Family of Egyptian Political Prisoner Says He Had Near-Death Experience

CAIRO — Alaa Abd El Fattah, Egypt’s best-known political prisoner, is thin, frail and psychologically unstable after spending months with little food and days without water. But he plans to resume his hunger strike again after a short break, his family said on Thursday, after visiting him in prison.

Speaking to his relatives through a glass barrier during his family’s monthly 20-minute visit, Mr. Abd El Fattah said prison medics had begun giving him nutrients intravenously after he collapsed in the shower last Friday, a moment he described as a near-death experience, his family said.

His hunger strike broken and his spirit revived by being granted a music player in prison that allows him to listen to music for the first time in three years, he was drinking clear broth, his family said he told them.

But the goal with which he began his strike in April — winning release from prison, where he has been held for most of the past nine years — remains out of reach. His family said Mr. Abd El Fattah had not had any negotiations with Egyptian officials over his case.

As a result, he appeared determined to take up his strike again “imminently,” his family said, though his sister Sanaa Seif said at a news conference that she had tried to persuade him to stop the strike, concerned for his physical and mental health.

Mr. Abd El Fattah, who was convicted last year off spreading fake news for a social media post he wrote describing human rights violations in prison, told his family he had repeatedly smashed his head against the wall on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. The first time, he did it after having a “meltdown” when prison officials refused to acknowledge his strike, and then to force the authorities to summon an investigator and file an official report. On Tuesday, he was restrained and put on suicide watch, according to the family. On Wednesday, the authorities sent an investigator.

Ms. Seif said she feared that Mr. Abd El Fattah would attempt to hurt himself again. Describing him as “very, very unstable psychologically and physically,” she said he had told her he had felt relief at nearly dying, which had caused him to doubt his current motivations for his strike.

“Am I resisting,” she recounted his saying, “or am I just letting go and suicidal?”

Sanaa Seif, the sister of Mr. Abd el-Fattah, says the uncertainty and fear his family felt for him was “what many, many thousands of families are living through.”Credit…Sedat Suna/EPA, via Shutterstock

The news broke days of suspense over Mr. Abd El Fattah’s condition. Information about his health that dribbled out over the past week was sparse: that prison authorities had begun a “medical intervention,” that he was drinking water again as of Saturday and that he had broken his hunger strike as of Monday.

But the exact course of events at Wadi el-Natroun prison — and Mr. Abd El Fattah’s reasons for starting to eat and drink again — had remained murky.

“I want to celebrate my birthday with you on Thursday, I haven’t celebrated for a long time, and want to celebrate with my cellmates,” he wrote to his mother, Laila Soueif, in a short handwritten note from prison dated Monday afternoon. “So bring a cake, normal provisions, I’ve broken my strike.”

Mr. Abd El Fattah received the music player from his mother on Monday. The first song he played, his family said, was Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” After reducing his intake last spring to 100 calories a day of milk and honey in his tea, Mr. Abd El Fattah stopped eating altogether on Nov. 1, followed by water on Nov. 6, his family said. The dates were chosen to exert maximum pressure on the Egyptian authorities, who began hosting the annual United Nations climate conference — a global event they had hoped would bring prestige and positive headlines to Egypt — the same day Mr. Abd El Fattah stopped drinking water.

The summit, which end Friday, was soon awash in questions about his case. Egyptian officials complained that international journalists were unfairly focusing on human rights over urgent climate change matters, while the leaders of the United States, Britain, France and Germany, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, all raised Mr. Abd El Fattah’s imprisonment with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

Several protests by climate activists tied climate justice demands to demands for the freedom of Egypt’s thousands of political prisoners, holding banners that read, “We have not been defeated,” a nod to the title of a collection of Mr. Abd El Fattah’s writings, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.”

“Free Alaa, free them all,” attendees of the People’s Plenary, a forum for climate activists at the summit, chanted as it ended on Thursday.

Told by his family of the international attention he had attracted, his family said on Thursday, he responded: “Any form of political organizing that may solve our global crises has to stem from personal solidarity. Like this.”

So far, the growing pressure appears only to have made Egypt dig in further. Pro-government news media and government supporters have painted Mr. Abd El Fattah as a criminal convicted in a legitimate judicial process, which his family rejects, saying his December 2021 conviction came after a rushed trial in which neither prosecution nor defense presented arguments.

A target for politically motivated prosecution since before his leading role in Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution elevated him nearly to household-name status among young Egyptians, Mr. Abd El Fattah has spent most of the past nine years in prison for his outspoken critiques and activism.

The uncertainty and fear his family felt for him, Ms. Seif said on Thursday, was “what many, many thousands of families are living through.”

Campaigners protesting at the British Museum in London last month against BP’s sponsorship of the upcoming exhibition “Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt” and demanding the release of Mr. Abd El Fattah.Credit…Tolga Akmen/EPA, via Shutterstock

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