- Laila Soueifprofessor of mathematics at Cairo University and one of the most outspoken advocates for prisoner rights in Egypt.
- Sanaa SeifEgyptian writer, filmmaker and activist, and sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Egypt’s highest-profile political prisoner.
In a wide-ranging interview recorded in Cairo, we speak with Laila Soueif and Sanaa Seif, the mother and sister of British-Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah, about his health, his case, his family and his hopes for freedom. After visiting him in prison, they describe how El-Fattah started a water 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. He paused after collapsing and suffering a “near-death experience” when prison officials appeared reluctant to record his full water and hunger strike. Seif says they set a date to restart his hunger strike, once he regains physical and mental strength. Laila Soueif discusses how El-Fattah helped her raise his two younger sisters when her now-deceased husband was in jail for his own activism. They also describe his relationship with his son, Khaled, who is nonverbal and diagnosed with autism, calling El-Fattah a “patient, kind father.” Recalling his most recent trial, they lay out how he was sentenced to five years in prison last December, and explain how El-Fattah’s lawyers never had access to the case trial or were allowed to argue his case. “There is clearly a vendetta” against El-Fattah, notes Seif, who adds “it’s pointless to talk about the legal procedures [since] each step of it is a sham.” Seif also speaks about the mass imprisonment of other political prisoners and the major influence and responsibility the U.S. has in freeing El-Fattah and others. “This whole operation [in Egypt] is a U.S. operation,” says Soueif, who says she wants El-Fattah freed and deported to the U.K. to keep him safe.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The Nile River flows behind me. Today we spend the hour bringing you an interview I did this weekend after we flew into Cairo from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where we covered the U.N. climate summit.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re in Cairo, Egypt, in the apartment of Laila Soueif. She is the mother of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is imprisoned in Egypt for most of the last decade. We are joined right now by Laila Soueif, who is a math professor at Cairo University, and her daughter, Alaa’s sister, Sanaa Seif. They just recently visited Alaa in prison. They hadn’t seen him for a number of weeks. He has just finished a seven-month hunger fast. The last days of that fast, he stopped drinking water, during COP27, the U.N. climate summit here in Sharm el-Sheikh, not far from here, in Egypt.
I wanted to start by asking you both about your visit. You came out of it shaken, seeing Alaa for the first time in quite some time, sitting behind glass as he spoke to you through a — faintly through a phone. Talk about what he told you.
LAILA SOUEIF: The visit happened in a glass cabin, like it always happens, which was disappointing. I had hoped it wouldn’t be like that. Alaa looked even more thin and more weak than the last. Last time I saw him was — before this visit, was on the 24th of October, so it had been over three weeks. He looked really even more frail, even more diminished. I thought he looked shorter, actually, not just thinner, but shorter. And he was — he had — he was hurt in his forehead. He told us afterwards that he had hit — he had banged his head against the wall in a complete meltdown and tantrum and so on. So that’s how it was.
Now, because the visit was in a glass cabin with — you talk to him through a phone, so only one person could talk to him at a time. So, Sanaa got most of the visit in with Alaa. She’s the one who talked to him. I was just looking, seeing him get [inaudible], and that’s it.
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, he recounted what had happened. On Tuesday, he had a meltdown.
LAILA SOUEIF: He began to — he stopped drinking water on Sunday. So you get the context, he stopped — he had stopped his 100 calories a week before that, on the 1st of November. On Sunday, on the first day of COP, on Sunday, the 6th, the first day of COP, he stopped drinking water. And then, on Tuesday, two day — when he had already not been drinking water at all for two days — well, Sanaa can tell you what happened.
SANAA SEIF: He was — they wanted to do a medical checkup for all the cell, for all the inmates. They were reluctant to put on record Alaa’s hunger strike or his water strike. And so, they were taken to the medical facility, and he insisted on putting his water strike and hunger strike on record and admitting him to the medical facility. So, the officer started telling him that he is not cooperating, that he is refusing to do a medical checkup. He said, “I’m not refusing. I just want my hunger strike and my water strike to be put on record.” And then they started — they got a new officer that he didn’t know, and he started dealing with him roughly, like aggressively, talking to him aggressively.
And so, he snapped. He lost it. And he said, “I’m not leaving the medical facility.” So they started — they got a riot force to carry him forcibly back to his cell. This is a man who has stopped water for three days. And so, while they were carrying him back to his cell, he — as he said it, he said, “I lost it. I don’t know what happened, but I just kept saying, 'I promise I'll do something to myself. I will hurt myself if I’m not admitted, if my hunger strike is not put on record.’” And so, when they put him back to his cell, he banged his head on the wall until it bled. This incident happened on the 8th.
And then, on the 11th, on Friday, he had calmed down. He was taking a shower, and he collapsed in the bathroom. And that’s when he fainted. And they did a medical intervention in the cell. Like, they took him outside of the bathroom, and the personnel entered the cell, and they made a medical intervention in the cell. And he woke up. He was put on IVs, on like a salt solution. It’s called Ring —
LAILA SOUEIF: Ringer
SANAA SEIF: Ringer, and glucose. He started waking up, but he was still — he was still unable to, like, move or — and they would put, like, honey in his mouth. And that’s how they brought him back to life.
So, what happened on Friday — what happened on Tuesday was a meltdown. What happened on Friday was a near-death experience. And he elaborated a lot on how this felt and how — and when he was telling me — yeah, he was really stuck on that moment. He kept saying that “I was relieved. And I got shocked later how much I was relieved that this whole thing is over. And then I started doubting whether I’m doing this to resist. Am I fighting really for life, or am I just tired and I want to be spared of this?” A good part of the visit was on this elaboration of him, like, talking about how much he felt relief by this near-death experience.
So, he decided to take a break from the hunger strike. And he stopped, and he started taking food. And he wrote us this letter saying, “Come, and I want to celebrate my birthday with you.” And he — in the visit, he was saying, like, “I wanted to stop it and decide whether I go back to my hunger strike or not.” But after the discussion we had and after seeing his psychological state, my advice to him was, “No. Apparently you’re unstable, and you’re very vulnerable right now. And the important thing is to keep your sanity and keep you better.”
AMY GOODMAN: Did he agree with you?
SANAA SEIF: Yes. He trusts our advice and judgment.
LAILA SOUEIF: Yes. And, of course, it made a difference to him that he heard for the first time about all that’s being done for him and about what happened in COP, because he had been completely isolated. I mean, that’s part of the point of keeping him from having a radio, keeping him from seeing newspapers, even government newspapers, because he — you know, you can usually guess what’s happening, even if they put their own take on it. So, this insistence on not allowing him a radio, not allowing him newspapers, it is deliberate to isolate him so that he doesn’t know what is actually happening — except when he sees us on visits. So, for him, this was all news. And all that had happened, all that Sanaa had done, all that Mona had done, all the messages of solidarity Alaa had gotten, all this was news to Alaa.
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, it was beyond his imagination that there was a fight out there for his freedom. Like, he was — his scope, his horizon was like on a music player and the radio and finding a way to cling back to life. Like, we were on totally different frequencies. He’s talking from this very dark place, and I’m telling him that “We’re going to get you out. There is a big fight of getting you out. We’re going to get you out.” And so, that, of course, it shocked him. It was a surprise to him. But it also gave him some strength.
AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa, you have accomplished, inside and outside of Egypt, galvanizing support for Alaa and other political prisoners, holding a sit-in in Britain with your sister Mona in front of the Foreign Ministry office. Also in the United States, I saw you as you spoke to grassroots groups, as you spoke to congressional leaders, talking also about Alaa’s book, You Will Not Yet Be Defeated, because he’s in prison and can’t do it himself, and then, in COP27, really being the spearhead of a movement that is bringing together the issue of climate justice and human rights. Did you ever imagine that you could have this effect?
SANAA SEIF: No, I never imagined. Of course, I was planning to try and use the conference to get some attention on my brother and the human rights situation in Egypt, but I never imagined that I would be so beautifully adopted by the climate movement and that they would empower us. It was overwhelming and really heartwarming. And I never imagined the scale of media attention or the solidarity that we’ve seen.
AMY GOODMAN: When you spoke to Alaa and you talked about the kind of global support that he’s getting, his statement: “Any form of political organizing that may solve our global crises has to stem from personal solidarity. Like this.” How did he say this to you through the glass, through that partition?
SANAA SEIF: So, that was after he recounted what happened to him. We started telling him about the campaign. So, it was starting to hit him, and then I gave the speaker to my aunt so she can also recount to him. So it’s not just me; like, everybody is saying it’s really big. And that’s when I think it — I saw it in his face, like it was starting to hit him that there is a world outside of this very dark place he’s in right now. And that’s when he said this one sentence. It’s like a part of him, this intellectual, political part, for a second got awakened, a glimpse of it. But it — before the visit ended, it became shut again. He closed on again to this very dark place he’s in right now. But I’m glad this part of his character exists and is present, and he just needs to get out of prison for it to be — to really flourish.
AMY GOODMAN: Is Alaa planning to go back on a hunger strike?
SANAA SEIF: Alaa, in the visit, he was telling me, “Should I go back tomorrow?” I said, “No, wait.” I gave him a date. I’m not going to say that date publicly. But I know they know the date. I told him, “Your body needs a rest. But if this date comes without me telling you otherwise, then you go on hunger strike.” So there is a date set between me and Alaa and the Egyptian authorities.
AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa Seif and Laila Soueif, the sister and mother of political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah. We’ll be back with them in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We continue now with my interview here in Cairo, Egypt, this weekend with Laila Soueif and Sanaa Seif, the mother and sister of the British-Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about what you did in Britain. Before COP, you and your sister Mona had this sit-in, day and night, in front of the British Foreign Ministry through the end of the Prime Minister Truss to Rishi Sunak. What was the response in Britain? And explain what you’re demanding. Of course, you, your sister Mona and Alaa himself are British-Egyptian citizens.
SANAA SEIF: The same consular access and bring him to London, bring him home to London. The British government is very clear that Alaa is a British citizen. What we hold them — what we’re very disappointed with is that they’re accepting the Egyptian narrative of not acknowledging his dual nationality.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of response did you get to your sit-in?
SANAA SEIF: So, I sat outside the Foreign Office for 20 days. This is when we started seeing a new level of solidarity from people I did not expect. And so, it was — I thought I would be like very lonely. I don’t know a lot of people in London. But it was very — it was very heartwarming, the amount of solidarity I saw.
We started getting attention from politicians. I got attention from MPs. A lot of MPs visited me. And our MP, David Lammy, came the first day. But we started getting attention from the government in the — near the end, right before COP, when we got a phone call from the foreign secretary, James Cleverly. And then I got this letter as a response from the prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
AMY GOODMAN: After you came out of the prison, where you saw Alaa, you didn’t go first to the British government to tell them what had happened. You went directly to the media. Why, Sanaa?
SANAA SEIF: I was really, really angry and disappointed that while Alaa was enduring all of this horrible experience, this was happening at the same time while governments were getting assurances that Alaa’s health will be preserved. So, I was really angry at all of the backdoor promises and all of — I felt like I’ve been going about it the wrong way, believing in those promises. And this time, these are not promises that were made in the dark, like these are not promises that were made privately. Sisi — President Macron of France said that Sisi told him that he commits to preserving Alaa’s health on Monday, and on that same day — or, on Sunday, and on the second day, a day after, a unit dealt with Alaa forcibly. So I was feeling really angry, and I lost faith in that process, in that kind of process.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila, tell us about your son Alaa.
LAILA SOUEIF: Alaa, in particular, is — there is a special bond between us, because for four years — for five years, his father was in jail. And before Mona was born, he would — and it was me and Alaa, me and Alaa in France with me doing my Ph.D., with Seif in jail. Then, even when Mona was born, Mona was the baby. You know, he was the older brother. He was the one who was helping me.
I was just remembering today, actually, there was this day in England — in France, where I had this horrible cold, and I was very ill, and I overslept. And I woke up terrified, because, you know, I overslept with a 5-year-old child and a 6-month-old baby in the house with nobody to feed them or change. And I didn’t understand why Mona hadn’t cried out. I got up, and Alaa had gotten up, taken care of Mona — he was 6 or 5 or something — and changed her, was playing with her very nicely and quietly. I said, “Why didn’t you wake me?” And he said, “Mama, you were sick.” And for me, that’s Alaa. He was always — because he was older and because we had been alone together when his father was in jail, there was a very special bond, a very special bond.
AMY GOODMAN: You were alone taking care of your two children, Alaa and your 6-month-old baby Mona, because your husband, Ahmed Seif, was in prison.
LAILA SOUEIF: At that time, he was a communist, and he continued to be a communist in conviction. At that time he was part of a communist organization, actually. And he was arrested and tortured, and confessions obtained from him, and finally sentenced to five years. It was a bit like Alaa’s trial, in that they came out on bail and then were tried when they were out, and then they were arrested again, and so on. So, that’s how I — how we got Mona. Mona was born while her father was in jail. Sanaa was the one we got after he came out, the one we celebrated with. Alaa, when we got Sanaa, he was 12 years old. So, for him, she was, you know, somewhere between — somewhere in between a sister and a daughter.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that, Sanaa, how Alaa was not just your big brother but also a father figure to you, 12 years older.
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, he was like — we’re friends. We have a very similar taste in music and in art. But also, because of the age difference and because of that dynamic, he was also like a mentor to me. He’s my — always my biggest champion. I was this bohemian child who changed her mind about what I want to do with life every month probably. But he was always like very excited to the new idea or project. So, I want sculpting, so he would, like, research and find a place, and we’d go, and I learned sculpting for a while. Then I — just I like pandas, and I want to be a vet. And then he goes and devotes also a lot of time and research into, “OK, let’s study pandas,” until — and painting, and until I settled on filmmaking.
And by the time I settled on filmmaking, nobody had believed me. Like, of course, “Just wait it out. Sleep on it, honey.” But Alaa was like, “No, no.” He was very excited. And I settled on filmmaking really. And my first laptop, where I used — what I used for editing, Alaa was the one who got it. I mean, of course, he asked you all to pitch in, but it was his project. My first-ever filmmaking workshop, my first set was his friends. He had friends who worked in filmmaking, and they took me with them so I can see a film set.
AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa, as a filmmaker, you helped Jehane Noujaim make The Square, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the uprising at Tahrir Square.
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, I wasn’t as — I was trying to — I was very resistant to the family. I didn’t want to be in politics like the rest of my family. But 2011 got me. So, I was — before 2011, I was very disinterested. I didn’t want to know anything about their political activism. And it wasn’t the only thing in life, right? We had — it was part of their identity, but it wasn’t the dominating part. But 2011 really inspired me. I was 17. And it was — I went to the first demonstration by coincidence, but then it was really inspiring to me and to my whole generation, really.
AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa, when did you first go to prison? You have been in prison for more than three years.
SANAA SEIF: 2014, during Sisi.
AMY GOODMAN: Three years after —
SANAA SEIF: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — the Arab Spring?
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, it was during Sisi, of course. I was part of a demonstration that was calling for the release of political prisoners and not anti — there was this new demonstration law, anti-protest law. And so, I was part of it, and I got arrested. My main motivation then was really personal. It was obvious that the revolution was defeated. And I think if it wasn’t for my brother being in prison, I would have tried to step out of that, to just go back to my normal life. But Alaa was in prison, and so I was advocating for political prisoners. And that’s how I got arrested. And I was sentenced to two years, but then I got a — I got pardoned. I got a presidential pardon after a year and three months.
AMY GOODMAN: You have gone on hunger strike. Can you describe how it feels, the stages you go through?
SANAA SEIF: I was on hunger strike. I went on hunger strike only once, for 72 days. It wasn’t partial; it was a full strike. Like, I didn’t take any —
LAILA SOUEIF: It was water and salt.
SANAA SEIF: Water and salt, yeah. What happens is that by the fifth day, you stop feeling hungry. Like, you don’t actually feel — you don’t starve. Somehow the body understands that it’s not going to get food. But there are phases. It starts — so, the body needs energy, so it starts by breaking the — like, the extra fat, using the extra fat to get energy. After that, after it’s done with extra fat, it gets into break muscles to get energy. And that’s a very painful phase. After the breaking of the muscles, it resorts to important fats. These are fats that are keeping the organs together, that are in between organs. And these are like the fats that are behind the eyes. That’s why I was really shocked when I saw Alaa in August, because his eyes looked sunken. And I remember when I did my research before my hunger strike that that means we’re at a very critical phase.
By day 70, I think, by the end, they did make a medical intervention. I had already my — my blood pressure was very low. So, I would take salt solutions, salt sachets. So, it wasn’t enough. So I accepted a cannula, and I accepted salt. I did not accept glucose. So I had a cannula.
AMY GOODMAN: IV.
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, on IVs. So, by the end of it, I had fainted, or something had happened. I woke up. I found that I’m put on glucose. But the way they did it was much softer than how my brother explained, like what I heard from Alaa. I was in a hospital. The people who were dealing with me were doctors. They weren’t civilians. They were police doctors, but they were doctors, not guards, not — I wasn’t in my cell.
AMY GOODMAN: This is so painful to raise, but you and Alaa were in prison when your father, Ahmed Seif, died.
SANAA SEIF: It’s a horrible news when you hear it anywhere. It was a shock. Like, I don’t think it would have been easier to grasp if I was outside of prison. It’s just the loneliness of living this on your own, not with your family, and knowing that they are also lonely, knowing that Mama and my sister, they don’t have us around them. I was — I dealt with it with denial at first, and it was — when you lose your father, that’s horrible news to hear anywhere.
But later, I became angry, because I realized — I recalled his last visit. And I recalled — and I started — he wasn’t that sick, right? He became more sick. His heart became more sick when I was arrested and when he attended my trial. And that’s when I was really fueled with anger. I did not realize the scale of the viciousness against my family until my father’s funeral, when I — after the funeral. So, both of us, me and Alaa, we attended the funeral as inmates.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila, can you talk about your husband’s life? And what did it mean to him at the end of his life that two of his three children, Sanaa and Alaa, were both in prison?
LAILA SOUEIF: First, I want to highlight how different prisons at that time were from prisons now, because it highlights the difference between a regime which is repressive and corrupt and everything but is rational, and a regime which has gone mad. During the Mubarak era, once they tortured you and got what they wanted from you, they left you alone to manage any — OK, you’re in prison, but you could study. You could, you know, do whatever yet.
So he studied law. He finished his law degree just a few months before being released. And his idea was mainly to be a lawyer and to do some pro bono human rights work. And then the pro bono human rights work took over his life, until he wasn’t doing anything else and wasn’t earning any money, because it was pro bono. And everyone started telling him, “Just come and work with us, because we need you, and we need you, and we want you to be.” And he became this amazing human rights lawyer who was really, really, really very clear about and focused on human rights. So, that was Seif.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila, what did it mean to your husband at the end of his life that two of his three children were not with him?
LAILA SOUEIF: Yeah, yeah. He even talked about that. He said — there’s this famous quote of Seif saying, “I’m sorry, my son, that instead of my heritage being a more free and democratic society, my heritage is that the same cell that I was in should see you in it.”
AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s talk about the next generation, about Alaa’s son, Khaled. He’s almost 11. He’s nonverbal. Can you talk about the day in 2013 when Alaa was arrested at home?
SANAA SEIF: So, after the raid, after the — after they forcibly took Alaa from — we weren’t sure whether Khaled was on the other side of the house. So, the police forces entered to the bedroom where Alaa and his wife were, and Khaled was in his room. So, we —
AMY GOODMAN: He was like 2.
SANAA SEIF: He was 2. Yes, he was 2. Yeah. We weren’t sure — he seemed asleep. His mom — after the police left, his mom ran to Khaled, and Khaled seemed asleep. But we weren’t sure whether he was aware and just faking sleep or not.
Afterwards, Khaled was diagnosed with — that he’s on the spectrum. And for a while, we weren’t sure whether this is a trauma or whether he’s actually on the spectrum, why is he nonverbal. With time, it was settled that he’s on the spectrum, he’s nonverbal, and there was a trauma, but that’s something else.
But Khaled has never had a stable life. Kids generally need a stable life, but kids on the spectrum, kids with autism, need a stable life. And we’ve tried everything. Like, it’s not — it doesn’t work without his father being in his life. He’s really, really attached to his father, although they haven’t spent a lot of time together. So, when Khaled all of a sudden is not allowed to visit Alaa, he gets really, really — he acts out, and he gets angry, and he expresses that. And it’s very hard to have anything stable for Khaled, because, you know, we negotiate some sort of way to get Khaled to visit his father, but then they change the rules, or they decide that visits are behind a glass shield, or Alaa is now in a facility — was in a facility where he got tortured, and his torturer is present during the visit. So, you can’t have a kid present where things that horrible and that epic happen, and we have to change Khaled’s routine. And it’s very obvious that he’s really — he’s attached to his father, and he’s really angry that the system keeps changing.
When Alaa was briefly released in 2019, Alaa finished his five-year sentence, and he was released for six months. And then he was rearrested. Although he was — Alaa was on probation, so he had to present himself to the police station from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., but he still had half of the day of freedom, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That brief period really mattered with Khaled. They built a new beautiful relationship. And even all of the people who work — the professionals who work on Khaled’s case, such as the speech therapist and psychologist, all of them noticed. It’s not just us, the family, or his mom. All of them said that there has been great improvement. This really has — it really matters to the kid to have his father. He is really attached to his father, and he needs his father. And Alaa is a very patient, kind father, who —
LAILA SOUEIF: Imaginative.
SANAA SEIF: Imaginative, who reads, who likes to do research. So, whenever he had access to books, he read a lot, a lot, and studied a lot about autism and what’s best to do. A lot of our letters are about that. So, the brief time when Alaa was out, it was a great time for Khaled. But right now it’s even much worse, because he’s finally had this strong relationship with his father, and this was taken from him.
AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa Seif and Laila Soueif, the sister and mother of Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah. We’ll come back to them in 20 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: “Biko’s Kindred Lament” by Steel Pulse. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Cairo, Egypt, as we return to my interview with Laila Soueif and Sanaa Seif, the mother and sister of the British-Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah. I asked Sanaa about Alaa’s most recent trial, when he was sentenced to five years in prison last December, and whether they were ever allowed to see the evidence brought against him.
SANAA SEIF: The lawyers were never allowed to see — access to the case files. The lawyers were never allowed to make a case. And the prosecution never made the case. The judge just gave the sentence like that. We only know two facts about this case. We only have one —
LAILA SOUEIF: [inaudible].
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, we only know two things about this case. The one thing — the first thing we know is that the only piece of evidence is this Facebook post that he shared about a prisoner dying of torture in Egyptian prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: It was someone else’s Facebook post that he shared.
SANAA SEIF: Yes, he shared it. And the Facebook post mentioned an officer who tortured a certain prisoner who died. Alaa was arrested and kept under the authority of this same officer. This is the officer that — not that tortured him himself, but that supervised his torture. His name is Ahmed Fikri — or, this is the pseudonym, and Walid Al-Dahshan is the real name. And this man continues to work in — Alaa now is transferred from the facility where this man is, but we’ve made several complaints against this man and saying that there is a vendetta. There is clearly a vendetta, because it’s in the case files. It’s not just because we’re claiming there’s a vendetta and nothing.
The other thing we know is so by coincidence, by luck, a piece of paper that says when is his release date. And his release date is in 2027. Alaa was arrested in 2019. He was sentenced to five years. That’s what we all heard in court. But his release date is 2027. Why? Because they decided that the two-and-a-half years he spent in pretrial detention are not to be counted in. It’s pointless to talk about the legal procedure if each step of it is a sham.
AMY GOODMAN: How many years of the last decade has Alaa been in prison?
SANAA SEIF: Nine.
AMY GOODMAN: Nine of the last 10 years?
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, nine of the last 10 years.
AMY GOODMAN: Now with world leaders calling for Alaa’s release, what gives you hope?
SANAA SEIF: The fact that all of this injustice is not happening in a corner hidden somewhere, that finally there is a spotlight on it. I’m not very, very hopeful, because I’m worried that COP has ended, the cameras will leave. Also, Alaa’s hunger strike is broken, so that means the urgency that maybe the British government maybe have felt, if they have felt urgency, will be — will fade a little bit. But yet, still, we had — there was a spotlight, a worldwide spotlight, on this extreme injustice, and that gives me hope, not only for Alaa but for the rest of the political prisoners and the human rights situation in Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: Your estimate of how many political prisoners there are in Egypt?
SANAA SEIF: The estimate is 65,000, the estimate that most of, like, the proper human rights organizations have done. From my experience, from what I saw, there is no way to give a proper estimate. Even if the Egyptian authorities themselves wanted to have an estimate, they wouldn’t be able to do — to get a proper estimate, because, especially my last arrest in 2019, I noticed things have become really hectic on the ground. They have lost control.
We have several agencies that arrest. Many of those have facilities, jails, that do not exist on paper. And so, national security has its own jails. And these are not prisons. These are not official prisons. And so, prisoners are not admitted. I was in an official prison. I was in a place — I knew, like, I have a number, a code, a record. I am on record. There is a paper trail behind me, and so I exist. But even in the facility I was in, there were people who didn’t exist on paper, officers and inmates. One of the girls that were arrested from Sinai, she had a baby. She went into labor in prison, so she did not exist on paper, and her her baby did not exist on paper.
And seeing the scale of this madness, it has escalated, starting 2019. That’s why I say I cannot believe any estimate, because we will never really know the number until the doors are open. I don’t think the authorities themselves are capable of knowing the number. The machine has become so monstrous and so hectic that it’s hard to track.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. You have met with who? And how high up did the demands go? I mean, Biden has come to Egypt, has met with Sisi. We saw the pictures of them laughing.
SANAA SEIF: In Sharm, I met with Pelosi, with Nancy Pelosi, and with Samantha Power, who is the head of USAID. Before that, when I traveled to D.C., I had had meetings with people from State Department, a lot of members of Congress and in Senate. I also met with some members of the Senate in Sharm.
I don’t know — I made appeals to President Biden. I don’t know what happened really on the ground. I made appeals, and I know the appeals reached the president. I know the appeals reached the White House. I don’t know what happened when they met. What I know is that during the time President Biden was here in Egypt, this is when Alaa had his near-death experience. Right? That was on Friday. That’s what I know. So, that does not give me a lot of hope. Of course, if President Biden has pushed for the case strongly, then Alaa would be out shortly, would be out soon.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.S. has that much power?
SANAA SEIF: Absolutely. I don’t just think; I know. I know the U.S. has that much power. We’ve seen. Look, when I traveled to the U.S., a lot of those politicians and those — and even, like, aides in Congress offices would tell me, “We don’t have that much leverage. You don’t understand.”
There was a vicious campaign against me being a foreign spy and espionage. And I was being harassed in Sharm el-Sheikh, like even physically, people following me and showing themselves to me that they are following me.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean these are Egyptians.
SANAA SEIF: Egyptians, OK? The day the American administration appeared, all of these people just disappeared as if you clicked on a button. The state media narrative all of a sudden changed. And they started — instead of saying that “Alaa’s sister is a spy” and that “We’re not going to be forced by the West,” things like that, all of a sudden they started talking about how Alaa’s sister applied for a pardon, and “Poor, poor thing. He has a kid on the spectrum. This is really devastating.”
The U.S. does not only have leverage — leverage is a bad way of putting it. The U.S. has stakes in that regime, stakes in that oppression, and so has responsibility. It’s not leverage. Leverage is as if you’re not a stakeholder in this. You are part of this, and you are a big part of this. You send 1.3 billion of military aid to Egypt every year. And —
LAILA SOUEIF: You train their — you train their police officers. You train their army officers. You — they are so dependent. The whole military and police apparatus is so dependent on cooperation with the U.S. So dependent. It’s not just the money. I mean, the money — the money, come on, is important, but money and bigger money comes from the Gulf and so on. But this whole operation is a U.S. operation. The helicopters they use to track people in the desert, this is U.S. This whole Sisi thing is a U.S. security operation. But, really, yes, the U.S. can decide, if they want to, that they want the regime to do this or not do that, I think.
SANAA SEIF: It doesn’t make sense that the U.S. — the way the U.S. engages with Sisi’s regime. It’s in everybody’s interest that Egypt stays a stable country, yet this regime is making the country deeply unstable. The way the U.S. is — the way the U.S. is engaging its foreign policy in the region is very, very stupid. It’s not wise, and it’s not even within the interests of the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: The name of Alaa’s book of his writings is You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Do you think Alaa has been defeated?
LAILA SOUEIF: It depends on what level of defeat. And certainly, I personally think that the 2011 revolution and this generation have been defeated. On a personal level, Alaa has not been defeated. That’s, again, the [inaudible]. And when we talked about they’re making an example of Alaa, that’s — actually, that’s probably their main concern now. You make an example of someone, and then you have to release him without having broken him, that is very, very hard.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re asking that Alaa be released and deported to Britain?
LAILA SOUEIF: Yeah. Either he’s released and he travels to Britain, or he be deported to Britain. I want him to — I want him safe and out of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Laila Soueif and Sanaa Seif, the mother and sister of the political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah. I interviewed them in their family home here in Cairo, Egypt, this weekend.
And that does it for the show. Special thanks to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Hany Massoud, Denis Moynihan and Nermeen Shaikh, here in Cairo, and to Mike Burke, Charina Nadura, Robby Karran and Julie Crosby in New York. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.