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Desperate For Freedom, Egypt's Hunger-Striking Political Prisoners

Tired of being denied basic rights, Egypt's political prisoners are increasingly trying to break the cycle of helplessness with the one bit of control they still have over their lives. 

Protesting in Cairo for prisoners
Protesting in Cairo for prisoners
Heba Afify

CAIRO — Several groups of political detainees have joined the dozens that are now months into hunger strikes in Egyptian jails, putting their bodies on the front lines of their battle for justice. Their demands range from better jail conditions to release.

Their imprisonment and ensuing hunger strikes fall within a tumultuous wave of political arrests, administrative detentions and occasional trumped-up charges that have marked the year since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. WikiThawra estimates that over 40,000 people have been locked up since last year under these circumstances.

Four detainees recently announced a hunger strike and launched a campaign, called "We are fed up," asking other political prisoners to join them.

The campaign was started by activists Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, both sentenced to three years for protest-related charges, as well as Wael Metwally and Mohamed Abdel Rahman, who are in prison pending retrial on another protest-related case, in which they had been initially sentenced to 15 years in absentia.

The four started a hunger strike and launched the campaign in solidarity with fellow detainee activist Alaa Abd El Fattah.

Abd El Fattah began his hunger strike in August, following an authorized visit to his father, lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam, who slipped into a coma following cardiac arrest. Abd El Fattah knew his father was in hospital following open heart surgery but didn't know he was experiencing complications. On his way back to prison, he made up his mind.

"I will not play the role that they planned for me," he was quoted as saying in a statement from his family. The following day, Abd El Fattah had shaved his head to mark the beginning of his hunger strike.

Sisters in solidarity

Earlier this month, sisters Hend and Rasha Mounir announced a hunger strike from their prison cells in Qanater after being sentenced to life in prison. The siblings were arrested during an August 2013 protest denouncing the violent dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins. The sentence came one year after their detention.

Their sister Heba, along with a fourth sister, also started a hunger strike in solidarity, and told Mada Masr of the desperation that led to their decision. "You tell me what else there is to do? We were patient for a year, we didn't strike, we took the legal path and thought it would bring us justice. This is not a life sentence, it is death, it is slow death," Heba says.

Over 40 other detainees in Qanater prison reportedly joined the hunger strike in solidarity with the two sisters. The family is not hopeful of the outcome, but sees no other way.

Though hunger striking may be an act of desperation and helplessness, activist Aida Seif al-Dawla says that it's also a way for prisoners to redeem their dignity.

"It is an expression of anger and an exercise of dignity," she says. "The detainee tells his captor: You are putting me in jail, you decide when to open and close my cell, the judiciary is in your pocket, you control the visits I receive, you can search me anytime. You think you control me 100%? No, there's 1% that I still control, and I will exercise this control and give you a headache with it."

Seif al-Dawla explains that hunger strikes put pressure on the state because it is accountable for the safety of people in its custody. Additionally, a hunger striker registers their act of dissent with the prosecution, which is supposed to listen to the detainee's reasons for the strike. This gives detainees an outlet to express grievances, Seif al-Dawla says.

Some hope

The release of Abdullah al-Shamy, the Al Jazeera journalist detained without trial for 10 months, after five months of hunger striking, was an optimistic sign. Arrested while covering the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in dispersal, Shamy was released in June for health reasons.

Abdullah's brother, photojournalist Mosaab al-Shamy, thinks the state decided that the inconvenience caused by keeping Abdullah detained and on hunger strike surpassed the inconvenience of releasing him.

"Both options were bad," Mosaab says. "Letting him go could motivate more people to do the same, but keeping him risks turning him into an even bigger hero or losing his life and bringing them more headaches. When they made their calculations, they realized that letting him go was less of a disaster."

But Mosaab argues that Abdullah's case was unique. Being a journalist, his case was automatically covered in the media. Also, several high-profile lawyers and activists took up the case, and it received international support. Abdullah's hunger strike turned into a media battle between him and the state, Mosaab says.

Abdullah started taking pictures and videos of himself to show its effect on him, which were then leaked during visits and posted to social media. Mosaab thinks this step was crucial to his success.

"This gave the campaign a lot of momentum. We were dictating, we controlled the narrative," Mosaab continues. By the time the state realized where the battle was, it tried to beat Shamy at his own game, releasing pictures of him with food and claiming he had broken his hunger strike shortly before his release. But by then the campaign had grown beyond sabotage.

Another recent success came when the court decided to release Karima al-Serafy, daughter of former Morsi advisor Ayman al-Serafy, after 72 days on hunger strike.

Serafy was taken by security forces from her house last year and is currently facing charges of conspiring with foreign powers, along with her father and other Morsi aides, to destabilize Egypt's national security. She started her hunger strike after an assault on her and other detained women in their jail cell by security guards.

Karima's brother Ahmed explains to Mada Masr the frustration that led Karima to opt for a hunger strike despite her family's constant attempts to dissuade her.

A vicious circle

For months, the case was going in circles, in which Karima would go to court, demand release pending trial, and then the judge would renew her detention. No investigation or any advancement in the case was made, leading her to believe that the unfounded case could drag on indefinitely.

But Abdullah and Serafy's success has not been automatically replicable. Mohamed Soltan is currently the longest hunger-striking detainee in Egyptian prisons, with his strike exceeding 210 days. He is now using a wheelchair, unable to carry the weight of his body. Son of Muslim Brotherhood leader Salah Soltan, the American-Egyptian Mohamed was arrested at his home shortly after the Rabea al-Adaweya dispersal.

While Soltan and Shamy's campaigns were run in parallel, the surrounding circumstances differed. For one, Soltan didn't have the institutional support that Al Jazeera provided for Abdullah, which helped with advocacy for his case. Seif al-Dawla believes that Soltan letting his health deteriorate could be used by the state as pressure against his father.

Explaining the rarity of success, Seif al-Dawla says that the societal pressure that usually accompanies hunger strikes is absent. "A society that watched idly the massacres of Rabea and the Republican Guards will not mind hunger strikes," she says.

The large number of hunger strikers, which even activists have difficulty tracking, has diluted the effect, she says.

Have we become a desensitized society?

One detainee on hunger strike is a tragedy, dozens are just a number, she says, adding that, as with everything else, society is becoming desensitized to hunger strikes.

Seif al-Dawla herself began one in June along with university professor and activist Laila Soueif, in solidarity with Soltan and Shamy. She says that it was meant to attract the attention of civil society. But the goal was not achieved, she says, as even civil society largely ignores hunger strikes. She eventually broke it.

The state's reaction to hunger strikes also renders the experience riskier for the detainee. The prison authority typically skips the legal procedures set for hunger strikes and neglects critical health care needs. Abdullah's hunger strike and most others were never officially recorded by the prosecution, which deprives the prisoner of state recognition.

Ibrahim al-Yamany, a physician arrested while protesting in 2013, is currently on his second hunger strike — so far at over 130 days. He started this round shortly after he ended an 89-day strike.

Seif al-Dawla says that when lawyers requested jail authorities inform the prosecution of the strikes, they were told that the prosecution would come when the prisoner dies.

Most of the health care that Abdullah received came from a cellmate who happened to be a doctor. The fellow detainee, Mosaab says, took blood samples from Abdullah, which the family would collect during visits and send for tests. The jail authorities only started giving Abdullah minor health care when his condition became critical in an attempt to keep him alive.

Despite the risks and slim chances of success, Ahmed el-Serafy explains why his sister and other detainees still resort to hunger strikes. "The detainee reaches a point where there is nothing else to do, and they decide to either live with dignity and get their rights or go on with their strike and whatever happens happens. They get to a point where they have given up on life."

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