Family of jailed Egypt activists on hunger strike

CAIRO (AP) — The mother and sister of two jailed pro-democracy Egyptian activists are on hunger strike to press demands for their release and show solidarity with other activists detained for breaking a draconian law on street protests.

Laila Soueif and daughter Mona Seif had been on a “partial” hunger strike, drinking only anti-dehydration liquids, since early September. They have stopped eating and drinking since Monday, the day Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a 32-year-old iconic figure in Egypt’s pro-democracy movement, was detained pending his retrial on charges he broke the protest law and assaulted a police officer.

Abdel-Fattah was convicted in June for organizing an unauthorized demonstration soon after the law came in force and of assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison — by far the heaviest sentence passed against a secular activist — but was granted a retrial in August and freed on bail the following month.

His sister Sanaa, 20, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison along with 22 other activists a day earlier for breaking the same law.

Soueif and Seif have been staging since Monday a sit-in inside a courts complex in central Cairo that houses the office of Egypt’s chief prosecutor. They planned to end their sit-in on Thursday but continue their hunger strike.

Surrounded by a small crowd of supporters, the two women have occupied the spot under a column in the grand hallway of the neo-classical structure, with Seif constantly carrying a poster of her two jailed siblings. “An unjust judiciary robbed us of them,” declares the poster.

“I don’t think this will lead to the release of Alaa and Sanaa, but we are moving things and that will have an accumulative effect on the public,” Soueif, a 58-year-old mathematician, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “People stop by and ask about what we are doing. When we tell them, they pray for Alaa and Sanaa.”

The family’s predicament is the result of a crackdown by authorities against the liberal pro-democracy movement of youth groups who fueled the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The detention of dozens of young activists, mostly over breaking the contested protest law, over the past year has taken place amid a vicious media campaign to smear their reputation as agents of foreign powers or on the payroll of dubious rights groups in the West.

Another crackdown has been carried out in parallel against supporters of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted in July 2013 after just one year in power by the military, led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi who was then defense minister. The general-turned-politician won with a landslide victory in a presidential election held in May.

Authorities have killed hundreds of Morsi supporters in the last 15 months and jailed thousands of Islamists. Morsi and most leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood are among those in detention.

El-Sissi has repeatedly warned against a foreign plot to “bring down” Egypt and declared his commitment to freedom and democracy as long as national interests are safeguarded. He says the law on demonstrations, whose constitutionality is being questioned, mirrors similar regulations in the West. The law was adopted late last year.

Soueif is the matriarch of what is perhaps Egypt’s most prominent family of activists. Her husband, renowned rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam, died in the summer. Abdel-Fattah and his sister Sanaa were not allowed out of jail to be with him as he fought for his life in the hospital but were later given permission to attend his funeral.

Soueif, cheerful and talkative, wore mourning black on Thursday.

Seif, 28, is a post-graduate biology student who actively campaigned against hauling civilians before military trials. She received a one-year suspended sentence in January for allegedly taking part in the torching of the campaign headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012.

Looking frail — she has lost 14 kilograms since she began her hunger strike in September — Seif said the sit-in has revived media attention on the predicament of her siblings and she and her mother said they would look for another form of protest to maintain the interest after they leave the courts complex.

“We need to do next something useful and symbolic,” she said as she squatted below the column surrounded by friends and supporters.