Alaa Abd El-Fattah: How a second nationality became an Egyptian activist’s last hope for freedom

Abu Dhabi and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

For some political detainees in Egypt, a second nationality can be a matter of life and death, especially when pressure from Western governments becomes the last hope for possible freedom.

In Egypt, the plight of a prominent British-Egyptian activist currently on hunger strike in prison is the talk of the COP27 climate summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s family has been working tirelessly to secure his release, hoping his newly granted British passport will give him the rights they say he is denied as an Egyptian national.

While authorities claim that foreigners and nationals are treated equally under the law, critics say that a foreign, and especially Western, nationality tends to offer its holder stronger guarantees of rights and freedoms.

During a press conference held by Abd El-Fattah’s sister on Tuesday, two Egyptian men who identified themselves as a lawyer and a member of parliament expressed concern over what they say are “double standards” exercised by his family , who hope that pressure from the British Government could secure the release of the activist.

“I am very concerned that whenever someone has a foreign nationality, we ask for their freedom,” the man, who identified himself as a lawyer, said in Arabic. “This is a double standard.”

In response, Abd El-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif, said that “the Egyptian regime is very aware that when it comes to dual nationalities, the standards change.”

“Unfortunately, every Egyptian knows that Egyptian citizenship makes you worth less,” Seif said. “And there is a way out for Alaa that requires no mercy.

“Deport him to his other country of residence and let him face a fair trial there,” he said.

After Seif’s news conference on Wednesday, pro-government Egyptian lawyer Tarek Mahmoud said he had filed a case against Seif with prosecutors, calling for him to be charged with “conspiring with foreign organizations that are hostile to the Egyptian government.” resorting to “foreign forces” and “incitement against the Egyptian state” as well as “spreading fake news”.

Imprisoned for much of the past decade and sentenced to a further five years in 2021, Abd El-Fattah was granted British citizenship earlier this year, through his British mother, in what his family said which was part of the campaign to obtain his release. and shed light on the struggle of his fellow inmates.

Abd El-Fattah was found guilty of spreading false information for sharing a post on Facebook, a charge frequently used against activists and suspected dissidents. He was tried in a state security court where his lawyers did not have access to the files.

Abd El-Fattah has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days and stopped drinking water on Sunday.

He went on hunger strike to demand consular access as a British national and to protest prison conditions.

Thursday, another of Abd El-Fattah’s sisters, said Mona Seif that the family had been “informed by prison officers that Alaa was medically intervened, with the knowledge of judicial entities”. Mona Seif also demanded that her mother or a representative of the British embassy be able to see the activist to “understand his real state of health”.

Other political prisoners in Egypt have been able to secure their release using their dual citizenship, following strenuous campaigns by their supporters and strong international pressure. These efforts usually come after all legal options have been exhausted in domestic courts.

Their success often depends on where the second nationality is held, says Hossam Bahgat, a prominent Egyptian human rights defender and head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

“If it’s a European passport, it entitles an Egyptian citizen to better protection, more rights and at least the possibility of deportation, none of which are guaranteed rights to an ordinary Egyptian,” Bahgat told CNN.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday that he had raised Abd El-Fattah’s case while attending COP27. “We will continue to press the Egyptian government to resolve the situation,” Sunak told the UK parliament.

In January, Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath was released after more than 900 days in detention after renouncing his Egyptian nationality. His French wife, Celine Lebrun, had lobbied the French government for his release.

Arriving in Paris, Shaath’s family issued a statement saying “no one should have to choose between their freedom and their citizenship.”

And in 2015, Al Jazeera’s Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was sentenced to three years in prison for reporting without a press license and “broadcasting material harmful to Egypt,” received a presidential pardon just months after the Canadian government issued him a passport. Fahmy regained his Egyptian nationality in 2016, according to Egyptian state media, which reported that he “was under exceptional pressure when he renounced his native nationality”.

The option to resort to dual nationality in order to be released from detention dates back to Egypt’s 2014 law on foreign nationals. Pushed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Law 140 states that the president can “repatriate convicted foreigners to their countries of origin” to serve their sentences or be tried by their own judicial systems.

Abd El-Fattah’s family, desperate to see him released, has been open to this law being used in their case.

“Legal avenues were exhausted for nine years,” Sanaa Seif told reporters on Tuesday. “There was a law issued, and it was issued specifically for these cases.”

But there may be significant hurdles to clear. Speaking with CNN’s Becky Anderson on MondayEgyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Abd El-Fattah “has not applied to be recognized by the Egyptian government as a British citizen”.

“His citizenship was conferred while he was serving his sentence and there is a procedure within our rules, regulations and laws for any Egyptian who acquires dual citizenship,” Shoukry told CNN.

Not going through the proper legal channels risks opening “a loophole for anyone to commit a crime” and then claim dual citizenship, Shoukry said.

Asked whether Abd El-Fattah could die while the British prime minister was in Egypt and whether the activist would have consular access, Shoukry said there were “misconceptions” about his state of health and insist that Egypt’s penal code guarantees correct use. healthcare to all inmates.

Bahgat, the human rights lawyer, told CNN that “bureaucratic hurdles” had stalled Abd El-Fattah’s family’s efforts to obtain Egyptian interior ministry authorization for his second nationality .

“This is a process that is granted very often, except in Alaa’s case,” said Bahgat, who appears to have struck a more sensitive note with Egyptian authorities.

The only explanation his supporters have, Bahgat said, is that Abd El-Fattah was “one of the most prominent and influential voices” in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

“The Arab Spring generation has been stuck paying the big price for this uprising for nine years now,” Sanaa Seif told reporters on Tuesday.

“It’s a generation that has languished in prisons and mortuaries,” he said. “Enough.”

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