Egyptian public intellectual and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah continues to languish in jail under horrendous conditions, despite the massive mobilization by human rights defenders and civil society at large during COP27. One of his sisters, Mona Seif has been pressing for his release. We caught up with her to find out how her brother is doing following a water strike that almost left him dead.
“THEY TRIED TO BREAK ALAA, BUT THEY FAILED”
Mona Seif is happy to be spending a few days in Geneva. “The city has a peaceful vibe,” she tells me. The sister of Egypt’s most famous political prisoner, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Mona is exhausted by the last few weeks, which she spent in London using the COP27 as a global platform to push the Al-Sissi government to release her brother—in vain.
I briefly caught up with her in an almost empty university lecture hall, where a few moments prior she had been heartily applauded by the audience after sitting on a panel about human rights.
Mona’s commitment and energy are boundless. Geneva might be quieter than London, where she currently lives, or Cairo, which she visits regularly to be with her family. But over the past few days, she has been busy meeting human rights activists and defenders in a bid to put pressure on the Egyptian government to release her brother and other political prisoners.
The world knows her brother mostly through his writing. A collection of his essays, notes, and speeches written in jail was published last year. “Unlike me, you have not yet been defeated,” El-Fattah writes in the text that gives its title to the volume, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. It is clear that these words also apply to Mona, to her family, and to what has now become a global movement to see him and others liberated.
The Geneva Observer: It’s been almost ten years since you were last in Geneva when you received the Martin Ennals Award for outstanding actions in the defense of human rights. Since then, the human rights community, several governments and the media have asked for your brother’s liberation. Why won’t President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi free him?
Mona Seif: That’s a very important question. The fact that he doesn’t, gives you an insight into the mentality of those in power in Egypt. The lengths this regime is willing to go to, to silence someone who poses no threat to them, is astounding. Officials are willing to endure an extremely high level of pressure, public attention, and outrage from the whole world, in their crusade to crush dissent. They just can’t fathom the idea that they have not broken Alaa and others like him. Alaa’s voice remains as strong and free as ever.
Your brother put an end to his months-long hunger strike last week after a near-death experience. How is he now?
Alive, thankfully. And hopeful after the family was able to visit him for his 40th birthday. I think that the past few weeks were far darker than he anticipated. The long hunger strike ate away at his body and energy. The six-day water strike, in particular, was the tipping point. He collapsed. Now that he’s no longer in the maximum-security prison where he was tortured, he has somehow managed to chase away his darkest and suicidal thoughts. The last time he blacked out, his first instinct was to call out for the family. Though he’s not out of the woods, the fact that he still sees us as his lifeline is reassuring.
After suffering years of torture and psychological abuse, how is Alaa’s mental state?
His ideas are still intact. He’s still writing down everything he goes through in prison. When he was in maximum security, he was under the authority of a particularly vicious state security officer. At the time, I felt like they were trying to see how much torture they could impose on him before he would tell us about it. His tormentors wanted to see if he was willing to give up a part of his identity. They were trying to break him, but they failed. Using his voice is part of how Alaa survives prison. If anything happens to him, the whole world is going to hold the Egyptian government accountable.
You and your family have been supporting Alaa by demonstrating and communicating extensively. It’s been a long struggle…
It’s been crazy. Starting in 2013, I became a mix between a human rights defender and a family member of a prisoner of conscience. When these two roles come together, it’s all-consuming. It takes over your life, your emotions, and even your voice. You have to constantly be speaking for yourself, but also for your family, and all political prisoners.
How will you be spending your time in Geneva?
I’m here for a four-day seminar with the Martin Ennals Foundation, before returning to London where I am currently based. I will mostly be participating in a series of workshops with human rights defenders. I’ll also be meeting some representatives of the OHCHR at a dinner event and I’ve already been acquainted with a couple of the organizations that work against torture and on political dissension issues. Because of the intensity of these past couple of weeks, I see this stay as an opportunity to recover a bit. Geneva has a very peaceful vibe.
Could Geneva, as the human rights capital of the world, be doing more to help free Alaa?
The human rights community of Geneva is doing a tremendous amount of work. The real problem comes from the fact that governments keep taking a diplomatic approach with a regime that is lawless, vile, violent, and brutal. There should be sanctions, but the world has a way of getting used to atrocities. Until COP27 put the spotlight on Egypt, very few people were paying attention to our situation, which has been ongoing since 2013. Governments need to step up their efforts once and for all.
What will you do next?
I will continue to reach out to different human rights organizations and engage with all the key actors in the EU and at the UN. And I will keep nagging UK officials because they have been doing less than they need to do for Alaa.