Only the Egyptian regime knows the fate of Alaa Abd el-Fattah. It wants to keep it that way. The jailed British-Egyptian writer and democracy activist, a figurehead of the 2011 revolution, began refusing water on Sunday – six months after launching a hunger strike that has seen him consume no more than 100 calories a day. On Monday, his mother waited in vain outside the prison for his weekly letter. As of Tuesday evening, his family was still demanding proof of life, fearing he may die before the end of the Cop27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, which has finally propelled his case to international attention. They are also concerned that he may be tortured through force-feeding.
The British government appears to have at last accorded the case the importance it deserves. Writing to the 40-year-old father’s family at the weekend, Rishi Sunak said that he was “totally committed” to resolving the case, calling it a priority. The prime minister said that he would stress the need for a swift resolution to the Egyptian president.
It is an outrage that Mr Abd el-Fattah was jailed at all; that he has spent most of the last decade in prison; that he was sentenced to another five years for sharing a social media post about torture; and that he is denied consular visits – the trigger for his hunger strike. His real offence is to be an inspirational figure to other Egyptians.
His case is also emblematic of the regime’s brutality and injustice. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, then defence minister, seized power in a military coup in 2013 and has hung on to it through rigged elections and an equally unfair referendum on constitutional changes. Thousands more political prisoners are incarcerated. Mr Abd el-Fattah’s additional sentence came in a wave of cases in special emergency courts last year. Executions also rose in 2021.
The regime shows little regard for even high-profile prisoners – the former president Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, died on the floor of the courtroom while on trial in 2019. Nor can foreign nationals expect leniency. Western governments usually swallow their concerns due to the unseemly scramble for deals (Britain is Egypt’s largest private business partner) and the misplaced belief that it is a bulwark of stability in the region.
What Egypt does care about is its status and trying to reclaim an air of respectability. That is why it is hosting Cop27. Mr Sunak raised Mr Abd el-Fattah’s case with the president, but does not appear to have exacted the price for their meeting in advance. The danger is not only that Mr Sisi does not take a distracted British government seriously, but that Mr Sunak gave away too much too quickly. The former British ambassador to Egypt John Casson put it clearly: “If we keep giving them what they want for nothing, they will sit back and ask for more.”
The government must now live up to its promise to Mr Abd el-Fattah’s family by applying maximum pressure by all means, including through military and intelligence channels, making it clear that a failure to grant access will cost Egypt dearly in key aspects of the relationship. It should also extend its concern to the many more political prisoners now suffering.