Alaa Abd El-Fattah's sister shares updates, memories

Aafter days of uncertainty, Sana Seif finally has proof that her brother Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a jailed Egyptian pro-democracy activist with British citizenship, is alive

Abd El-Fattah has been on a partial hunger strike since April, only consuming 100 calories a day. He intensified his protest with refusal of any food or water from the beginning of COP27, the annual UN climate conference taking place this year in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The conference started on November 6 and ends on Friday.

A film editor and activist in her own right, Saif has become an increasingly familiar face on the global news circuit since she traveled to COP27 to give a press conference campaign for his brother’s release. Seif’s family received a note from the prison, written by her brother, stating that he had started drinking water again on November 12. The question is why it took the prison authorities two days to inform his distressed family Saif poses on Twitter.

“At first I felt relief, but then I felt all the stress built up and my whole body ached,” says Seif, who is now back at her home in Cairo.

On November 10, Abd El-Fattah’s family was informed by Egypt’s Wadi el-Natrun prison that he had “medical intervention with the knowledge of a judicial authority” to counter his water strike. After that, they didn’t hear much more about his welfare. The 40-year-old dissident, who was jailed for his criticism of the Egyptian government, has emerged as a leading figure in 2011 uprising which ousted former autocrat President Hosni Mubarak. Abd El-Fattah spent most of the last decade behind bars.

Seif talks to TIME about her presence at COP27, the global response to the Abd El-Fattah situation, and the emotional toll it has taken on herself, her sister Mona Seif and their mother Laila Sweif.

Read more: Column: Egypt not qualified to host COP27

TIME: How did it feel to hear that your brother was still alive?

Seif: Since he stopped drinking water and since I went to the conference, I haven’t been able to sleep at all. I slept maybe an hour, two hours a day. But when we [got proof of life] I was so relieved because I was imagining things that didn’t make sense. On Sunday in particular I was really worried and imagining things like what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

The world knows your brother as an activist, but what is he like as a person?

He’s very nerdy, very intellectual. He reads a lot about everything, but in a fun way, and is very curious about everything. If you sit down and talk about your passion, he would be willing to spend hours just researching and exploring with you. He is a very nice brother.

What was your shared childhood like and how did it influence your political engagement?

My mother’s family are academics in psychology, literature and medicine, so the idea of ​​reading was big. My mom is a math professor, but she was also one of those professors who was very supportive of students in theirs [political] movement so she was active and my father was a human rights lawyer. But she was very inspired by my parents and their activism, especially my mother. I was not a politician at all until 2011 made me.

How did you and your family become such a target of the regime?

I think it started with the Maspero demos [led by Coptic Christians] in 2011. This was after Hosni Mubarak fell and the military ruled the country until we had elections. They protested against something like that [demolition] to church. The military attacked them furiously and there was a great massacre. I was there taking pictures as I was working in an office nearby and some journalists told Alaa so he came to pick me up. He saw what was happening and got engaged too. We went with the families to the hospital and the morgue. This led to a struggle for autonomy and Alaa was later called into military pursuit. That was the first time we had such a clash with the military. We all campaigned together and then became high profile activists.

You just got back from COP27. Why did you decide to go and can you tell me about your time there?

I’ve been campaigning since April. I try to advocate for Alaa not only in Great Britain, but also in the USA, in Brussels with the European Union, in Germany, in France. But there’s always been this impasse where officials don’t want to talk publicly, even though they say they’re very empathetic. So I felt that if I went to COP27, if we got the attention we needed, then maybe the silence would be broken.

Since then, you’ve reached out to US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also spoken out. What do you think of the reaction of world leaders now?

I’m really grateful, but I’m a little disappointed that I and the human rights groups had to put themselves on the map. Because this is not only my brother’s case, but many cases of political prisoners in Egypt have been presented to these offices before. And all these leaders have been reluctant to express strong concern in the time leading up to now. It turned out that the relationship is not worth it, the bridges between the countries have not been burned. The conference didn’t just fail. The climate is not better or worse because we talked about human rights.

Do you think Rishi Sunak can do more to help Alaa, who qualified for British citizenship last year?

I can believe it is a challenge to get Alaa out of prison but the fact is that the UK has not provided us with proof of life. Of all these governments that have intervened, the UK has not been the one to provide us with proof of life or consular access, which is a strong indicator that they are not doing enough because consular access is their right.

It is very disappointing when I hear politicians saying “we made the case”, especially after the big media boom that happened at the COP. None of you have made the case as much as the family – you have to make the case, not just make the case.

Some have accused the Egyptian government of using COP27 to clean up its global image. Do you think this is correct?

Yes, that’s right. But it turned on them a little. I think the idea was to do some greenwashing, but the PR was for local or domestic purposes; a show of strength that “I have the support of the West and other governments. I am stable internationally.” Because this is a regime with which people in the country are dissatisfied.

With so much publicity and media attention on Alaa’s case, why do you think they still refuse to release him to the British authorities?

Egypt’s first reaction is always unexpected. They did a big propaganda media campaign against me and the family claiming we were spies and there were these espionage lawsuits. The other reason is that we are seeing increased pressure, but I don’t think any of the governments have set a timetable for that. The only person who puts a timeline is Alaa with his body.

Read more: Why the Arab Spring failed—and why it may still succeed

What role does letter writing play in your family?

People have mostly stopped writing by hand, but I know the handwriting of my family and friends because we’ve been communicating in that form for years. It made us closer as a family on a deeper level. My brother and I, for the past decade, our communication has been letters, as you never have enough time during a visit to talk about things. The letters are meant to be weekly, but sometimes one gets banned, so when I write to Alaa, it’s like writing a diary.

How was your mother affected during this time?

I saw my mother yesterday, but I didn’t know until then. We talked quickly about assignments and letters, but neither of us had the courage to discuss what was going on. She’s like me in the sense that she tries to pull herself together and look strong, but it’s obvious she’s not. We were both asleep when the letter came out. We feel like we’re on the verge of something.

And when was the last time you saw Alaa in person?

My mother saw it on October 17th, so about a month ago. I saw him in August and he looked very fragile and scary. I was speechless when I saw it. I was so excited to see him and had a lot to talk about, but I couldn’t say anything when I saw him.

You yourself were arrested in Egypt. Can you tell me about your own experiences in prison?

I was in prison three times. Every time it was because I stood up for Alaa. But the first time I was arrested at a demonstration calling for the release of prisoners was against a new anti-demonstration law under which Alaa and others were arrested. The first time I was sentenced to two years, but I was pardoned after a year and three months. The second time I was sentenced to six months for insulting an official. For the third time, in 2020 during COVID-19, I tried to get a letter to Alaa. They had banned visitors. He was in a maximum security prison and faced the worst treatment ever. It was too mean and he was tortured. The only way to get proof of life was through letters, and then they banned them.

In June 2020, me, my mother, and my sister stood at the prison gates and said we would not leave without receiving a letter from Alaa. We were beaten while the police watched. The next day we went to the prosecutor to file a complaint and put it on the record. We were told that a prosecutor would meet with me to review the incident. At the prosecutor’s gate[‘s office], a van picked me up and said they had an arrest warrant against me and took me to the State Security Prosecutor’s Office, which is an emergency prosecutor’s office that deals with terrorism cases. I ended up being sentenced to a year and a half for spreading fake news that COVID precautions were not being properly implemented in Egyptian prisons.

Did Alaa and your family experience much solidarity from other Egyptians?

I have always found solidarity with our family locally in Egypt, but the way it should be expressed is very hidden. All the time, wherever I go, people give me gestures that they are proud of me and that they are happy. But what happened after the propaganda that we were spies was that it was more polarized – there are people who feed off that propaganda and people who are proud.

What are your hopes for Alaa, your family and Egypt?

My hope for my family is that we will be reunited in peace in London. It’s closer now than it was before. I’m not too hopeful about Egypt, I feel we were lucky [to have British citizenship] but not all Egyptians have this. I hope that the attention we bring to Alaa’s case will embarrass the government so that people can get some breathing space, but it can’t be our job alone – it needs momentum. Egypt is in a major economic crisis and this means that the regime is forced to be part of the world, so maybe this regime will learn that it has to abandon its short-sightedness and think wisely.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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