Egypt’s bittersweet politics of freedom

One of Egypt’s most well-known political activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was released on bail yesterday

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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One of Egypt’s most well-known political activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was released on bail yesterday. His release is a source of joy for many in Egypt – but the joy itself is bitter sweet, for him and for many, many others.

Abdel Fattah was released, alongside two other defendants, Mohammad Noubi and Wael Metwally – the only three who have been detained among twenty-five defendants. The tragedy of the case is now infamous. They were convicted for violating a protest law passed at the end of last year by the interim government after the ousting of Mohammad Mursi.

The bittersweet nature of the release is multifaceted. The law itself has been widely criticized by human rights organizations inside and outside of the country, and it was passed without a parliament in place. As such, it is controversial whether anyone at all should have been imprisoned under it. Secondly, Abdel Fattah himself, as well as other defendants, deny being in contravention of that law in any case, even though they oppose the law’s passing in the first place. Yet, they’ve still done time in jail for it.

There have been suggestions that Abdel Fattah’s release was, at least in part, instigated as a response to his hunger strike and the hunger strike of a number in solidarity from outside of prison

H.A. Hellyer

The tragedy doesn’t stop there. The release isn’t an ending of the case – the case continues. It’s simply that these defendants are out on bail – in a case where private family videos of Abdel Fattah’s wife dancing were shown as ‘evidence’ against him.

The tragedy continues – because as a result of this case, Abdel Fattah was not, for example, with his father, Ahmed Seif, when he died recently. As a result of this case, his younger sister, Sanaa Seif, is also detained, as she and others were detained in protesting against the law that imprisoned Abdel Fattah.

But the tragedy doesn’t end there. There are many – far too many – who have been imprisoned under this law, and many of which remain in custody. While Abdel Fattah, Metwally and Noubi have been released, others remain detained. And at any time, until the case is actually dismissed, they and their families know that they could return to being “guests” of the Egyptian state’s hospitality.

Hunger strike

There have been suggestions that Abdel Fattah’s release was, at least in part, instigated as a response to his hunger strike and the hunger strike of a number in solidarity from outside of prison. Journalists and other public figures have been a part of that effort. If that is what made the difference, then it is clear that difference is selective.

Mohammad Soltan, a detainee who has been on hunger strike for more than 230 days – the longest running period thus far – is in an intensive care unit as a result of the health consequences of his hunger strike, and as yet it seems unlikely he will be released soon. The “Freedom for the Brave” movement has documented 58 cases of hunger strikers thus far and speculates there may be many more that have not been reported.

Even when the cases have been reported, different cases do get different types of attention. Alaa Abdel Fattah is a noted political activist, and has been prosecuted by all of the regimes of the last four years in Egypt. His political opinions, while not necessarily popular among a broad swathe of Egyptians, identify him, clearly, as a non-Islamist and thus exclude him from the “war on terror” discourse that so invigorates Egypt at present. He is related to that discourse only in so far as dissent against the state may be interpreted in some quarters as being “helpful” to the wrong side but not actually being of that wrong side.

Soltan’s case

Soltan, on the other hand, is not a non-Islamist activist who engaged against the Muslim Brotherhood under Mursi. He is the son of a noted Brotherhood figure, who is also imprisoned, and was himself a media liaison for the group. He thus stands right in the midst of that “war on terror,” as it is currently designated – whether it is right that it be designated as such or not. The fact he is an American national has not, it seems, helped him in that regard, even while U.S. Secretary of State Kerry visited Cairo just a few days ago to entice Egypt’s participation in a campaign against ISIS.

For a year, Soltan’s case has dragged on and his health is in grave jeopardy. But such are the lengths that some have gone to, Soltan foremost among them, when they feel that the justice system is failing them. And these are only the cases that are known – they are not all the cases that exist.

Yesterday, a member of the quasi-state NGO, the National Council for Human Rights, suggested that the protest law would be amended very soon and that all prisoners detained under it would be released. That in itself would not be enough to make joy anything but bittersweet in cases like these. The legal system itself stands in great need of vast reform, reform that will require immense political will and recognition of how dastardly the flaws within it are.

In the meantime, while small triumphs like yesterday’s releases are celebrated, as they ought to be, no-one should be left under any illusion. Justice requires a great deal more than just this and victory can be pronounced when a genuinely just protest law is announced and when the deep problems of the Egyptian judicial system finally begins to be addressed.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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