Activists including Ahdaf Soueif arrested in Egypt over coronavirus protest

Image Courtesy: PalFest 2017

Booker-shortlisted novelist Ahdaf Soueif (69) and three other women activists were arrested for their peaceful protest demanding the release of prisoners and detainees, in a bid to curb the spread of the Covid-19 in Egypt’s overcrowded jails. The other three women are Soueif’s sister, mathematician and women’s rights activist Laila Soueif (63), her daughter and activist Mona Seif (34), and Rabab El-Mahdi, a professor at Cairo’s American University. The arrest was made by the country’s security forces at downtown Cairo on 18th March.

Soueif’s son, novelist and filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton took to Twitter immediately after the arrest to say, “Seems maybe the regime is banking that with the world’s attention on Coronavirus they can be done with these four women who are a constant problem for them.” 

Human rights activists in Egypt have been calling for the release of nonviolent detainees and political prisoners ever since the virus outbreak has taken place on a large scale all around the world. Although there’s no exact and reliable count as far as the number of prison-inmates are concerned, there have been multiple complaints and remarks regarding the inhumane conditions in the country’s prisons, including from the United Nations. “We have received reports of overcrowding, inadequate food, poor ventilation and no access to sunlight. Prisoners are denied family visits and fail to receive necessary medical care”, reported the UN experts in November 2019. As of today, Egypt has approximately 210 confirmed Coronavirus cases and six have died.

Like most infectious diseases, the Covid-19 spreads extremely rapidly through close proximity between human beings, and the issue of prisoners was raised outside Egypt too, in the context of the Coronavirus. For instance, an international non-governmental organisation based in the US, Human Rights Watch, on March 12 advised state authorities in America to take all necessary action to provide extra care to prisoners and those illegally detained in the country’s many immigration detention centres.

The protest outside the Cabinet of Egypt | Twitter

Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum about the arrest of Soueif and others, writer and publisher Ritu Menon said, “Ahdaf and her family have been in the forefront of resisting and protesting all human rights violations in Egypt, ever since the revolution of 2011. In particular, Ahdaf has stood firm against the trials of civilians by military courts, refusing to compromise on the fundamental right of all citizens to a fair trial. Her, and her sister’s demand that, in view of COVID 19, all prisoners be freed is totally in keeping with her humanitarian concerns.”

On 16th March, Laila Soueif had written to the Prosecutor-General, demanding he put an end to overcrowding in prisons and limit the potential of the spread of the novel virus. Laila is also the mother of Alaa Abd El Fattah, one of the best known faces of the 2011 uprisings and a vocal critic of the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government. Fattah was rearrested in September 2019, just months after he was released after a 5-6 years’ sentence for protesting the Al-Sisi government’s use of military trials against civilians. The regime has initiated waves of crackdowns and severe violations of the right to freedom of expression against dissidents, ever since they came to power in 2014. Protests against the miserable conditions inside Egypt’s prisons have gone up after Fattah’s arrest and especially after the global spread of the Coronavirus. Instead of responding to the issue, however, the government on March 10 issued a nationwide 10-day halt on visits to prison by inmates’ families.

Ahdaf has also been at the forefront of fights for the protection of freedom of speech and expression. She is the founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which states its mission as affirming "the power of culture over the culture of power". She has also voiced her dissent against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Al-Sisi government — most recently regarding their arbitrary detention of civilians and multiple extrajudicial murders.

All the four protesters are still detained incommunicado, with no access to their phones. They were initially taken to the Qasr al Nil police station in central Cairo, and the charges pressed against them include illegal assembly, unlawful protest, and blocking traffic. Although the bail money was paid more than nine hours ago, no action has been taken in favour of the four women so far.

The Indian Cultural Forum also spoke to novelist Githa Hariharan, who said, “It's shocking that writer and commentator Ahdaf Soueif, a strong voice for reason and justice, has been arrested along with three other women. They were demanding the release of prisoners in overcrowded jails in Egypt to prevent the spread of Covid-19”. She added that, “Even as we fight the Coronavirus, all of us, whether in Egypt or India, have to fight against the virus that crushed dissent.”

The PEN International has released a statement pressing for the release of all the four detainees, in which the association of writers states that, “Egypt’s detention and arrest of several activists – including prominent Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif – demonstrates that the Egyptian government is more concerned with its reputation than the rights of its citizens, including their freedom of expression and right to information”.

Mukulika R is a member of the Editorial Collective, Indian Cultural Forum.