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5 Years for a Retweet: Egyptian Rights Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah Sentenced by Emergency Court

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An emergency court in Egypt has sentenced leading human rights activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah to an additional five years in prison on the charge of “spreading false news undermining national security” for sharing a post on Twitter. El-Fattah 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 that led to the fall of Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. “Alaa wasn’t even in the courtroom,” says El-Fattah’s aunt, the acclaimed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who was in the courtroom at the time of his sentencing. “What Alaa did was he had one retweet, and they are punishing him for that with a five-year prison sentence.”

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StoryNov 22, 2022Family of British-Egyptian Political Prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah on Their Struggle for His Freedom
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment we’re going to be looking at the Chilean elections, but first, an emergency court in Egypt has sentenced the leading human rights activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah to an additional five years in prison. The court also handed down four-year sentences to the human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer and the blogger Mohamed Ibrahim, known as “Mohamed Oxygen.” All three were charged with, quote, “spreading false news undermining national security.” Rulings by the emergency court cannot be appealed.

Alaa Abd El-Fattah was a leading figure in the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Alaa has been imprisoned since his arrest in September 2019, just six months after he was released following a five-year prison term.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department criticized the sentences, but Egypt remains one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid. The Biden administration had said earlier it would withhold 10%, or $130 million, in military aid to Egypt amidst mounting concerns of 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.

We go to Cairo right now, where we’re joined by Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s aunt, the acclaimed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. She’s the author of several books, including The Map of Love and Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. She worked with Alaa on several initiatives during the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

Ahdaf Soueif, you were in the courtroom on Monday. Can you talk about the verdicts, your reaction? What happened in court? Did Alaa get to speak, your nephew?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Hi, Amy. Thank you so much for this.

Alaa — Alaa wasn’t even in the courtroom. We know that he and his co-defendants were transported to the court, and they were held in the cells in the basement, but they never actually made it into the courtroom. And, in fact, the judge didn’t even make it into the courtroom. We were all sitting there from 9:00 in the morning waiting for the judge, who had said he was going to pronounce sentence. But the lawyers had several other options and requests for him, and he never came out. He conducted all the other business, all the other cases in the docket. This is a misdemeanors court, which usually deals with things like minor tax evasion, petty crime. And so he did all that from chambers.

And then there was this big security thing where they tried to get us to leave the courtroom. And we refused because the law is that sentencing has to be public. And so they negotiated that each defendant would just have two members of the family and, of course, all the lawyers. And we settled on that, and we stayed, and we waited. And we were waiting for them to bring Alaa and Baqer and Oxygen up and put them in the dock so that we could at least see them and talk to them, and this didn’t happen.

And then, suddenly there was the bang of the gavel on the judge’s podium. And the — I mean, not even the clerk, it was some kind of like the usher or something, the guy who stands up and shouts to keep order. He was there, banging, and he shouted, “Court!” And he pronounced the sentences, like really quickly. He just shouted them out — “Alaa Abd-El Fattah, five years. Baqer,” etc. — and ran back into chambers and slammed the door behind him. And they switched off the lights in the courtroom and started to — I mean, we were — we were just bemused. We were just — some of us didn’t even know what we had heard, such was the surprise, and such was the sort of, you know, total strangeness of it.

And then we had to leave the courtroom, and we left the courthouse. And we went and stood outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of them as they were moved back in the police transports to the prison, so that we could shout out their sentences to them, because we knew that there would be no official way of telling them. The lawyers tried to then get the written document from the court of the sentence so that they can start their own proceedings after that. And they told them there isn’t — there isn’t a document; the document has gone to the presidency to be ratified. Just an amazing way to conduct a trial and the ending of a trial.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ahdaf, I wanted to ask you — he was tried in the Emergency State Security Court. What kind of cases does this court hear? And how is it different from the broader judicial system in Egypt?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, this is what they call exceptional justice. So, when you have a state of emergency, then you have exceptional procedures subject to a different law.

So, for example, under normal law, all publishing crimes are punishable by a fine. So, if you can prove that somebody published material and spread it widely with ill intent, knowing that it was going to cause bad things to happen and knowing that it was false, then, if you prove that, then you punish them by fining them.

In the case of where we are now, the exceptional — well, actually, they’ve lifted the emergency, but they lifted the emergency two days after they referred Alaa’s case to trial so that he would still be tried under the emergency laws. So, under the emergency laws, where we are now with this case, a publishing crime, which is — his charge is that he retweeted a tweet about somebody dying under torture in Tora Prison, where he is being held now, and dying under torture by the state security officer who is in charge of Alaa now. So, basically, Alaa retweeted this tweet. And the government didn’t issue a denial, but the government’s narrative in the media was that the man, the prisoner, didn’t die under torture, he died afterwards in solitary. In solitary. And Amnesty demanded an investigation. I mean, there was lots of talk about this case, and what Alaa did was he had one retweet. And they are punishing him for that with a five-year prison sentence.

That is the difference between normal law, which you have to be proved of ill intent and then you’re fined, and emergency law, where you don’t have to be proved of anything and you’re put in prison for five years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk — for those who are not familiar with what has happened in Egypt under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, could you talk about the numbers of people that are now in prison on political charges in Egypt?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, the government will say, officially, that there are no prisoners in prison under political charges, because they don’t charge them with political crime. They charge people from a menu of various crimes, like belonging to a terrorist organization, funding a terrorist organization, spreading false views with the aim of destabilizing the state. And so, they don’t think of these as political crimes. And everybody who is in prison is charged with bits of this menu. The estimate is that there are 60,000. Of course, there’s no way of really, really knowing this.

But, of course, also treatment varies. So, while Alaa spent two years in pretrial detention, and then they referred him to court so that the — pretrial detention is supposed to be only used in very extreme cases and with a maximum of two years. So, when Alaa arrived at the two years, they referred him to trial for this retweet so that they would be acting legally. But there are other people who have been in prison for much longer — I mean in pretrial for much longer than two years. It just depends how high-profile you are.

But in Alaa’s case, I mean, something that’s really important and needs to come across is that, since 2013, he has been in this situation of being in and out of prison. So, as Amy said, he was in prison for five years for protesting — that was until 2019 — and then he was under surveillance, which he did for six months, and then they took him from the police station where he was doing surveillance and put him on pretrial detention for two years, and now they’ve sentenced him to a further five.

Every time, we have moved further away from the law, in the sense that the procedures themselves — I mean, never mind the verdicts — the procedures themselves are actually very distant from how the law — you know, any sensible interpretation of the law, as we saw in this last trial, where the lawyers were never allowed a copy of the case against the defendants, and they were never allowed to meet with the defendants to discuss their defense, and so there was no defense mounted, and then the judge sent the usher in to announce a five-year sentence. So, this is really now in an extreme place where the pretense of abiding by the law is very, very thin.

So we can only think that the state wants to keep Alaa Abd El-Fattah in prison for an indeterminate period, because they clearly can’t actually get a crime that they can prove that he committed, and so they’re moving further and further away from legality in order to keep him in prison. Well, the question then is “Why?” and also is, “Well, how will this end?” I mean, after these five years, what more will there be? And that is why we cannot actually sit back and allow this miscarriage of justice to happen, because we don’t understand why there is this determination to keep him in prison and to repeatedly put him back in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf, we want to go to Alaa Abd El-Fattah in his own words. We spoke to Alaa in Cairo in 2014 when he had been released on bail after nearly four months in prison.

ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: And it’s not just about me. I mean, there’s been activists in Alexandria who have been sentenced for five years, I think — no, two years. Two years. And the verdict was confirmed in the appeals process. There’s been several student groups that have been sentenced, anything from one year to five. These have been common. There’s also a couple of cases where students have been sentenced with crazy, like 14 years and 17 years and 11 years and so on. So, they are on a sentencing frenzy. I mean, this is not just about me. And it’s almost as if it’s a war on a whole generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf, that was your nephew Alaa speaking to Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in 2014 in Cairo. Your sister, Laila Soueif, Alaa’s mother, recently wrote a piece for The New York Times headlined “My Son Is Not Alone. Millions of Young People Commit His Crime.” Laila wrote, quote, “The pressure that the United States and Europe claim to exert on the Egyptian government to clean up its human rights act is meant only to placate certain portions of their constituents. The Egyptian authorities respond accordingly. They understand that 'clean up your human rights act' actually means 'we support you, but please try not to embarrass us.'” That’s the end of of Laila’s quote, Laila who we interviewed recently on Democracy Now!, Alaa’s mother. Can we end by talking about the U.S. military support, more military support for Egypt than almost any country in the world, even though it has stopped some of that support? What are you calling for?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, we need the United States and other friendly powers to back their words with practical commitments. Now, you do understand that I’m speaking from Cairo and that I cannot instigate against the state or against the government, and so I really leave it to others, to experts, to talk about what it is that can be done to bring pressure to bear to better the human rights situation here for the many prisoners, not just for Alaa, for the moment, really, I mean, because the verdict was yesterday and because we are faced with this five-year stretch for Alaa, although we are very, very cognizant of the other people, many of them our friends and the children of our friends, who are in similar predicaments, yet for Alaa, because the conditions are so harsh, because he is not allowed books, primarily that, because for two years plus he has not been allowed books, he has not been allowed exercise, he has not been allowed sunshine, and he is kept in a cell, which he only exits from when he comes to this farce of a court, which now isn’t even going to happen anymore.

Our pressure, actually, right now is for the government and for the authorities to live according to their own regulations and to give him the rights that are the rights of every prisoner, no matter what they have done — in other words, the right to reading material, the right to listening material, the right to sunshine and to exercise and to company. And this is really my top concern today, having just left the court yesterday after that horrific scene there.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ahdaf’s sister — Ahdaf, Alaa’s sister getting out of prison soon, younger sister?

AHDAF SOUEIF: We hope — we hope that Sanaa’s sentence ends on the 23rd. That is the day after tomorrow. And we hope that they will actually release her. The lawyers have papers that say that the authorities are preparing for her release. And we are very much hoping that she will come out, because that will also give her brother much heart, and it will, you know, just revive the family’s spirits quite a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ahdaf Soueif, we want to thank you so much for being with us, the author of several books, including The Map of Love and Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. She is Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s aunt, worked with him on several initiatives during the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, speaking to us from Cairo, which is very significant.

Coming up, Chile has become the latest Latin American nation to elect a leftist president, as the former student leader Gabriel Boric defeats his far-right opponent, vowing to bury neoliberalism. He’s going to be the youngest president in Chilean history. Stay with us.

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