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The family of a detained Egyptian activist has lost contact with him

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Eleven years ago, popular uprisings swept the Middle East, unseating some of the region's previously unshakable autocrats. In Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak was forced out by massive popular protests across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: Alaa Abd El Fattah was one of the faces of young revolutionaries daring to demand the end of Mubarak's rule and the birth of something new. But today, much of that hope for change has been replaced with a backslide to autocracy, and Alaa Abd El Fattah has languished in prison in Egypt for much of the last decade, along with scores of other political prisoners. His family says he is being punished for demonstrating in 2011. In April, Abd El Fattah went on hunger strike as a book he wrote from prison was released in the U.S. At the time, his sister, Sanaa Seif, said the strike and his book were about bringing attention to her brother's case in the U.S. and U.K. and bringing pressure for his release.

SANAA SEIF: This is a critical time for him, where we think there might be hope for his release. And we believe attention right now is really needed.

FADEL: Now, more than 100 days into his hunger strike, the family has lost contact with him. So we're checking back in with his sister, and Sanaa Seif joins me now from London via Skype. Hi, Sanaa.

SEIF: Hi. Thank you for having me again.

FADEL: Thank you for being back on the program. You know, when we last spoke, here's what you told me about Alaa's time in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SEIF: The regime is so stubborn with Alaa. They've built up so much over the years of trying to create an example of him for the rest of us - like, for whoever believed or participated back in 2011, that I don't think anything will make his situation worse.

FADEL: So you said that at the time, that you were going public because it couldn't get worse. What is your brother's situation right now?

SEIF: So after we talked and we got some attention, Alaa was transferred from, like, the horrible facility he was in to a relatively better one. And he was allowed books, but he was still denied many of the basic rights that are granted by, like, Egyptian laws in prison. At its peak, we were finally getting solidarity from several governments, and we were finally getting the attention of the U.K. government.

FADEL: And your brother is a British citizen, right?

SEIF: Exactly. So it's on the British government to be kind of leading the negotiation for his release. But we saw solidarity from other countries. And Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, came to London and met with Liz Truss, the U.K. foreign secretary. And she had vowed before Parliament before that meeting that she will press for Alaa's release. And so it seemed like we were - finally, this is it, it's happening. And two days after the meeting, the government felt Boris Johnson had to resign. Because there isn't now a stable government in the U.K., that the Egyptians are making advantage of that. Of course, we still have a foreign secretary, but she's now running for prime minister, and so a lot of the foreign affairs issues are not taking the attention.

FADEL: And in the meantime, your family has lost contact with your brother?

SEIF: Yes, we had a visit. We were - my mom was supposed to visit Alaa, and they just told her that he doesn't want to come out for the visit, and he's never refused visits. Last we heard of Alaa would be, like, 16. He had written a letter to us, and it seemed normal. Like, he seemed tired, but it seemed that he was telling me that he would write properly in the next week. And there is nothing to prepare us in the letter that he will refuse visits. And so we don't know why they're hiding him or what...

FADEL: So you don't believe that he's refusing the visits?

SEIF: Or maybe, if he's refusing, then something happened.

FADEL: What are you worried about?

SEIF: I know that refusing a visit is a kind of protest, but I don't imagine Alaa doing that without explaining to us. And it's very worrying because also, at the same time, another high-profile political prisoner, Ahmed Douma, his visit was also cancelled. But then his family discovered that he was beaten up. An officer assaulted Ahmed Douma. I'm worried. I'm trying not to think that Alaa was assaulted because I know he's already weak. He's on hunger strike. He's been living on 5% of the normal calorie intake in the form of liquids. If he's refusing - although I don't - I really don't believe he would be refusing.

FADEL: What happened when your mother last tried to see him?

SEIF: They told her that it's looking like it's going to be resolved. You might see him. Just stay, even if it's after waking hours. So she stayed until 7 p.m., but then nothing happened, and they told her to leave.

FADEL: You mentioned some progress pre-Boris Johnson stepping down from office. Do you feel that there is a path forward now with all this uncertainty, as you mentioned?

SEIF: We weren't really relying on the prime minister. We were relying on the foreign secretary. And I think what's happening now is that the attention is being diverted because she's running for PM. There was a lot of pressure on President Biden to raise Alaa's case in the bilateral meeting in the last trip, and we don't know if it was really raised or not. But there is a tension.

FADEL: You mentioned President Biden - Egypt is a strategic ally of the U.S., a recipient of lots of U.S. military aid. And Biden did withhold $130 million earlier in the year over human rights concerns. Is that enough?

SEIF: It's very puzzling with this administration. This is a very bold move, and it's kind of unprecedented and I really appreciate it. But it was diluted immediately with much bigger piece of the military aid. And even, like, the follow-up - the $130 million were conditioned on some human rights conditions, and these conditions were supposedly private but the Egyptian side weren't respecting the secrecy. And the way the administration followed up the negotiations about the conditions weren't robust, and they kind of jeopardized the first bold move by withholding aid. So I don't understand, really. It looks like you're doing something that's really good for human rights, but then it gets diluted or you don't follow it up properly.

FADEL: And how are you doing? I mean, how long can you continue like this?

SEIF: I'm really worried, of course. And I'm not hopeful for the country, unfortunately. It's very sad what's happening in Egypt. But personally, I'm hopeful to be able to reunite with my family where we can reunite peacefully and safely somewhere. And so that is what keeps me going. I'm worried, but I know I'm doing my best. I know Alaa is doing his best. I know he's fighting this to live. He doesn't want to die. And so I know he would try to stay strong as much as possible.

FADEL: Sanaa Seif is an Egyptian activist speaking to us about her brother, Alaa Abd El Fattah, imprisoned in Egypt. Thank you so much for your time.

SEIF: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.