Don’t expect Boris Johnson to help Alaa Abd El-Fattah

Don’t expect Boris Johnson to help Alaa Abd El-Fattah
Given Britain's history when it comes to ignoring Egypt's human rights abuses, and Boris Johnson's cosy relationship with authoritarian regimes in the MENA, it is unlikely that Alaa Abd El-Fattah will receive UK government support, writes Sam Hamad.
5 min read
01 Jun, 2022
Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah has been on hunger strike since 2 April, protesting the inhumane conditions he has faced inside Cairo's notorious Tora high-security prison. [GETTY]

Over the course of three different Tory prime ministers, it seems not one has ever thought it worthy to bring up the well documented reign of terror that Abdel Fattah El-Sisi continues to unleash upon Egyptians since he came to power in 2013.

On the contrary, the British have, via lucrative multi-million-pound arms deals, official visits, UAE-prompted investigations into the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles in the UK and a post-Brexit trade deal, served to ensure that Sisi’s domestic brutality is normalised and bolstered, while its victims are demonised and sidelined. 

This is precisely why the recent attempts by the family to get prime minister Boris Johnson to intervene over the unjust imprisonment of activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who recently acquired British citizenship and has been on hunger strike since 2 April, will most likely fall on deaf ears. 

The activist shared a Facebook post criticising the Sisi regime’s vast human rights abuses in 2019. During the protests that year, he was immediately arrested and held for over two years in pretrial detention in Egypt’s notoriously brutal and often deadly Scorpion prison on the charge of ‘broadcasting false news’. In December of last year, he was finally handed a five-year prison sentence. 

''It would be shocking if the UK government intervened directly in the case of Alaa, though the one thing he does have going for him is that, unlike most Egyptian political prisoners, he has the privilege of being able to claim British citizenship.''

On June 2, to protest the squalid conditions of his detention, where political prisoners are denied access to reading material, consular visits, sunlight and exercise, he started a hunger strike.

Hunger strikes have been used by political prisoners as a tactic of last resort against the Sisi regime in recent years, often with viciously tragic consequences. 

In 2020, the Egyptian-American New York City cab driver Mustafa Kassem was arbitrarily arrested while exchanging currency in Cairo during a family vist. This took place amidst the coup of 2013 and he was sentenced, along with 700 others, to 15 years in prison without anything remotely resembling a fair trial. 

Kassem started a series of hunger strikes to protest this injustice in 2018, appealing to then President Donald Trump for intervention. Despite Trump  successfully appealing to his ‘favourite dictator’ Sisi, on behalf of unjustly arrested American citizens in the past, nothing was done to help Kassem. 

The diabetic political prisoner bravely died in an Egyptian dungeon in 2020. 

It’s not just the monstrosity of the Egyptian regime that Egyptians must contend with, but also the cold international system, which masquerades as the arbiter of human rights and liberty, while often quite openly supporting their imprisoners, torturers and murderers

Though Trump was crudely egregious in his support for tyrants like Sisi, one suspects that Kassem would have met the same fate if it had been Biden or any other Western liberal democratic leader that he had been appealing to.


Alaa’s mother, Laila Soueif, who told the Telegraph that intervention from the British government is now the only way to save her son, has managed to gain the support of 25 MPs and Lords who have written a letter to foreign secretary Liz Truss to ensure Alaa received consular access. 

So, will the family of Alaa have more luck with Britain’s very own Trumpian nightmare Boris Johnson or the dead-eyed Truss? Given the closeness of even Johnson’s apparently more ‘reasonable’ Tory prime ministerial predecessors to Egypt’s totalitarian ruler, it seems quite unlikely.

Moreover, given the sleazy precariousness of Britain’s global position in the world since Brexit, where it has become the international equivalent of a door-to-door salesman even more bereft of standards or morals than usual, one might even ask whether Johnson’s government has any leverage or clout to influence the Sisi regime?

In this respect, when the British signed a post-Brexit trade deal with Egypt, one that attempted to establish continuity between the European-Egyptian framework for trade, the British government put no stipulation in the deal regarding the vast human rights abuses of the Egyptian regime. 

It’s not as if the UK hardly had a stellar modern record of holding human rights abusers to account, post-Brexit Britain is one that must, more than ever, prioritise trade and economic matters over pretty much any other consideration. 

In 2021, a collective of Egyptian political exiles, citing the vast human rights abuses by the regime, attempted to lobby Johnson to un-invite Sisi to the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Johnson characteristically ignored the letter and publicly met the Egyptian tyrant, discussing the ‘deepening cooperation’ between the two states on ‘security, defence and trade’. 

It would be shocking if the UK government intervened directly in the case of Alaa, though the one thing he does have going for him is that, unlike most Egyptian political prisoners, he has the privilege of being able to claim British citizenship.

Furthermore, he is a member of the elite and globally prominent Soueif family. Alaa belongs to a group of mostly Cairene liberal activists that initially supported the coup against the democratically elected Morsi, but they soon realised that their allies in the Armed Forces and the fascistic feloul do not share power. 

After the Sisi regime had so brutally crushed the pro-democracy protesters at Rabaa and Nadha, and across the country, they then turned their attention to the likes of Alaa and the elite set of activists who are often able to rally international attention for one of their own.   

Hopefully Alaa’s name and stature outside of Egypt is enough to prompt the British government to intervene and potentially save his life. 

However, given Johnson’s stance on human rights – whether it’s his ‘bromance’ with Saudi which executes only slightly more people than Sisi’s Egypt and decimates Yemen, or Israel as it continues to brutally occupy and annex Palestinian land, or his determination to seek better trade with China as it carries out genocide – one can’t help but fear the worst. 

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.