Family says Egyptian political activist on Day 80 of prison hunger strike

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Egyptian pro-democracy activists Alaa Abd El Fattah, left, and his sister Sanaa Seif are seen in a 2014 file photo posted to Facebook by Seif. The photo was taken when their father, also a human rights activist, died. The siblings had been unable to visit their father in the hospital as they were both jailed at the time.  / Credit: Facebook/Sanaa Seif
Egyptian pro-democracy activists Alaa Abd El Fattah, left, and his sister Sanaa Seif are seen in a 2014 file photo posted to Facebook by Seif. The photo was taken when their father, also a human rights activist, died. The siblings had been unable to visit their father in the hospital as they were both jailed at the time. / Credit: Facebook/Sanaa Seif

Cairo — In 2011, after Egypt's "Arab Spring" revolution ousted long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, CBS' "60 Minutes" interviewed one of the young revolutionaries leading a campaign against civilians being tried in military courts. Mona Seif was full of ideas and hope for a bright new future in her country.

More than a decade later, however, she's on hunger strike in solidarity with her brother, Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent political activist who has been on hunger strike himself in an Egyptian prison since April 2, according to his family.

Now, far from big ambitions, the best outcome the family can envision is getting Alaa out of prison, so he and his siblings can get out of Egypt.

"He no longer wants to live in Egypt," their mother Dr. Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at Cairo University, told CBS News. She said Mona already has plans to move to London.

Pressure mounts on Egypt to free civil rights leaders

Alaa is a software developer by trade, but over the last decade he's also become one of Egypt's best-known pro-democracy activists. He has spent most of the past eight years in prison.

Alaa was released in March 2019 after five years behind bars for violating a newly-issued anti-protest law. He was supposed to remain on probation for the next five years, and he dutifully showed up at a police station every day between 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. But in September 2019, he was arrested again. Alaa was held in pre-trial detention until December 2021, when he was sentenced to five more years in prison by an Emergency State Security Court for "spreading false news." That court's verdict cannot be appealed under Egyptian law.

Now there are only two ways that Alaa can get out of prison: A presidential pardon, or, as has happened in some other cases, deportation — if the prisoner has another passport and renounces their Egyptian nationality. That path to freedom would also require approval by Egypt's president.  

Alaa's mother was born in London, so the family managed to get him a passport and Alaa became a British citizen in December. Both of his sisters also have U.K. passports. Now the family is asking the British government to help secure Alaa's release.

From left, Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah's mother, Dr. Leila Seif, and his two sisters Mona and Sanaa Seif, hold placards demanding the release of Alaa and other political prisoners in Cairo, Egypt.  / Credit: Facebook/Sanaa Seif
From left, Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah's mother, Dr. Leila Seif, and his two sisters Mona and Sanaa Seif, hold placards demanding the release of Alaa and other political prisoners in Cairo, Egypt. / Credit: Facebook/Sanaa Seif

"Since we failed to free him as an Egyptian, then we shall push for his freedom as a British citizen. ENOUGH!" Alaa's younger sister Sanaa said in an April post on Facebook. Sanaa, a filmmaker, was released last year after spending 18 months in an Egyptian prison for "spreading false news."

Alaa began his hunger strike to protest not being allowed a consular visit from the British embassy, and over the conditions of his imprisonment. The family say he was denied fundamental rights in detention, including access to books and exercise time.

Egypt's Ministry of Interior has denied that Alaa is on a hunger strike and says video refuting the claim was provided to a prosecutor. The family has submitted a request to see the video.

Egyptian authorities recently moved Alaa to a more modern prison facility after a request from Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), but he still hasn't received a consular visit.  

Pressure from outside of Egypt is now mounting. A number of A-list celebrities, including actors Olivia Coleman and Mark Ruffalo, joined in reading a passage written by Alaa about his son for an online video (embedded below) to mark Father's Day — and to demand his release.

There is a glimmer of hope for the political activist's family: In April, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called for a "national dialogue" among all of Egypt's political parties, and the issue of political prisoners appears to be right at the top of the agenda. Some prisoners have already been released.

El-Sisi has formally reinstated a presidential amnesty committee to study individual prisoners' cases, and Alaa's family has submitted a request for him to be considered.

Alaa's mother knows that while he remains jailed, they are lucky that his case is at least being discussed. There are many others prisoners held on the country's relatively new anti-terrorism and security laws — some for acts as minor as sharing social media posts — that nobody talks about.

Dr. Soueif said she thinks of them, too.

"There are people who are treated much worse than Alaa, and it really is time that governments that pretend to care about human rights looked into that," she told CBS News.

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