It has been months since I wrote a letter and more than a year since I’ve written an article. I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights; nothing, absolutely nothing … I try to remember what it was like when tomorrow seemed so full of possibility and my words seemed to have the power to influence (if only slightly) what that tomorrow would look like.
I can’t really remember that. Now tomorrow will be exactly like today and yesterday and all the days preceding and all the days following, I have no influence over anything.
So wrote detained Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah in The Guardian in January 2016. Fattah, a renowned pro-democracy activist, is serving a five-year sentence in Tora Prison in Cairo for taking part in peaceful demonstrations opposing the trial of civilians in military courts.
On 30 December 2017, Fattah was fined 30,000 EGP (approximately £1,220) for ‘insulting the judiciary’. This latest penalty was for a tweet in 2013 accusing the judiciary of bias and implying that judges are ‘taking orders from the military’. The fine is clearly intended to intimidate other dissenters into silence.
According to Amnesty International, Fattah’s criticisms are legitimate. The organisation reports serious flaws in Egypt’s judicial system and claims that death sentences and lengthy prison terms have been handed down to ‘thousands of human rights defenders, activists, lawyers and journalists following grossly unfair trials’. Security forces are responsible for committing grave human rights violations with impunity.
Fattah was an early blogger in Arabic and the first person to aggregate blogs written in Egypt. He has long advertised his commitment to freedom of expression, both in his writing and in his work designing open-source digital software. His popular blog, established with his wife, Manal, inspired a community of bloggers across the Arab world dedicated to promoting free speech and human rights. After the revolution of January 2011, Fattah launched a nationwide initiative designed to enable citizens to collaborate in drafting a new Egyptian constitution. Later, he was one of many political activists to fall foul of a controversial law, passed in November 2013, banning peaceful protest without government permission. After his arrest in June 2014, Fattah staged a partial hunger strike, drinking only juice and other fluids. He was released on bail after 115 days in detention, but was returned to prison when his trial resumed in October 2014. Four months later, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
The authorities have sought to punish Fattah further by gradually denying him access to books, pens and paper. In response to these restrictions, the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) brought a case to the Administrative Court requesting a revocation of the order forbidding Fattah from receiving magazines and periodicals relating to his profession and urging that he be allowed to receive two daily newspapers at his own expense, along with personal correspondence. AFTE also asked the authorities to provide reasons for denying Fattah access to correspondence, books and printed material. The Administrative Court heard the case on 21 February 2017. According to Fattah’s aunt, renowned Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, his family was informed a week later that all books (apart from textbooks) were now banned for detainees in the prison complex.
The climate for free expression in Egypt has deteriorated sharply in recent years. PEN has expressed alarm at the number of writers and journalists who have been detained or imprisoned solely for exercising ‘their right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, including during journalistic, artistic, or human rights work’. In these pages in April 2016, I wrote about journalist and novelist Ahmed Naji, who was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘violating public modesty’ following the publication of excerpts from his 2014 novel Istikhdam al-Haya (‘The Use of Life’). In May 2014, I focused on the case of internationally acclaimed poet Omar Hazek, who in January of that year was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a 50,000 EGP fine for violating the new protest law. Hazek, although now at liberty again, continues to be monitored by the authorities and in January 2016 was banned from leaving Egypt to accept an Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression.
Readers might like to send appeals to the Egyptian authorities protesting against the continued imprisonment of Alaa Abdel Fattah in violation of his right to peaceful freedom of expression and assembly, calling for his immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Egypt’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and requesting that he be granted access to books, pens and paper while in detention.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Nasser Kamel
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street
London W1K 1DW
Fax: +44 20 7491 1542
His Excellency President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
Al Ittihadia Palace
Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 391 1441
Email: email@example.com / Moh_moussa@op.gov.eg
Mohamed Hossam Abdel Rahim
Ministry of Justice
Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 795 8103
If you have a Twitter account, please tweet your support with the hashtag #FreeAlaa