Alaa Abd El-Fattah: Imprisoned British-Egyptian activist ends hunger strike, family says

Alaa Abd El-Fattah is believed to be alive and well by his family. Credit: AP

Imprisoned British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah has ended his hunger strike after more than six months, his family said.

The pro-democracy activist's family released a note in what they believe is his handwriting saying “I’ve broken my strike” and asking for cake to celebrate his birthday when they visit the prison near Cairo on Thursday.

Mr Abd El-Fattah escalated his protest to coincide with the start of the Cop27 climate change summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, in the hope of focusing the attention of the world on his plight.

He has spent most of the past decade in prison and is currently serving a five-year sentence on charges of disseminating false news, for retweeting a report in 2019 that another prisoner died in custody.

Since April he has either refused food entirely or been on a partial hunger strike, taking just 100 calories a day, and even spent a week without water, according to the campaign for his release.

The circumstances under which he wrote the letter were not clear, and the activist had previously said he was willing to die in his strike if not freed.

But the note from Wadi al-Natrun prison said: “How are you, Mama? Don’t worry, I’m OK. Your short letter got through, and I feel better now knowing you’re OK. The mp3 [music player] got through too. I’ll see you on the visit day and tell you everything then and we’ll get back to long letters after the visit.

“The important thing is I want to celebrate my birthday with you on Thursday, I haven’t celebrated for a long time, and want to celebrate with my cellmates, so bring a cake, normal provisions, I’ve broken my strike. I’ll explain everything on Thursday.”

The family are unaware of what led to his decision, and have no information on what has happened to him in prison.

His mother Laila Soueif holds his picture during an interview with AP at her home in Cairo Credit: AP

“From the letter, it is clear that his psychological state is good,” his mother Laila Soueif told The Associated Press (AP), referring to her son's reference to his birthday. “But I won’t be reassured until I see him.”

His sister, Mona Seif, said: “I feel cautiously relieved now knowing that at least he’s not on hunger strike but my heart won’t really be settled until Thursday when my mother and sister see him with their own eyes.”

He began a total hunger strike on April 2, before taking just 100 calories a day when he was moved to a better prison after 52 days, according to the Freedom for Alaa campaign.

Mr Abd El-Fattah went back to zero calories on November 1 before escalating his strike during the United Nations climate summit by refusing to drink water as well, but began drinking again on Saturday, his family have said.

The prison authorities began a medical intervention on Mr Abd El-Fattah last Thursday, but authorities did not provide details on the nature of medical intervention raising concerns among the family that he was being force-fed, AP reports.

A group of protesters wear t-shirts with #FREEALAA after a panel with Sanaa Seif, his sister, at Cop27. Credit: AP

Earlier on Tuesday, ministers were warned not to lose interest in his case by former British ambassador to Cairo, John Casson.

He said the Egyptian tactic of playing for time as ministers show they are “all talk” over Mr Abd El-Fattah appears to be working.

He also accused Foreign Secretary James Cleverly of “gaslighting” the writer by engaging with the Egyptians’ claims that he is not formally a British citizen.

Mr Cleverly told MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday that he remained “interested” in the case, but this language was contrasted with him previously having said he would work “tirelessly for his release”.

Mona Seif, the sister of writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah, at a sit-in outside the Foreign Office in London Credit: PA

Mr Casson, who represented British interest in Egypt for four years until 2018, said “things are still looking pretty grim” after the family received a letter from the writer suggesting he is still alive.

“If we think about where we were last week, the prime minister went to Egypt and he said to the president of Egypt the persecution of this British national has got to stop, and in the week since it has become clear that Egypt is playing for time and are banking on our ministers losing interest and being all talk,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It looks like it might be working. Yesterday we went from the foreign secretary, who 12 days ago was saying he was working tirelessly for Abd El-Fattah’s release, to yesterday saying he remained interested in the case and talking as if it’s just a procedural disagreement between friends.

“The Egyptians understand power and they will be smelling the weakness in what the foreign secretary said yesterday.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

Mr Cleverly had told the select committee that the UK was unable to get consular access to the citizen because of a “difference of opinion” centring on the Egyptians not accepting that Mr Abd El-Fattah has completed the administrative process in the Egyptian system for dual nationality.

Mr Casson said: “Every time anyone gives airtime to that Egyptian talking point it is gaslighting, it’s like when an abuser tells a person who is being abused that they’re responsible or it’s not really abuse.

“We need to be clear, it’s daily persecution of a British national by the very Egyptian officials that the foreign secretary is talking to.

“If we want to save his life we need to show that the longer this goes on the more serious it will get, not the less serious.”

He urged the government to escalate the situation from talking and requests, to putting Mr Abd El-Fattah as the “defining issue” of relations with Cairo, with the government “spelling out clearly the consequences” of any further harm to him.

On Saturday, Sanaa Seif, another of Mr Abd El-Fattah’s sisters, took part in a protest march in Sharm el Sheikh that saw hundreds of activists demand action on climate change, human and gender rights.

The protesters called for the release of Mr Abd El-Fattah and all political prisoners detained in Egypt.

Sanaa, who has been imprisoned in Egypt before and now lives in London, flew to the conference to raise awareness about her brother's case.

‘‘We’re counting down the days until Thursday,’’ said Sanaa in the family’s statement.