an international community, it’s up to the politicians really.

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TNA: How do you plan to continue your campaign to free Alaa before COP27 begins and during the conference itself?

SS: I will continue my sit-in then on Friday I will leave to attend the conference. I want to be there and hold them all accountable while Alaa either dies or is saved. It’s a little risk but a calculated one, and it’s nothing compared to what my brother is going through. I’m trying as much as possible to use my freedom to be a reminder that there are countless people still languishing in Egypt’s prisons.

TNA: Alaa has been fighting for freedom, for life, using his own body. Regardless of the outcome, has Alaa won the battle already?

SS: Symbolically, yes. Alaa is in prison for his ideas. Since his book came out and those ideas became acknowledged, that’s when he won the battle. That’s also what the Sisi regime wants, they’re dealing with him as if he was a symbol. I’m really proud of my brother for living up to that symbol. But to me, as a sister, that means nothing. I want my actual brother back.

"I still have a little bit of hope that Alaa can be saved and others can be saved too, but time is running out"

TNA: You, your sister, and your mother have been working tirelessly for your brother’s liberation. Do you have any hope that you will succeed in reuniting and living a normal life as a family?

SS: It’s fading slowly. I reinvent it all the time since Alaa announced the escalation of his hunger strike. Now, I feel like the more we approach COP27 the more hope is fading, but then I try to rebuild it and tell myself that it’s not over until it’s over. As long as he’s alive, there is a chance to save him.

Jo Schietti is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue.