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Jailed Egyptian Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah Publishes Prison Writings as Sisi Cracks Down on Dissent

StoryOctober 21, 2021
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The Biden administration says it is withholding about 10% of its annual military aid to Egypt because of concerns over human rights abuses by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt will still get nearly $1.2 billion in military assistance, even as a new report by Human Rights Watch finds Egyptian authorities have killed perhaps hundreds of secretly held dissidents in extrajudicial executions in recent years. Egypt holds an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, including the prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who appeared in court this week to face charges of spreading “false news” on social media. He has been imprisoned since his arrest in September 2019, just six months after he was released following a five-year prison term for his role in the peaceful demonstrations of 2011. El-Fattah’s mother Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at Cairo University, says he is under severe restrictions, with no exercise time or even reading materials permitted in jail. “He’s been in jail on pretrial remand for more than two years, which is completely illegal,” says Soueif. The case against the activist is part of a wider crackdown on civil society, says Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a reporter for the independent Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr. “The vast majority of political prisoners in Egypt have not been convicted of a crime,” he says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to Egypt. The Biden administration has said it will withhold 10%, or $130 million, in military aid to Egypt amidst mounting concerns over human rights abuses by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government. This means nearly $1.2 billion in military assistance will continue to flow to Egypt, even as a new report by Human Rights Watch finds Egyptian Interior Ministry forces have killed perhaps hundreds of secretly held dissidents in extrajudicial executions in recent years. It’s estimated Egypt holds about 60,000 political prisoners.

This comes as prominent Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah appeared before the Emergency State Security Court in Cairo Monday to face charges of spreading false news on social media and belonging to terrorist groups. He’s charged along with his lawyer, Mohamed El-Baqer, and another blogger, Mohamed Ibrahim, known as “Mohamed Oxygen.” Abd El-Fattah was imprisoned after his arrest in September 2019 following a rare protest over revelations that President Sisi used public funds to buy — for lavish palaces for himself. On Monday, Abd El-Fattah’s trial was adjourned until November 1st, meaning he will be held even longer, after two years of pretrial detention. His 2019 arrest came just six months after he was released from prison after serving a five-year term for his role in the peaceful Egyptian revolution in 2011.

We want to turn right now to 2011. This was after he was first arrested and ordered jailed by a military court, then briefly released before being imprisoned again.

ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: I’m very optimistic about our chances. But it’s very difficult to predict when — you know, when we’re going to make more wins, and so on. I think it’s going to be a lengthy process. I think the price is going to be very high. I mean, the recent — the recent crackdowns that happened like in the past few weeks, there’s a sense that they’re now targeting people, that the killings are not random anymore, that they’re picking who to kill. The intensity of the torture is much higher. I think the whole world have seen how they try to use sexual violence, and specifically against women and in public, to, you know, strike some fear into us. So, what comes next might be even tougher and even more difficult, but I don’t think that this revolution is going to end without — without really completely renegotiating the order of power in Egypt and across the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alaa Abd El-Fattah speaking to Democracy Now! in 2011, before he was sent back to prison. This week, a collection of his prison writings, interviews and articles was released, titled You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.

For more, we’re going to Cairo, Egypt, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is a correspondent and reporter for Mada Masr, based in Cairo, and by Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, who’s a mathematics professor at Cairo University.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Professor Soueif, let’s begin with you. When did you last see your son? Talk about what happened in court on Monday and the significance of, while he is in prison, his writings being released.

LAILA SOUEIF: Well, I last saw Alaa on Monday in court. And basically, we had a chance to see him. He had a chance to talk to the judge about the conditions of his incarceration. He’s been in jail on pretrial remand for more than two years, which is completely illegal. Also, for these whole two years, he has not been allowed anything to read, absolutely anything, not even an official newspaper. And he’s not been allowed exercise time. So he’s locked up in his cell without any means of passing the time. And he only gets out of his cell if he’s got a family visit, which are now, because of corona, only once a month, and if he’s got a hearing at the state prosecutor or in court. So, he talked about that.

And he also talked about the fact that the prosecution is claiming that he made false claims about someone who died in jail, in the same prison where Alaa is, and that he accused falsely these same officers, who now have power over Alaa. So, yeah, he said that this is completely irresponsible of the prosecution to put him in this position and that he wanted to sue them. The judge listened. He also listened to Baqer and Mohamed, who asked to be released and said that they had not been spreading false news, etc. And then he remanded them in custody until the 1st of November. And he only allowed the lawyers to look at the files; he did not give permission for the lawyers to photocopy the files, which is really —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Laila Soueif has just frozen for a minute, her video Skype right now in Egypt. But she’s back. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Soueif, could you also talk about — you mentioned that now, because of COVID restrictions, you’re only able — Alaa is only able to have one visit a month, which is reportedly only 20 minutes long. Can you explain the conditions under which those visits are held, and also the significance of him being held at this prison, the Tora Prison?

LAILA SOUEIF: Yes. Alaa is held in the high-security 2 prison in Tora, which is — and the only prison that is worse than that is high-security 1, where they put people away and don’t even allow them visits. They don’t allow them anything at all, at all, at all. OK? So, high-security 2 is just a little bit better, in that we are allowed visits. But our visits are in a sort of glass cabin, and we talk through a mouthpiece. And, of course, everything we say to each other is recorded — I assume. And I can’t hug him. I can’t touch him.

And the visit is — now, because of COVID restrictions, it’s once a month for 20 minutes for one family member only. Before COVID restrictions, we got an hour every week, and three family members were allowed to enter. Now, anyone who lives in Egypt knows that there are no more COVID restrictions or anything. I’ve been teaching at the university. The elections are no longer online. There are no more COVID restrictions on anything, except the prisons. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sharif, if you could talk about the broader context in which Alaa’s arrest and imprisonment is taking place? Alaa, as well as his sister Sanaa, are one among, as we mentioned in our introduction, 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. So, could you talk about the way in which these people are being detained, the fact that they all seem to be, or many of them seem to be, accused of the same thing, spreading false rumors, being involved with terrorist groups, etc., Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah. The vast majority of political prisoners in Egypt have not been convicted of a crime. They’re being held in pretrial detention. We’ve heard about Alaa, Mohamed Oxygen, Mohamed El-Baqer. There’s so many others — Marwa Arafa, Kholoud Said, Ramy Shaath, Zyad El-Elaimy, Hossam Moanis. All of these people are being held in pretrial detention, which gets renewed every 15 days or 45 days. And often what happens, after the legal two-year limit, people who cross that — for example, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is a former presidential candidate — they just lodge a new case against you. It restarts the clock. It’s called tadweer, or rotation. And you reenter this labyrinth of pretrial detention for another two years. And almost everyone is charged under the anti-terror law with these two identical charges, which is publishing false news or belonging to — and belonging to an outlaw group or terrorist organization. And so, we’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people being held in this way.

What happened on Monday, Alaa and Baqer and Oxygen, their two-year limits expired sometime in late September. They were currently being held illegally, even by Egypt’s own penal code, in pretrial detention. And then, we found out just last week that they were being — they had been transferred to trial in this Emergency State Security Court, which this court’s rulings cannot be appealed. So, whatever sentence is handed down, the only way to challenge them — there isn’t a way to challenge them, actually, legally. There has to be amnesty by the president, or a pardon or something like that.

And this comes in a larger context of a crackdown on kind of any and all voices who speak out. And we’ve seen a crackdown on the media, a crackdown on doctors who speak out against how the government is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and much, much more.

And I just have to say also that in the last few months, Alaa has been experiencing increasing restrictions and increasingly harsh conditions. They have emptied the cells around him to isolate him. When he’s transferred to any judicial proceeding, he is not taken with other prisoners in the regular prisoner transport truck. They take him alone in an armored personnel carrier. And this has begun to have a very deep effect on him. He’s slipping into despair. His sister Mona, who had the last visit with him before the court trial on Monday, so this was just last week, she asked him about his physical health, because she saw that his hands were pale and shaking, and he apparently exploded at her and said, “Stop asking about my health. Stop being concerned with my physical health, just like them. The problem is, I’m physically well. I eat. I defecate. I sleep. And I do the same thing every day. But as long as I have nothing for my mind, nothing that works here” — and he pointed to his head — “I won’t survive this place.” He said, “I wish that I were not well. I wish something would happen to my body so I die and put an end to all of this.” So this is the kind of despair Alaa is being driven to. He’s in prison because of his mind, and they’re trying to destroy it.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, at the same time, you have this incredible collection of essays of Alaa Fattah, prison writings, interviews, articles, called You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Naomi Klein wrote a beautiful foreword that begins, “The text you are holding is living history.” Sharif, could you read a bit, since Alaa is imprisoned from his own work?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: OK, I’ll read something from — this is a piece titled “A Portrait of the Activist Outside His Prison.” It was written from Tora Prison in March of 2017 and first published at Mada Masr. It focuses on the importance of meaning. I’ll just read the last two — I’ll read this part.

“It’s over. We have been defeated, and meaning has been defeated with us. And just as we were, in every step, affected by the world and affecting it, so was our defeat both a symptom and a cause of a wider war on meaning, a war on the crime of people searching for a supernational public sphere, where they might find intimacy, exchange, communication, even quarrels, that allow a common understanding of reality and multiple dreams of alternative worlds.

“I am in prison because the regime wants to make an example of us. 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 to the world again, not to 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.

“Siding with the stronger party is generally not useful. The powerful need nothing from you but to parrot their propaganda. The weak often cause as much trouble as they suffer. Their arguments and discourses are often as brittle as their positions in society and their diminishing chances of safety and survival. Taking their side, therefore, even as an experiment, stimulates deeper reflection, investigation, analysis and imagination. We were. 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 weak, who clung to their defense of meaning even after defeat.”

So, again, that was written in 2017 from Tora Prison.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you, Sharif. Given the situation of Alaa, as well as tens of thousands of others, the Biden administration said earlier in September that it would cut just 10%, or condition 10% of its annual military aid — that is, $130 million out of $1.3 billion — on certain conditions that the Sisi government fulfill with respect to human rights abuses in Egypt. Do you know what some of those conditions are, specifically having to do with prosecutions in Case 173? Could you explain what that is?

AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s unclear, but, according to The Washington Post, the human rights conditions — and they spoke to unnamed officials, said it included ending this decades-long prosecution of the leading human rights NGOs in Egypt, as well as dropping charges or releasing 16 individuals. We do not know the names of these individuals or their identities, as they remain classified.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but if you can both stay on, we’re going to do a Part 2 of this conversation. We’ve been speaking with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo and Mada Masr reporter, and Laila Soueif, professor of mathematics at Cairo University, mother of jailed activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah.

Happy birthday to Robby Karran. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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