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Egyptian Activist Laila Soueif on the Jailing of Her Children & the Fight Against Authoritarianism

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Egyptian authorities have arrested scores of people, including doctors, medical workers, journalists, lawyers and activists, as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak. “Unlike nearly every other country in the Middle East, Egypt has not released thousands of prisoners as a precaution against the coronavirus. Instead, it’s arrested more people and cut off communication,” says Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. One of the most high-profile arrests is that of Sanaa Seif, a film editor and the youngest member of one of Egypt’s most prominent activist families. Sanaa’s brother, Alaa Abd El-Fattah — a leading figure of the 2011 revolution — was released from prison last year after serving a five-year sentence on trumped-up charges, but was rearrested in September and remains behind bars in pretrial detention. In an exclusive interview, we speak with their mother, Laila Soueif, who is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University and one of the most outspoken and active advocates for prisoner rights in Egypt.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Egypt, where coronavirus infections are continuing to rise, threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system. As the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi grapples with the pandemic, it’s cracked down, arresting doctors, journalists, lawyers who dare to speak out.

Today, we take a look at one family who’s been particularly targeted, arguably the most prominent activist family in Egypt. But first we go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous about the coronavirus crackdown, it being used as a pretext for arrests, to talk about the interview that he did.

Hi, Sharif. Talk about what’s happening right now in Egypt.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you mentioned, over the past few months, as the coronavirus has spread in Egypt, the state’s been trying, even more viciously than usual, to control the message and to clamp down on any real or even perceived opposition. So, as you mentioned, dozens of people have been arbitrarily arrested, including at least 10 doctors, who are being increasingly targeted, six journalists, lawyers, activists and so on. And also, as the country went into a partial lockdown in March, the Ministry of Interior suspended all prison visitations for the families of detainees. So prisoners have largely been cut off from their families for the last four months. And unlike nearly every other country in the Middle East, Egypt has not released thousands of prisoners as a precaution against the coronavirus. Instead, it’s arrested more people and cut off communication.

So, you know, among the leading voices for prisoner rights in Egypt is the Seif family. The eldest son, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, was a leading figure of the 2011 revolution. He was released from prison last year, after serving a five-year sentence on trumped-up charges. During his brief time out, he had an additional five years of probation, where he had to submit himself to a police station for 12 hours every day, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. He was rearrested in September, and he remains behind bars in pretrial detention.

Now, Alaa’s mother, Laila Soueif, and his two sisters, Mona and Sanaa, have been tireless advocates for Alaa and for prisoners in general. They’ve constantly challenged prison authorities, challenged the judicial system, to fight for the rights of Alaa and other prisoners. They’ve gone on hunger strikes, have done actions. They’ve raised awareness. They’re constantly speaking out. And all of them have been arrested at different times for their activism. In 2014, both Alaa and Sanaa were in prison at the same time, and their father, the prominent human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif, died of a heart condition while they were inside.

Just this past March, Laila and Mona were arrested, and released the next day, after holding a small protest to call for the release of prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak. And then, as prison visitations were suspended, communication cut off, they stepped up their actions. And this kind of came to a head two weeks ago, when Sanaa and Mona and Laila were physically assaulted after spending the night outside the prison demanding that authorities allow them to receive a letter from Alaa. Sanaa, in particular, was very badly beaten. And when they went to the public prosecutor’s office the next day, Sanaa was forcibly taken by plainclothes security forces. And prosecutors later, a few hours later, ordered her to be imprisoned for 15 days in pretrial detention, an order that can be renewed for months or even years. And Sanaa, who’s only 26, has already spent over a year and a half in prison in two separate cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif —

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So now both Alaa and Sanaa are in prison at the same time. And I sat down with Laila Soueif a couple of days ago to talk about all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to this interview, this first broadcast exclusive interview that you did with her since her daughter Sanaa’s arrest.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you for joining us, Laila Soueif. Your daughter Sanaa was arrested nearly two weeks ago. The prosecution ordered Sanaa to be held in pretrial detention for 15 days. Do you expect her to be getting out anytime soon?

LAILA SOUEIF: I hope so. You can never tell. It’s possible that they will just continue to renew her. But it is also possible that because of all the circumstances around her arrest, that it will not just go into this routine of just renewing. I think it really depends on how much of a headache we can create for the prosecutor. Maybe if we can create a large enough headache about the fact that this is a cover-up for a kidnap, maybe she will be released. I’m not sure.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Two of your three children, Sanaa and Alaa, are now in prison. This has happened before, in 2014. What’s it like for you now that they’re both once again locked up?

LAILA SOUEIF: It hasn’t sunk in that Sanaa is actually in prison. It’s like she went away for a while. I have to remember to walk her dog, feed her dog.

I suppose it’s going to be like before, except — OK, the first time was very tough, because my husband was very sick, and he went into coma and he died while they were in prison. It was really, really tough. And I think — yeah, yeah, I said she managed. I said, about Sanaa, a little while ago, that she managed her imprisonment. But what really hit her was losing her father while she was in prison. That hit her. That hit her. That has left scars that show to this day suddenly. There are times when it just all comes out.

And just hopefully nobody’s going to die while they’re in prison this time, hopefully. So, let’s hope, I mean, it won’t be such a traumatic experience.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: When’s the last time you spoke to Alaa?

LAILA SOUEIF: Just a week before the lockdown, like it was 2 March, 3 March, something like that.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So, about 4 months ago?

LAILA SOUEIF: Yes.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Is that the longest time you haven’t heard your son’s voice?

LAILA SOUEIF: Yes, absolutely. Yes, absolutely. And even when he was working in South Africa, I think we talked on the phone like once a week or something. I used to get these horrible bills.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, how’s that experience, that you can’t hear his voice, that there’s just communication through a letter once in a while?

LAILA SOUEIF: With Alaa, in particular, it’s very tough, because Alaa is the person I talk with. Alaa is the person I talk with about science-fiction novels and the stupidity of people who don’t understand the probability and probabilistic dangers. Alaa is the person I talk with. So, four months months without talking to Alaa, it’s really, I mean…

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You and your family have consistently been trying to put pressure on authorities. You’ve been arrested. You’ve been physically assaulted. Do you ever get afraid of the repercussions? I mean, what gives you the strength to keep doing this?

LAILA SOUEIF: I’m always afraid of the repercussions. Nobody can be not, like I’m not — particularly as the repercussions fall on other people, really. Maybe I’m not that afraid. But I’m 64. It doesn’t matter what happens to me anymore, anyway. But I’m certainly afraid of what can happen to my daughters. When we were arrested, I was afraid for Ahdaf and Rabab. I’m always afraid.

But I think we can’t even give up, because Alaa is in prison. We can’t decide, “OK, I’m not going to — I’m going to stop.” How can I stop? Alaa is in prison. And when Alaa was out of prison, he was in this horrible muraqaba [probation] thing where he had to spend the night every night in the police station, etc. And so, you actually don’t have an option. The option of not doing anything is not there. This is not a regime which will leave you alone if you’re quiet.

And I’ve learned during my life that if there’s something where you don’t have an option, you just do it the best way you can. I mean, long training, long training, long training. You translate things to actual actions. You don’t think about — you don’t sit down and think about the consequences. You don’t sit down and think about the years that are flying by. You just translate it into practical tasks, and you finish the tasks. Like I have to finish the dishes, I have to finish this petition for al-na’eb al-’am [public prosecutor], etc.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Your family has had a long and difficult experience with prisons in Egypt, and two of your children are now in prison. How has all of this affected your family?

LAILA SOUEIF: OK, it’s put all — in a way, it’s put all of our careers on hold. Mona should by now have done a Ph.D. She hasn’t. I’m still a university professor, I still teach, but I haven’t managed to do research for years now. You sort of are forced into becoming a full-time human rights activist, which we actually are not. I mean, the only one who was a human rights lawyer was Seif, my husband. I’m a professor of mathematics. Alaa is a software developer. Mona is a biologist. Sanaa is a film editor. But you end up doing all this around your other things.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So what are you calling for now?

LAILA SOUEIF: Oh, OK. Mainly, I’m still calling for what I called for when I stood outside Maglis al-Wozara [the Cabinet] and was arrested, that because of COVID-19, there should be massive releases of prisoners. This is the only way to make sure that there is not hundreds of prisoners who will be sick and maybe die — thousands, actually. But this is the initial demand.

In the meantime, while this is not happening, prisons should not be locked down. There should be — either the visits should be opened, or at least there should be telephone calls, stuff like that. And finally, I am demanding the release of Alaa and Sanaa, because they are both on pretrial detention.

And these are only the original demands. We need the authorities to take COVID-19 seriously. We need authorities to spend money on hospitals, on doctors, on protecting doctors. We need the authorities to stop arresting doctors who talk about the problems of COVID-19. We need many things.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Sanaa had said that she had lost hope for change. What about you? What gives you hope?

LAILA SOUEIF: For me, even what is happening now, nightmarish as it is, it is change. I have lived a very long time. I keep saying there’s a very big difference between being part of a popular movement that is in retreat and that has been vanquished, and being part of a very small elitist movement, which is how things were from the ’80s to 2011.

For me, even this nightmarish situation is change, the fact that I get thousands of people talking about Alaa, the fact that this is completely — the fact that even when we talk about a very controversial issue, like homophobia or whatever, we get thousands of supporters. None of this — none of this — I compare to the past. I compare this to the first time Seif took up a case, the Queen Boat case, a case about homosexuals, and nobody — he had to fight with human rights lawyers. OK? Now no human rights lawyer would say, “No, you shouldn’t take this case.” At that time, nobody would touch it. Almost nobody, I mean.

No, we have other — OK, I sincerely believe that part of the viciousness of this regime is the fact that it feels outstripped by events.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What do you mean?

LAILA SOUEIF: Everything, and so many people are making jokes about them. So many young people are doing things that nobody imagined before. So, they’re trying to curb all that viciousness.

Look at the doctors. OK, they arrest a doctor because he’s talked about corona. Next day there’s another doctor who’s talking about conditions. They are being very vicious, but actually they’re not managing to control things. And I think part of the viciousness is that. OK?

So, there is a difference. There is a very — I can see it in young people. They are angry. They are put upon. But they are not accepting it lying down. For me, a change has happened, and this change will have to bear fruit at some point.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But many people are disheartened and feel demoralized by what’s happening now, both in Egypt and some places abroad, as well. You seem to strike a more hopeful tone.

LAILA SOUEIF: All these authorities who are disheartening us, like Sisi and like Trump, anyone can see that they are not going to get a stable system. OK? You can have an unstable system that goes on for a long time, but it’s never — you can see, anyone can see, that it’s never going to be a stable system. There are always chances in an unstable system. There are always chances. You might be able to make use of them. You might not. There are always chances.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Are you following the mass protest movement against police violence in the U.S., and how does it resonate for you?

LAILA SOUEIF: Sure. I’ve always thought — since 2011, I’ve always thought that what we have, what is being born, is an international movement against authoritarianism, against this kind of thing, and that there isn’t — I mean, OK, there is a difference, but it’s only a difference in quantity, not in quality, between police in the States and police in Egypt and, I don’t know, police in England, police in France. These are the countries I know.

I’m glad that people are rising. And I’m hoping that — every time I see people rise against authoritarianism, against police brutality, anywhere in the world, this gives me hope, because, for me, this is a movement that has to happen all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Laila Soueif, mathematics professor and mother of Alaa and Sanaa. She was interviewed by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo, Egypt. An online petition has been launched at Change.org calling on Egypt’s attorney general to release prisoners being held in pretrial detention, and to allow Alaa Abd El-Fattah and other prisoners to communicate with their families, and for the release of Sanaa Seif.

That does it for today’s broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Wear a mask, and stay safe.

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