Rishi Sunak has expressed “deep concern” to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi while raising the case of a British pro-democracy activist jailed by Cairo for much of the past decade, Downing Street has said.
Alarmed MPs have warned that British-Egyptian citizen Alaa Abdel-Fattah “may not live for much longer”, after he announced he would begin a water strike to coincide with the UN’s Cop27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The 40-year-old writer and software developer – regarded by many as a hero of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising – has ingested only 100 calories for the past 200 days in protest over Cairo’s refusal to grant him a consular visit, but has intensified his hunger strike as world leaders descend upon Egypt.
His sister Sanaa Seif believes her brother’s desperate switch to zero calories and a water strike have made the UK government realise the “urgency” of the case, with Mr Sunak writing to their family last weekend to vow he was “totally committed to resolving [their] brother’s case”.
Describing the new PM’s letter as “powerful”, Ms Seif said on Monday that her family were “pinning our hopes” on Mr Sunak, adding: “I really believe that if he makes this an urgent political priority, my brother will be on the next flight to London.”
Following a meeting just hours later between Mr Sunak and Mr al-Sisi on the sidelines of the UN summit, No 10 said the new prime minister had “raised the case of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, stressing the UK government’s deep concern on this issue”.
“The prime minister said he hoped to see this resolved as soon as possible and would continue to press for progress,” the Downing Street spokesperson said.
Earlier, Mr Sunak had told broadcasters that Mr Abdel-Fattah’s case – which has previously been raised twice by former prime minister Boris Johnson, and by Liz Truss when she was foreign secretary – was one “not just the United Kingdom but many countries want to see resolved”.
Mr Abdel-Fattah, who rose to international prominence during the 2011 revolution which toppled Hosni Mubarak, has been jailed by every Egyptian president in his lifetime, and was last year sentenced to a further five-year term on charges of spreading false news in social media posts.
Last month, as the father and activist stepped up his hunger strike, some 64 cross-party MPs and peers wrote to foreign secretary James Cleverly, urging him to use Cop27 to work on securing freedom for Mr Abdel-Fattah, whose life they warned was at “serious risk”.
The continued persecution and psychological torture of the activist by Cairo, which the UK considers an ally, “gives us grave concerns about the precedent being set for our constituents arrested in Egypt as well as other countries”, they warned, labelling his latest charges “unlawful”.
On Monday, Ms Seif – who has also been jailed three times in Cairo – suggested that the “hectic” state of British politics had hindered work on her brother’s case.
“I strongly feel that the hecticness that was happening in the government and the change of government was … in a sense, it was a genuine excuse but also it made, like, the civil servants and the diplomats working, and the Foreign Office, have an excuse. And so they weren’t really working hard,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme.
“I felt all of a sudden when Alaa stopped water that we were suddenly getting these calls, phone calls, we were getting the letter from the prime minister. So it feels like they realised the urgency all of a sudden. We’ve been warning them that this is coming.”
Speaking to Sky News last weekend, his sister expressed hopes that Mr Sunak would not merely pay “lip service” to Mr Abdel-Fattah’s case, adding: “It will be his first trip and so it’s a challenge but I hope the prime minister Rishi Sunak understands the urgency.”
In his letter to Mr Abdel-Fattah’s sisters, Mr Sunak acknowledged the family was going through “an extremely painful time” and described his case as “a priority for the British government both as a human rights defender and as a British national”.