The family of a British national jailed in Egypt and the British wife of an Egyptian rights defender under a travel ban are demanding that Liz Truss do more to pressure her Egyptian counterpart when they meet this week.
The foreign secretary is expected to meet Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, in London after telling parliament in June that she would seek a meeting with him and raise the case of detained British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah. “We’re working very hard to secure his release,” she said.
Abd El Fattah’s family, as well as Jessica Kelly, the British wife of human rights defender Karim Ennarah who remains subject to a travel ban preventing him from joining her in London, said Truss and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) were failing to pressure an ally. They said the strong partnership between the two countries, including a post-Brexit trade deal, gives Britain leverage to demand more in the area of human rights and political prisoners that Truss is neglecting to use.
“We are waiting for a clear timeline of Alaa’s release, conscious of the fact that he has spent years in prison and is now on his [94th] day of hunger strike. We need something prompt, and urgent,” said Abd El Fattah’s sister Mona Seif, now into her fourth week of a hunger strike to draw attention to her brother’s.
Abd El Fattah, a figurehead of Egypt’s 2011 revolution who became a British citizen last year, has spent most of the last decade behind bars. The 40-year-old activist was last year sentenced to a further five years on terrorism charges over a social media post.
His family said Truss was slow to engage with Abd El Fattah’s case, and that the FCDO has not pushed back on Egyptian officials’ refusal to allow urgent consular access to him in prison.
An FCDO spokesperson said: “The UK government continues to raise Alaa Abd El Fattah’s case at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.
“We are working urgently to secure consular access to Mr Ab Del Fattah and are urging the Egyptian authorities to ensure his welfare needs are met.”
Labour MP David Lammy, who represents Seif, wrote to Truss prior to the meeting urging her to do more to pressure Shoukry over Abd El Fattah’s freedom, as the activist has now been on hunger strike for more than 90 days. “He is at death’s door,” he said. “This grave situation requires your urgent intervention. Time is of the essence.”
Seif said: “I will be heartbroken if this turns into another diplomatic meeting like all the communications before, with no tangible promises of resolution. The other thing I’m hoping for is that Truss finally meets with us after meeting Shoukry.”
Britain is one of Egypt’s largest trading partners, accounting for £3.3bn in trade last year, and at least £125m in licences for military exports since 2019. Egypt is also due to host the Cop27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh this November.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon met Shoukry on Monday, and said afterwards that he raised Abd El Fattah’s case.
Kelly said Truss should raise Ennarah’s case with Shoukry “in the strongest terms possible” during their meeting. Ennarah, a human rights defender with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was released from prison in December 2020 after a meeting with a group of diplomats that included the British deputy ambassador, having been detained a month earlier.
“It’s an affront to the UK’s friendly relations with Egypt,” Kelly said. Ennarah remains subject to a travel ban that is preventing him from joining his wife in London, where he previously studied on a scholarship funded by the FCDO.
“The FCDO needs to be firm and consistent, and what I’ve experienced is that they tell me Karim is a top priority, but they don’t seem to be using any of the leverage they have,” said Kelly. “Boris Johnson raised this case with [Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-] Sisi during a call last March, but there’s been no follow-up. What does it say if Boris Johnson raises a case and nothing happens? It looks like Egypt is calling the shots and running circles around us.”