Every night, jail becomes home for leading Egyptian dissident

Cairo (AFP) –


The days and nights of Alaa Abdel Fattah, Egypt's leading dissident, follow a disorienting rhythm where he is freed every morning from a filthy police cell and then jailed again at sunset.

It is a harrowing routine that forces Abdel Fattah, 37, to measure out his life in one-hour increments for the next five years as he copes with a draconian probation period after being released from full-time prison in March.

"There isn't a moment throughout the day when probation does not consume me or I think of it," he told AFP in his first interview with international media since his release.

After serving his five-year term for demonstrating against a restrictive 2013 protest law, he now has to turn himself in to a police station near his home at 6 pm every evening and stay overnight in a cell there until 6 am.

In the mornings, Abdel Fattah spends time with his son Khaled and drops him off for swimming lessons or kindergarten. The computer programmer and blogger then tries to carve out a chunk of time to work on his coding projects.

In between his errands and work commitments, he meets his lawyers and friends, files complaints about his treatment and then around 4 pm he starts planning how to head back home as traffic chokes the city.

"I try to have little tasks for myself every day so I can have a sense of achievement," Abdel Fattah said.

"Even basic biological functions, I have to think of because there isn't a clean toilet when I'm there overnight."

His split reality, a free man by day and a prisoner in solitary confinement by night, has already taken its toll.

"There's a deep level of insult that I'm cooperating with the state in the destruction of my life everyday... which puts such immense psychological pressure on someone."

- 'Closed off' -

Abdel Fattah's disjointed life has also affected his family who worry for his safety in the police station with no communication once he is inside. He is not allowed any mobile phones or laptops overnight.

Abdel Fattah's sister Mona Seif, also a human rights advocate, said she still cannot process how her brother is imprisoned daily.

She said she is determined to keep advocating against the unfair probation conditions for him and others.

"It's such a disconcerting feeling to see your brother locked up every day... He is only 10 minutes away from home," she told AFP.

"I truly believe that it's their wish that Alaa remain completely closed off from the world, along with his family and lawyers and his life, until the morning."

His mother Laila Soueif, herself a prominent rights activist on Egypt's political scene for decades, has criticised the application of an arcane law dating back to 1945 stipulating probation conditions.

She recounts the struggle it took just to get permission for her son to share the iftar meal with his family that break the day-time fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends next week.

The cherished daily ritual fell after his evening deadline and at first he was forced to be in his cell.

In protest Soueif with family and friends in early May began holding the meal every sunset outside the police station.

One evening an officer tried to snatch away a dessert plate she had brought to Abdel Fattah -- but Soueif was unmoved.

"The policeman thought if he took it away from us that we would leave Alaa... It's quite farcical," she said.

Authorities eventually allowed him to spend iftar with his family after many people voiced their feelings on social media that he was being deliberately targeted unlike others under probation.

"I am worried about him that it is causing so much anxiety for him. But even this extra hour and a half has made such a difference because he is spending some time with us and his son Khaled," Soueif said.

- 'Rendered invisible' -

Dubbed "the icon of the revolution" that unseated longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Abdel Fattah still speaks out on his social media accounts about political repression in Egypt.

He argues for others also forced to spend their nights in jail, such as award-winning photojournalist Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, known as Shawkan.

Abdel Fattah said national security officers had threatened him twice to stop talking about his probation publicly or else he would be sent back to jail indefinitely.

AFP contacted the ministry of interior's spokesperson several times for confirmation but received no comment.

Rights groups have roundly criticised Egypt's enforcement of the probation law saying it is used in order to punish and silence dissidents.

"They (the authorities) are not dealing with us as humans, they are treating us solely as political animals who give them a lot of headaches," Abdel Fattah explained.

In the last decade, he has garnered the dubious honour of being jailed under Mubarak, his Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi and current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

But, politics is far from his mind as he tries to rebuild a semblance of normal life despite the hectic pace of the capital Cairo.

"I now have no role to play politically in public life... that for them is not enough," said Abdel Fattah.

"They want me to be so oppressed that I am rendered invisible... I really don't see an end to this ordeal."