My brother the political prisoner, by Sanaa Seif

I was just his little sister, now I’m trying to free him from an Egyptian prison

The drive north out of Cairo from my family home is one I know well. It’s the route up to the coastal city of Alexandria, a joy-filled trip I often used to make to Egypt’s north-coast beaches. On the morning of 17 November 2022, however, almost exactly a year ago today, the journey could not have felt more different. We might have been travelling in that same direction, but our destination this time was the prison where my older brother, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, is locked away. He’s one of Egypt’s most high-profile pro-democracy activists. A political prisoner, he’s been in various jails for much of the past nine years. On the day of our visit, Alaa had spent the last six days refusing all food and water – the culmination of a 200-day partial hunger strike we’d all hoped might help secure his release. We had no idea what state we’d find him in.

At 9am, my mother, aunt and I piled into a car and headed out towards the modern prison complex deep in the desert. We sat in silence – there was nothing to say. Pulling up to the compound, we all knew the drill: jump out, show officials our documents and then sit around for hours and hours. The wait that day felt especially anxious. Days previously, our family had received two short handwritten notes from Alaa, which proved he was alive. The first letter stated he was drinking water again. The second that he was eating, too, and that on our visit we should bring a birthday cake. A few days later, he’d be turning 41.

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