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Alaa Abdel Fattah’s sisters begin sit-in to call on UK to secure activist's release

The high-profile political prisoner has exceeded 200 days on hunger strike in jail, in protest at his detention and the UK's failure to end his ordeal
Mona Seif (L) and Sanaa Seif (R), sisters of Alaa Abdel Fattah, protest outside the British foreign office in London on 19 October 2022 (MEE/Khaled Shalaby)
By Khaled Shalaby in London

On Tuesday, Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abdel Fattah completed 200 days on hunger strike in an Egyptian jail, with no end in sight to his ordeal.

Marking the milestone, his sisters started a sit-in outside the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Tuesday, urging Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to take action to secure the release of their brother, who is now in his third year in jail.

“The last time I saw him was last month when I visited him, and I was really shocked at how much weight he lost. He looked like a skeleton,” Mona Seif, one of Abdel Fattah’s sisters, told Middle East Eye from outside the foreign office in Whitehall.

“I have never seen my brother looking like this before.”

Mona, also a British citizen, has previously accused Liz Truss of focusing on winning the Conservative Party leadership race at the expense of her previous ministerial duties.

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She said, however, that Truss emailed her in her last days as foreign secretary, confirming she had raised Abdel Fattah's case with Cairo. 

'Lip service' not enough

Abdel Fattah, who acquired British citizenship through his mother last year, is an influential activist who has been on hunger strike since April, in protest against the denial of consular visits.

He was an icon of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and has spent eight out of the past 10 years in jail on a range of charges.

'I know the British government has the capability of saving my brother. It has happened before'

- Sanaa Seif

While incarcerated in December 2021, he was sentenced to five years in prison by an emergency state security court on charges of "broadcasting false news", in a trial widely condemned by human rights defenders. The evidence used against him was a retweet.

Abdel Fattah’s sister, Sanaa, said that even though British officials have expressed support for his case, the government is “not taking any tangible steps".

Sanaa told MEE: “My brother's health is deteriorating. He has surpassed 200 days of perpetual hunger strike. He's been living on 200 calories a day and until now he's not been granted consular access from the British embassy. 

“The Egyptian authorities have even escalated to publicly saying that they do not acknowledge his British citizenship. And so I really feel like it cannot be lip service from the British officials. They need to take tangible steps,” she added. 

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“I know the British government has the capability of saving my brother. It has happened before. We managed to save Nazanin from Iran. And Iran is a hostile country. Egypt is an ally,” Sanaa said, referring to the release of British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian prison after an international human rights campaign.

Sanaa said she will continue her sit-in until either Cleverly meets her or until the UN Climate Conference (Cop27) begins next month. Human rights and climate justice campaigners have been calling on Egypt, this year's Cop27 host, to open up its civic space for freedom of assembly and expression, and to release prisoners of conscience.

The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in office since 2014, has been accused of jailing tens of thousands of peaceful activists and bringing terrorism charges against them without due process.

Sanaa expressed her hope that the UK government delegation to Cop27 will have her brother's case as a priority in talks with its Egyptian counterparts.  

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