The family of jailed British-Egyptian hunger striker Alaa Abd el-Fattah have voiced fears that Egyptian officials may be torturing him behind closed doors through force-feeding.
On the sidelines of the Cop27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, reportedly told the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that he was “committed” to ensuring the democracy activist’s health “is preserved” and that “the next few weeks and months will bring results”.
Abd el-Fattah was due to be on his third day without water as Cop27 continued, after more than six months on a hunger strike during which he consumed fewer than 100 calories a day.
“I’m really worried from these comments that they’re implying they will be force-feeding Alaa. Force-feeding is torture, and nothing should happen that’s against Alaa’s will,” said Sanaa Seif, Abd el-Fattah’s sister.
“We need proof of life. The scenario I imagine is that Alaa is handcuffed somewhere and put on an intravenous drip against his will. That would be torture, and he shouldn’t be living that. The solution is simply just to let the British embassy see him.”
Seif raised the alarm at Cop27 amid growing fears for Abd el-Fattah’s wellbeing, with no news from inside the Wadi al-Natrun prison where he is being held. His mother, the activist Laila Soueif, returned to the prison for a second day to try to receive a letter from Abd el-Fattah, after waiting long into the night the previous day in an attempt to get news.
Seif told a press conference at Cop27: “This has to end. It can end. There are three ways: let the British embassy visit him; put him on a plane out of Egypt today; or he will die, and be relieved of this nightmare,” she said.
“Whatever happens, I feel Alaa has won – I just hope that he is not sacrificed for it. He’s in prison because he’s someone that believed the world can be a better place.”
Egyptian officials are increasingly struggling to wrestle public attention away from Abd el-Fattah’s case and the human rights crisis that it symbolises, as well as a potential rift with Britain over the Egyptian authorities’ treatment of a British national. A chorus of concern for Abd el-Fattah’s whereabouts and wellbeing increasingly moved to the foreground of events at the Cop27 conference, spurred in part by Egyptian officials’ unwillingness to discuss his imprisonment and hunger strike in anything other than fiercely nationalistic terms in the hopes of dismissing him and his family from public view.
The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, flew home from Cop27 shortly after meeting Sisi at the conference, where a spokesperson said he expressed “the UK government’s deep concern” about Abd el-Fattah’s case. Sunak previously promised Seif in a letter that: “I will continue to stress to President Sisi the importance that we attach to the swift resolution of Alaa’s case, and an end to his unacceptable treatment.”
Seif addressed Sunak in a statement to the Guardian: “Please continue to do your best. I know you can do it. I know you can save him. I don’t know what happened when you came here. I wasn’t told any updates. But still I appreciated your letter to me. And just please do your best to save this man. I know you can save my brother. So just do it.”
James Lynch, a former British diplomat and the head of rights organisation FairSquare, who is travelling with Seif, said that despite Sunak’s concern, it was not clear if Britain was using its full diplomatic leverage.
“The question is, is there a plan,” he said. “Are the consequences being spelled out if this case isn’t resolved, if they don’t get proof of life, if Alaa dies, if there is force-feeding which takes place, which is understood to be a form of torture.”
Abd el-Fattah, a writer and figurehead of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, became a British citizen while incarcerated last year shortly before he was sentenced to a further five years in prison for sharing a social media post about torture. British consular officials have found themselves stonewalled by the Egyptian authorities for over a year while requesting to visit him in prison. Egyptian officials have repeatedly dismissed any suggestion of Abd el-Fattah’s dual nationality, despite a profound contrast with his siblings’ status as dual nationals, which was immediately recognised in Egypt.
Abd el-Fattah’s aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, also expressed fears that Egyptian prison officials could be force-feeding her nephew to prolong his life due to increasing scrutiny on Egypt during Cop27. “If they’re force-feeding him, they are stripping him of … his own will. Is that why they would not let a letter from him out last night?” she asked. “The positive that is happening now is that the world is seeing the truth of this regime and the justice of Alaa’s cause.”
She added: “The UK absolutely has to get someone to see him and speak to him today. Egyptian law provides for it. UK law demands it. Do it. My sister waits for word outside the prison. Is her son being forcefully subjected to a dangerous and complicated procedure against his will?”
The pro-government MP Amr Darwish, a fierce defender of Sisi’s rule, interrupted Seif’s press conference at Cop27 before he was removed by security. Darwish then confronted Seif outside while she spoke to journalists, arguing that his imprisonment in Egypt is lawful. “No, no, no – this is a political case,” Seif told him.
“We know they are happy for him to die, they just don’t want it to happen while the world is watching. But the world is watching,” Seif told reporters.
Public demand to see proof that Abd el-Fattah is alive and safe extended to Geneva, where the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, urged the Egyptian authorities to free Abd el-Fattah.
Lynch said British officials needed to stress a link between Abd el-Fattah’s mistreatment and the potential deterioration of other aspects of Britain’s bilateral relations with Egypt if they hoped to see results. British International Investment, the development arm of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, recently pledged more than £87m in investments in Egypt shortly before Cop27, and Britain remains Egypt’s largest private business partner, largely through the fossil fuel company BP.
Lynch added: “Alaa’s family are demanding proof of life. There needs to be clarity from the British side that other forms of cooperation cannot go ahead without that. This is the British embassy in Egypt being prevented from doing its basic duty, which is to get to one of their nationals in prison.”