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Nine years after Egyptian revolution started, Tahrir Square icon languishes in jail

Photographs are all Alaa Abdel Fattah’s family have since the Egyptian activist was arrested again in September 2019.
Photographs are all Alaa Abdel Fattah’s family have since the Egyptian activist was arrested again in September 2019. © Screengrab FRANCE 24

On January 25, 2011, demonstrations against police brutality to mark Egypt’s National Police Day, spiralled into what came to be called the Arab Spring. But nine years later, following a brutal crackdown by the Egyptian military, many icons of Cairo’s Tahrir Square uprising are facing police brutality in detention. FRANCE 24 met the family of a prominent activist behind bars.

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Alaa Abdel Fattah’s last public appearance was in September 2019, when he was commemorating his father, Egypt’s prominent human rights activist and lawyer, Ahmed Seif El-Islam.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 on the sidelines of the event, the 38-year-old Egyptian software developer, blogger and activist talked about a familiar subject: fear.

“The fear is there. But also the defiance is there. It's always important to continue to defend our rights,” said Abdel Fattah.

Three weeks later, he was arrested once again and taken to Egypt’s notorious Tora maximum security prison, known as al-Aqrab, where “prison officers blindfolded him, stripped him of his clothing, beat and kicked him repeatedly”, according to Amnesty International.

Intimidation and opposition are a recurring theme in Abdel Fattah’s family. His father was in and out of jails, under former Egyptian strongmen Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, while Abdel Fattah was a child. His mother, Laila Soueif, is a mathematics professor and well-known Egyptian human and women’s rights campaigner. His sisters are also activists.

‘His whole life is about prison’

Sitting at the dining table, Abdel Fattah’s mother and sister, Mona Seif, smile as they sift through family photographs. That’s all they have of him for now.

“His whole life is about prison,” explains Seif of her brother who has been in and out of Egyptian prisons since the 2013 military coup ousted the country’s only democratically elected prisoner and a deadly crackdown on opposition figures commenced.

Abdel Fattah is not the only one. Since he came to power, Egypt’s latest strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has overseen a period of abuses and brutality that has superseded the track records of his predecessors. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Egyptian authorities have imprisoned, tortured, put to death, oppressed or disappeared tens of thousands of civilians.

“They are targeting political figures. They are targeting academics. They are targeting writers. They are targeting journalists and lawyers on a greater scale than we have ever seen before. But they are also targeting people in the street and I think this is the main intimidating tactic they are using right now,” explains Seif.

Abdel Fattah receives just one hot meal per week, which his mother and sister cook for him. Their lives revolve around their visits to the prison and their fight to keep him alive.

“The prisons are no longer a place for rehabilitation," says Seif. "They are more like concentration camps where the prisoners are subjected to extremely harsh and criminal conditions.”

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