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“A Near-Death Experience”: U.K.-Egyptian Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah Almost Dies on Prison Hunger Strike

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The family of imprisoned British-Egyptian human rights activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah visited him on Thursday for the first time since he ended his full hunger and water strike, which they say occurred after he collapsed inside his prison shower last week. El-Fattah had intensified his strike on the first day of the U.N. climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh to draw international attention to the country’s human rights violations and protest his seemingly indefinite imprisonment. We go to Cairo to speak with his aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, who was among the visitors and says El-Fattah may resume his hunger strike if the British government does not more aggressively demand his release. “It really breaks my heart to think of him going back on hunger strike when he is so thin and so weak,” but the campaign so far “has left no one in any doubt that Alaa should be free,” she says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit here in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

We begin with a story we’ve been following closely. It’s Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s 41st birthday today. The imprisoned technologist, writer and activist had a near-death experience last week, according to his family, who were able to visit him in prison Thursday for the first time in almost a month. In a statement released last night, the family said he appeared “exhausted, weak, vulnerable and very very thin.”

Alaa, a dual Egyptian British citizen who’s been in prison for most of the past nine years, began a hunger strike over seven months ago to protest his imprisonment and to demand a consular visit from the British Embassy. On November 6, he escalated his strike and stopped drinking water altogether to coincide with the first day of the U.N. climate summit.

Last Thursday, prison authorities said they began an unspecified medical intervention on Alaa, while his sister Sanaa Seif campaigned here at COP27 to raise awareness about her brother’s case. Then, earlier this week, Alaa informed his family in handwritten notes he had started drinking water again and had ended the hunger strike.

But it wasn’t until his family was able to visit him Thursday in the Wadi el-Natrun Prison that they learned the details of what happened. Speaking through a glass barrier via a phone hookup, Alaa told his family he had repeatedly smashed his head against the wall on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. He did so the first time after having a meltdown when prison officials refused to acknowledge his strike. He was restrained, tied down, put on suicide watch. The second, to force authorities to send an investigator to file an official report about his hunger strike. On November 11th, Alaa collapsed in the shower, woke up surrounded by his cellmates and a medical team who put an IV in his arm. They gave him electrolyte fluid, a spoonful of honey and a pickle. This is how his hunger strike was broken.

In the statement, his family said, quote, “He says he could see then that his wish for the end was getting the better of him. That there was a strong part of him that was ready to die. He also recognized that this was partly to do with his physical weakness, and so he had to fight it.”

All of this was happening as tens of thousands of delegates are convening here in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27. Alaa’s case has been at the forefront of the summit with calls by climate justice activists for his release and world leaders, including the heads of state of Britain, France, Germany and the United States, raising his case in their meetings with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But the Egyptian government has made no indication they will release him.

On Wednesday, I caught up with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid here at the summit and tried to ask him about the case.

AMY GOODMAN: This is too important.

AHMED ABU ZEID: It’s just because I have an appointment now.

AMY GOODMAN: I know, but it’s just 30 seconds. If you might tell me if President Sisi will be freeing Alaa Abd El-Fattah?

AHMED ABU ZEID: I have — as I mentioned, I have to be back again. For you, after I finish this meeting, I will come back to you. OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you promise?

AHMED ABU ZEID: Yes, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you promise?

AHMED ABU ZEID: Yes, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite his promise, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson did not join us for the show. So we approached him again on Thursday.

AMY GOODMAN: Mr. Abu Zeid, we waited for you on the show yesterday.

AHMED ABU ZEID: I swear to God, I have to finish things now. I’m so sorry. I’m just passing by here.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, I know. I saw your foreign minister. Can we — can we — can you join us on the show at 3:00?

AHMED ABU ZEID: Difficult. Very difficult now. Believe me, it’s very difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you gotten an answer to the question if they’re freeing Alaa?

AHMED ABU ZEID: [inaudible] I will sit with you. Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: The Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson refused to answer our questions once again.

The family says Alaa will resume his hunger strike imminently if there continues to be no real movement in his case. He has been in prison for almost all of the last decade.

For more, we go to Cairo to speak with Ahdaf Soueif. She’s the author of a number of books, including Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She is also Alaa’s aunt and visited Alaa yesterday along with Alaa’s mother Laila and his sister Sanaa.

Ahdaf Soueif, welcome back to Democracy Now! I’m so sorry it’s under these circumstances.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Thank you, Amy. It’s always good to talk to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf, can you just describe what happened yesterday? Describe the scene at the prison after waiting for hours. What was it like to see Alaa? What does he look like?

AHDAF SOUEIF: He is very, very thin, and he seems very frail. And we saw him in a glass cabin with a barrier between us. The conversation had to happen through a handset, which was quite faint. So, one person would be holding the handset, and the others would be just waiting and watching. So I was watching Alaa for a while, and the frailty really, really got to me, as well as he, from time to time, had to just gently lean against the wall. But he had a great deal of energy. It was like nervous energy.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible]

AHDAF SOUEIF: He was talking — I’m sorry. He was talking, talking. He needed to describe what had happened with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going. He was talking.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah, he was talking. He needed to describe what happened to him. He was talking very fast. He was using a lot of hand gestures. So there was a lot of energy there and a lot of need to relay what had happened.

We received a letter from him, which we took away with us yesterday and we’re just about reading now, in which he says that he tried to write down this experience and put it in a letter so he wouldn’t have to spend the 20 minutes of the visit describing it. But the authorities had preferred that this would be described in person rather than committed to writing.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday you spoke to some reporters, along with your niece Sanaa, Alaa’s sister. She said, quote, “It was my advice to Alaa that he shouldn’t go back to a hunger strike, not because I think a hunger strike is wrong but because psychologically he’s very, very unstable. I’m not sure if he will try to hurt himself again. They’re very cruel in how they operate, and a body on hunger strike is a very vulnerable body, and a mind on hunger strike is a very vulnerable mind.” Ahdaf, Alaa says he will go back on hunger strike if there is no movement on his case. Your thoughts?

AHDAF SOUEIF: If Alaa had not gone on hunger strike, and if we hadn’t managed to ignite the international campaign for him, there would be no hope at all of his release or even of acceding to any of his demands. Therefore, the step of going on hunger strike again has to be one that is considered, even though it really breaks my heart to think of him going back on hunger strike when he is so thin and so weak.

But Alaa is a strong person, and he is a wonderful combination of rationality and emotion. And what he said, which you mentioned earlier, is that when he was coming back from being unconscious and for a while, he felt the sweetness of allowing it to be the end, the relief. And at the same time, he realized that this was probably partly to do with weakness and that this was — he sort of — I am really going to look at this properly, but he describes it as something like a possible virus getting into and sort of riding on his struggle to be free. And therefore, he decided that he really had to fight it and he had to strengthen in himself the will to live. And so, he decided that he would eat, that he would not go back to the hunger strike straightaway, that he would build up his strength again, that he would give his cellmates a break, because they had been having a really hard time because of his ordeal, and that he would ask us for a birthday cake so that he could celebrate not just his birthday, but celebrate life itself, as he puts it, and all the births that had been and that were yet to come.

So, he is in there. He is reestablishing a positive sense and positive attitude. And he’s trying to build up his strength and the strength of his cellmates, so that if he has to go back on hunger strike, he will. I passionately hope that he does not have to do this, that we don’t have to start counting the days again.

And so, really, the campaign, yes, it was linked — the urgency of it was linked to his hunger strike, but the campaign has left no one in any doubt that Alaa should be free. And there are voices in Egypt that are saying this, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: In the visit yesterday, you and your sister Laila, your niece Sanaa told Alaa about what’s happening here in the outside world and the global wave of support for him. In response, Alaa said, quote, “Any form of political organizing that may solve our global crises has to stem from personal solidarity. Like this.” Can you talk about what it meant to him when you described what was happening? I mean, here at the summit, it has changed the whole discussion, the issue that climate justice cannot be talked about without considering human rights.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah, it has. We see that. And it transformed COP27. And I have to say, as well, that there are our friends and colleagues, Egyptian NGOs, people like Hossam Bahgat, who have really taken a huge risk in speaking out at COP, and we are waiting to see what happens when COP is over and the guests go home. We really hope that this might be a turning point, or at least some kind of, I don’t know, new page or new beginning, and things can open up a bit here, because that is very much what is needed.

For Alaa, yes, of course, he was very — I mean, he had no idea. I mean, for three weeks, he had no idea what was happening outside his cell. Even being admitted to the medical center was not permitted, probably in order to keep him in isolation so that he wouldn’t know what’s going on. So it was very important and very big for him to learn the size of what happened.

But also, when I told him about a couple of personal messages, letters that had been written to him by Palestinian prisoners and by Moroccan prisoners and a picture that someone had sent of herself celebrating her birthday with her partner and saying that she would never again take the presence of loved ones on your special occasions for granted and that she and her partner were thinking of Alaa on their day, he has — there’s a very sort of special smile that overtakes all of Alaa’s face sometimes, and it’s a very tender smile. And it was when I mentioned personal things like that, that that really shone through. And it was after that that he said this thing about personal solidarity perhaps being the basis for organizing for global issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahdaf Soueif, is the British government doing enough? He is an Egyptian-British citizen. Rishi Sunak, the new prime minister, was here. He had already issued a statement of concern about Alaa. And you’ve got the German chancellor calling for his freedom. Biden raised the issue when he was here. What are you demanding of world leaders?

AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, Alaa is a dual national. He’s a British citizen. And we completely don’t understand how the British can allow a friendly nation with a lot of shared interests to stall on as simple and small an issue as a consular visit. When Sanaa received her British — her passport, within six weeks she had a consular visit, when she was in prison, as well. So, Alaa is being singled out for very special, very harsh treatment. And really, really, the British government should not allow it. It’s insulting, actually.

And we have had questions. We have had really sharp and pointed questions in the House of Lords, in the House of Commons. The British media have really done its bit. But, unfortunately, the language that’s coming from Downing Street and from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, yes, they speak about being committed, they speak about a high priority, they speak about constant mentionings of the case, but we have had no results. Of course —

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ahdaf, you — Alaa asked for an MP3 player, which for the first time he got in years. Can you talk about the significance of that moment? He said that music makes him feel alive.

AHDAF SOUEIF: Yeah. It’s actually incredibly important, because he has been asking for music for three years now. And music is just a very — it’s a central part of Alaa’s life. And getting the MP3 — in the letter, he describes how it had run out of battery already, and they got batteries and so on. And then, actually, he says that there was a moment of almost sufi, exultation, when he heard “Comfortably Numb.” And he says the — that amazing, great solo ringing in my ears while the blood came back to my limbs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ahdaf Soueif, we want to thank you so much for being with us, for reporting on your visit with Alaa yesterday along with Alaa’s mother, your sister, and your niece Sanaa, his sister, and his mother. Ahdaf Soueif is the author of several books, including The Map of Love and Cairo: My City, Our Revolution.

We’re going to play in our music break with the first piece of music that Alaa heard in three years, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” and then we speak with a Ukrainian climate activist and the leading Ukrainian climate scientist. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd, the first music Alaa Abd El-Fattah heard in three years.

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