Egyptian security forces arrested the Booker-shortlisted novelist Ahdaf Soueif and three other women after they staged a protest demanding the release of prisoners over fears of a coronavirus outbreak in the country’s overcrowded jails.
Soueif, her sister Laila Soueif, the activist Mona Seif and Rabab El-Mahdi, a political science professor, held a small demonstration in central Cairo on Wednesday afternoon.
“We are in front of the cabinet, asking for the state to take serious steps regarding corona in prisons. As we know, at any time Egypt’s prisons are clusters for disease,” Mona said in a Facebook live video, according to Ahdaf Soueif’s son, Omar Robert Hamilton.
Three of the group are relatives of one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers and activists, Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was imprisoned last September after rare, small-scale protests erupted demanding the toppling of the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
There have been increasing concerns among supporters of Abd El Fattah and his family about conditions in Egyptian prisons, where human rights groups have repeatedly warned about overcrowding and lack of hygiene.Advertisement
Seif, El Fattah’s sister, had been active on social media calling for prisoners to be released, and on Tuesday, Laila Soueif, his mother, wrote to Egypt’s attorney general urging him to free prisoners.
“The only way to prevent detention centres becoming hubs for spreading the pandemic and endangering the entire population of the country is to release as many prisoners as possible,” she wrote.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, jails have been sealed off, fuelling concerns about conditions inside, Hamilton added.
“Prisons have been shut off for two weeks now. Families have had no contact at all and they are increasingly nervous,” he said on Twitter. Egypt so far has 196 confirmed cases of coronavirus and six deaths, but there are fears the virus could have spread further.
Human Rights Watch also said this week that Egypt could “spare disaster” if it organised conditional releases from jails “notorious for being overcrowded, dirty and unhygienic”. It called on Sisi to “put reason before punishment”.
The four women face possible charges of unlawful protest, illegal assembly and obstructing traffic, the independent, and were taken for questioning by prosecutors, the Mada Masr news site reported.
Daniel Gorman, director of English PEN called for the immediate release of all four women.
“Ms Soueif is a hugely valued member of the global literary community, and at a time like the present we particularly need to hear her voice. We call on the Egyptian authorities to drop all charges against her, and for her immediate and unconditional release,” he said.