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 or 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. The family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah has been working tirelessly to secure his release – and is hoping that his recently granted British passport will give him rights they say are denied to him as an Egyptian national.
While authorities claim that foreigners and nationals are treated equally before the law, critics say that a foreign – and particularly Western – nationality usually affords the holder stronger guarantees of rights and freedoms.
During a press conference held by the sister of Abd El-Fattah on Tuesday, two Egyptian men identifying themselves as a lawyer and a parliamentarian raised concerns about what they say are “double standards” exercised by his family, who hope that pressure from the British government might secure the activist’s release.
“I am greatly concerned that whenever someone holds a foreign nationality, we ask for their release,” said the man who identified himself as a lawyer, 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, all Egyptians know that Egyptian citizenship makes you worth less,” said Seif. “And there is a way out for Alaa that does not require clemency.
“Deport him to his other country of residence and let him face a fair trial over there,” she said.
Following Seif’s press conference on Wednesday, Egyptian pro-government lawyer Tarek Mahmoud said that he had filed a case against Seif with the public prosecutors, petitioning that she be charged with “conspiring with foreign organizations that are hostile to the Egyptian government,” resorting to “foreign forces” and “inciting against the Egyptian state,” as well as “spreading false 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-born mother, in what his family said was part of the campaign to secure 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 Facebook post, a charge frequently used against activists and those of suspected of dissent. He stood trial in a state security court where his lawyers didn’t have access to the case files.
Abd El-Fattah has been on a hunger strike for more than 200 days and on Sunday stopped drinking water.
He started the hunger strike to demand consular access as a British national and in protest over prison conditions.
On Thursday, another of Abd El-Fattah’s sisters, Mona Seif, said that the family had been “informed by the prison officers that medical intervention was taken with Alaa, with the knowledge of judicial entities.” Mona Seif also demanded that his mother or a representative from the British embassy be allowed to see the activist to “understand his real health status.”
Other political prisoners in Egypt have been able to secure their release using their dual nationalities, following strenuous campaigns by their supporters and strong international pressure. Such efforts often come after all legal options have been exhausted in the domestic courts.
Their success often depends on where the second nationality is held, says Hossam Bahgat, a prominent Egyptian human rights advocate and head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
“If it is a European passport, it entitles an Egyptian citizen to better protection, more rights, and at least the possibility of deportation, none of which are rights guaranteed to an ordinary Egyptian,” Bahgat told CNN.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday said that he had raised the case of Abd El-Fattah 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 freed following more than 900 days in detention after he renounced his Egyptian nationality. His French wife, Celine Lebrun, had lobbied the French government for his release.
Upon arriving in Paris, Shaath’s family released a statement saying that “no one should have to choose between their freedom and their citizenship.”
And in 2015, Egyptian-Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was sentenced to three years in prison for reporting without a press license and “broadcasting material harmful to Egypt,” was given a presidential pardon only 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 goes as far back as Egypt’s 2014 law on foreign nationals. Pushed for by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Law 140 stipulates that the president is allowed to “repatriate convicted foreigners to their home countries” to either serve their time or stand trial through their own court systems.
The family of Abd El-Fattah, desperate to see him freed, has expressed openness to this law being used in his case.
“Legal routes 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 to CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that Abd El-Fattah “has not applied to be recognized by the Egyptian government as being a British citizen.”
“His citizenship was conferred while he was serving his sentence and there is a procedure within our rules and regulations and laws for any Egyptian who acquires dual nationality to fulfill,” Shoukry told CNN.
Not going through the proper legal channels risks opening “a loophole for anyone to commit a crime” and then claim dual nationality, said Shoukry.
Asked whether Abd El-Fattah could die while the British Prime Minister was in Egypt, and whether the activist would be given consular access, Shoukry said there were “misconceptions” with regards to his health status and insisted that the penal code in Egypt ensured proper healthcare for all inmates.
Bahgat, the human rights advocate, told CNN that “bureaucratic obstacles” had held up efforts by Abd El-Fattah’s family to gain authorization from the Egyptian interior ministry for his second nationality.
“This is a process that is granted very frequently, except in Alaa’s case,” Bahgat said, which appears to have hit 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” of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
“The generation of the Arab Spring has been stuck paying the heavy price of this uprising for nine years now,” Sanaa Seif told reporters on Tuesday.
“It is a generation that has languished in prisons and in morgues,” she said. “Enough.”