Hunger Strikes: Egypt’s Last Vestige of Dissent

After a midnight visit to his father, lying in critical condition at hospital, well-known jailed activist, Alaa Abdel-Fattah announced on August 19 his hunger strike, bringing attention to his demand for release while on trial over charges of organizing an unauthorized protest. His decision renewed a relatively stalled effort calling for the release of dozens of young men and women held on charges of breaking a controversial Demonstration Law. Other jailed activists were quick to join the hunger strike, including Abdel-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa, who has been in prison for over two months in a separate case. 

Since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, Abdel-Fattah has been in an out of prison since his arrest in December. It is not Abdel-Fattah’s first arrest, having seen the inside of a jail cell under the Hosni Mubarak, Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), and Morsi regimes. This latest arrest relates to the first protest staged by democracy activists after the government passed a repressive Protest Law.

While all defendants were released on bail pending trial, Abdel-Fattah and another defendant, also charged with attacking a police officer were kept in prison for an additional four months. When the trial finally began, the judge ordered their release. In murky circumstances, Abdel-Fattah and his codefendants were each sentenced to 15 years prison in absentia. The absentia verdict entitled all defendants to a retrial, but when the case reopened on July 22, the judge released all defendants, except Abdel-Fattah, Mohamed Nubi and Wael Metwali. The next session is due on September 10, and lawyers said they would renew their request to the judge to release Abdel-Fattah and his two colleagues, and would also provide a medical report on the deteriorating health of his father, the prominent lawyer and human rights activist, Ahmed Seif. On August 27, however, after slipping into a coma following heart surgery, Seif passed away.

While government and security officials insist that all defendants were held according to the law, and that there are no political detainees in Egypt, several credible human rights groups and civil political parties haveexpressed solidarity with the hunger striking detainees, of which there are many, and the number continues to grow.  Abdel Fattah’s codefendants, Nubi and Metwalli, are also on hunger strike, while Abdel-Fattah’s youngest sister, Sanaa, arrested at a protest in June, joined her brother’s hunger strike on August 28.

While the majority of those on hunger strike are still on trial, or appealing their verdicts, three others have already been given final sentences. April 6 co-founders Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, together with activist Ahmed Douma, have each been sentenced to three years in prison. Their final verdicts mean they cannot be released with a presidential pardon. Mahienour al-Masry, an Alexandria-based activist, who was facing two years in prison before her sentence was reduced to six months on appeal, also announced a short-lived hunger strike in solidarity with Abdel-Fattah. She ended her hunger strike due to concerns over her cellmates’ health after they joined her in her decision.

The movement has extended beyond the walls of Egypt’s prisons. Members of several youth political groups announced they would hold symbolic hunger strikes for one day in a renewed effort to revive the campaign calling for the release of dozens of activists held pending investigation or trial for violating the Demonstration Law. Others said they would hold small peaceful protests without seeking permit from the Interior Ministry, a move which is not widely supported in fear of increasing the number of those held in jail.

Activists accused of affiliations with the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have also staged hunger strikes. Mohamed Soltan, a US citizen also arrested on August 14 last year, has been on hunger strike since January. The Muslim Brotherhood said last December that 450 of its members of the Muslim Brotherhood began a hunger, among them high profile members including Khairat al-Shater, Mohamed al-Beltagy, and Essam al-Haddad. While Soltan’s case has received significant attention, little has been said about mass hunger strikes by Brotherhood members. A lone example can be seen in the case of Karima al-Serify, the daughter of a former aide to Morsi, was to be released from prison on probation after 68 days on hunger strike.

Today, hunger striking appears to be one of the last vestiges of dissent left to prominent activists languishing in Egypt’s prisons. It has been a prominent form of protest used by political detainees in Egypt in recent years, and used under consecutive regimes since Mubarak’s ouster. Maikel Sanad, an anti-SCAF activist came close to death following a hunger strike, protesting his imprisonment on charges of insulting the army. Alber Saber, arrested under Morsi and sentenced to three years on charges of blasphemy launched a hunger strike to bring attention this case. Most recently, Abdallah al-Shamy, an Al Jazeerajournalist, arrested during the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in, was held without charge for 11 months, and spent almost 150 days on hunger strike. All three were released, and in the case of Sanad, he was pardoned, lending weight to the practice of hunger striking.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, hunger strikes have caught the attention of the civil political movement, as well as members of the semi-governmental National Council of Human Rights (NCHR). On August 25, Hala Shukrallah, the head of the Dostour Party, Sabbahi, and two NCHR members, George Ishaq and Kamal Abbas, held a meeting with Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, presenting the cases of several liberal activists who have been held for up to eight months awaiting trial, and demanded their release.

One case in particular that was highlighted by Shukrallah is that of Mohamed Abdel-Wahed, a Fine Arts Faculty senior, who has been held in a police station in Giza since January after he was arrested while taking photos of a demonstration held by Brotherhood supporters near Cairo University. Shukrallah said prison conditions deteriorated sharply with lack of electricity and water, and that Abdel-Wahed started suffering skin diseases. He also announced on Saturday that he would start a hunger strike to demand his release.

Sabbahi also called for the release of a member of his presidential campaign, Amr Saleh, who has been held since June in Alexandria over charges of belonging to “an illegal terrorist organization,” in reference to the Brotherhood. The delegation also requested the release of Abdel-Fatah and the 24 activists held for protesting in June. Barakat however said, in accordance with the law, he could only look into cases still under his jurisdiction, which excludes cases already referred to court, among them Abdel-Fattah’s.

During his electoral campaign, Sisi expressed his support for the Protest Law. Later, however, he promised to look into amending the law and to consider the release of some activists who were not involved in violent demonstrations. Nearly three months later, and despite several indications that Sisi might consider issuing a pardon for jailed activists, whether to mark the beginning of his term or religious occasions, such as the fasting month of Ramadan and al-Fitr Feast, no political detainees have been released.

While Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said last week that a committee he chairs to review current legislations may consider amending the Protest Law upon the NCHR’s recommendations, no timeframe has been given for the possible changes. Amending the Protest Law does not appear to a top priority for Sisi or the government, amid a general public mood against street protests in fear of further instability. While few high profile hunger strikes have led to the release of detainees in Egypt, the tactic appears to rattle the security apparatus. They often pressure political prisoners to end their hunger strikes, threatening them with reduced family visits, or even placing them in solitary confinement. It may appear, on the surface, that security forces are unperturbed by negative press, but with this added pressure activists hope that this last resort might put an end to their misery.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Image: Photo: Alaa Abdel Fattah, and his sisters Mona and Sanaa, attending their father's funeral on August 28 (Ana Mubasher)