It has been more than 54 days since Alaa Abdel Fattah, Egypt’s best known human rights activist, blogger and the face of the Tahrir Square protests, went on hunger strike in prison.
He has been fasting for almost two months to get the Egyptian authorities to respond to his requests: to appoint a judge to investigate his complaints about violations committed in prisons and to authorize a visit to his prison by the consul of the United Kingdom, a country of which Alaa has been a citizen for a few months.
On Wednesday, Alaa’s mother, Leila Seif, told the story of his life behind bars. An academic and storied Egyptian activist herself, Seif was heard by the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Chamber of Deputies: “I visited Alaa last Tuesday in the prison of Wadi al Natrun, where he had been transferred the previous day from the Tora 2 prison in Cairo. In that place, for 32 months, he had been forbidden everything: time outside, books, a radio. The transfer seems to be a positive development; I hope the restrictions will end. The Egyptian authorities operate with impunity, and Italy knows it well: I express my support for Giulio Regeni’s family, especially his mother, whose loss is much worse than mine; I hope that the pain will lessen if his murderers are brought to trial.”
On the sidelines of the hearing, we talked about Seif’s case with Laura Boldrini, PD deputy and president of the Commission.
After the hearing with the Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, it was the turn of Leila Seif. What are your objectives on the issue of political prisoners in Egypt?
In our fact-finding investigation into Italy’s commitment to protecting human rights around the world, we cannot fail to address the issue of people arbitrarily detained and sentenced simply for engaging in peaceful and legitimate activities in support of human rights or political activities. In Egypt, there is the continued use of anti-terrorist legislation and the adding of human rights defenders to terrorist lists. Pre-trial detention is used to criminalize human rights activists. That is why we have introduced this issue into our inquiry. I have already contacted the Undersecretaries for Foreign Affairs, Sereni and Della Vedova, this morning (on Wednesday, n.ed.), to see how we can intervene, if we can support the request of Leila Seif for pressure from European countries on Egypt to respect human rights, and, in this specific case, the rights of detainees. Our diplomatic representative should support the request by Alaa Abdel Fattah to meet with the British consul, as Alaa has both nationalities, and ask the competent authorities to follow up on his complaints.
Seif’s testimony gave a vivid picture not only of her son’s ordeal but of that of 60,000 political prisoners in a country that has been considered by our government to be an “inescapable partner.”
Leila Seif made us aware of her son’s situation and what life is like in an Egyptian prison. We already knew this, but hearing it directly is very powerful from an emotional point of view. I was struck by Alaa’s determination not to back down from his mission. He is waging a battle on principle, continuing his hunger strike after 54 days even though he was transferred to Wadi al-Natrun, where at least they gave him a mattress to sleep on. Alaa is the symbol for an entire generation of young Egyptians who have put their intellectual gifts in the service of their country. At Tora, Alaa was forced to sleep on the ground. He wasn’t given a mattress, he wasn’t allowed to see light and exercise, to read books or have a radio – this shows to what the Egyptian regime has been persecuting him.
You have long been one of the most active voices in Parliament in criticizing al-Sisi’s Egypt. Do you find the same awareness in your party, in the PD?
I have been saying for some time that we must not normalize relations with the Egyptian regime. I think it is a mistake to make trade agreements with them and – even worse – to give them weapons, because this legitimizes a regime that refuses even to cooperate on the murder of Giulio Regeni. The public prosecutor’s office in Rome has given the names and surnames of members of the state apparatus, but we are unable to move forward because the domiciles to which the notification of the trial should be sent have not been made known to us. This behavior is completely lacking in respect towards our country. How can this go hand in hand with good trade relations? How can one fail to see a contradiction between this closed-off, dismissive attitude on the part of the Egyptian authorities and sponsoring the Defense Expo in Egypt? For me this is an irreconcilable contradiction, one that does not help in getting the truth about the Regeni case and does not put pressure on the Egyptian regime to improve the human rights situation. It is as if the abuse of human rights didn’t affect international relations, as if it were a secondary issue. In my view, as Professor Seif said, the Italian government should not continue with either trade and arms sales.
Yet neither Italy nor Europe are taking any concrete action. No sanctions and no interruption in trade relations, which, as Seif pointed out, are often the only means of applying pressure, as the invasion of Ukraine shows.
There needs to be European mobilization in the case of Egypt, but instead we are acting as if human rights are irrelevant, as if they were not an important part of foreign policy. It is a mistake in the medium and long term to have dealings with dictators, as we have seen with Russia, and it debases the authority of countries that do so. Sanctions should also be applied to regimes that trample over human rights. This should be reason enough to review trade relations, visa policies and other areas.
Is the government prepared to do that?
I hope that the government will try to put effort in this case. After this hearing, I hope there will be interest in putting pressure on Egypt with regard to Alaa’s legitimate requests. Similarly, it would also be good for the EU to adopt the principle that human rights cannot be set aside, as we have already seen that this is a risky and counterproductive approach.
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