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Cairo (AFP) – Egyptian dissident Alaa Abdel Fattah, long dubbed the “icon” of the 2011 revolution, has been back and forth in prison for two decades, fighting for the same freedoms under four regimes.
The 40-year-old computer programmer and activist, now a British citizen, has been on hunger strike for 100 days, according to his family.
It holds a dubious honor, having been held by every Egyptian government for the past two decades.
First imprisoned in 2006 under longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Fattah was subsequently held under the military government of Mohammed Tantawi, under the divisive regime of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and today under Marshal of the army became President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“Alaa was known for his commitment against the military trials of civilians,” Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, himself a former political prisoner, told AFP.
Since Sisi came to power in 2013 “and the consolidation of military power, this opposition has become unacceptable”.
Abdel Fattah is currently serving a five-year prison sentence, handed down in December for “spreading false news”, a common charge against dissidents.
Rights groups say Egypt holds around 60,000 political prisoners, many of whom face brutal conditions and overcrowded cells.
Abdel Fattah’s family spoke not only of the violations he faced, ‘but of all the crimes against humanity he witnessed during his imprisonment,’ his sister Mona Seif wrote in an April statement. .
His continued detention, Shaath told AFP, is due to his status as a symbol. “The regime wants to break it, in order to break the will of all Egyptians.”
Born in 1981, Abdel Fattah is the son of prominent human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Din and mathematics professor Laila Soueif, whose sister is the famous novelist Ahdaf Soueif.
His sisters Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif have both rallied international support for Abdel Fattah for more than a decade.
Sanaa Seif herself has been imprisoned twice since Sisi came to power in 2013. She was recently released in December from an 18-month prison sentence for “spreading false news”.
No “end to this ordeal”
In 2011, while Abdel Fattah was being held for “incitement to violence”, his son Khaled was born – and named after Khaled Said, whose death by police brutality in 2010 helped spark the revolution.
In 2014, Abdel Fattah and Sanaa’s father, who spent his final years in courtrooms trying to free them and other activists, died along with the two incarcerated children.
The hashtag #FreeAlaa has been part of Egyptian social networks since 2006.
Abdel Fattah and his family played a prominent role in the January 2011 protests that toppled Mubarak, and his signature curls and scruffy beard would become a staple of all protests in subsequent years.
Abdel Fattah initially supported the overthrow of Islamist Morsi by then Defense Minister Sisi in 2013.
He then became a prominent critical voice against the crackdown that soon followed, as Islamist and secular dissidents were killed or arrested en masse.
In 2014, Abdel Fattah was sentenced to five years for protesting against a 2013 law banning all demonstrations except those authorized by the police.
He was released in March 2019 to begin a five-year probation period, spending every night in a police station, but was arrested again in September of the same year following rare small-scale anti-government protests.
“They (the authorities) don’t treat us like humans, they only treat us like political animals which give them a lot of headaches,” Abdel Fattah told AFP during his brief taste of freedom.
“They want me to be so oppressed that I become invisible. I really don’t see the end of this ordeal.”
Abdel Fattah, who obtained British citizenship in April through his London-born mother, remained a prominent voice behind bars.
In October, a British publishing house published a collection of his writings, “You Have Not Been Defeated”.
Fueled by his book, his family’s advocacy and his hunger strike, politicians in London, Berlin and Brussels called for his release.
© 2022 AFP