Published November 17, 2014
CAIRO -- The mother of a prominent blogger jailed by Egypt's ruling generals has gone on a hunger strike to protest her son's detention and the military's increasingly heavy-handed approach against critics.
The strike by Alaa Abdel-Fattah's 55-year-old mother could turn into a major embarrassment for Egypt's military three weeks ahead of landmark parliamentary elections, the first since the uprising that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak nine months ago.
Military prosecutors ordered Abdel-Fattah, 29, detained for 15 days on Oct. 30 after he refused to answer questions over his alleged role in sectarian clashes three weeks earlier that killed 27 people, mostly Christians. His detention is widely viewed as an escalation in the military's drive to discredit activists who played a key role in the revolt.
Abdel-Fattah, who comes from a family of activists, is an icon of the 18-day uprising that ended Mubarak's 29-year regime, and has been critical of the generals as well as Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the nation's military ruler. Abdel-Fattah's wife, Manal Hassan, is expecting the couple's first child, a baby boy, later this month.
A pair of blog entries written by Abdel-Fattah smuggled out of jail and posted online by his wife paint a picture of a man who refuses to be lionized for standing up to the military. In the posts, he expresses disgust for the conditions at the prison, complains of boredom and remains unwavering in his loyalty to the goals of the uprising.
In an entry dated Monday, he joined calls for a massive demonstration on Nov. 18 to protest the military's attempts to introduce clauses in a new constitution that would shield it from civilian oversight and give the armed forces a "guardianship role," language that suggests having the final word on national policies.
"It is clear that the military council, even if it allows us to elect a president, will never leave power," he wrote.
Abdel-Fattah's appeal against his detention was rejected on Thursday. He is due to appear before military prosecutors later this week or early next week, when a decision is expected to be made on whether he will remain in detention pending the completion of the investigation or whether he will be formally charged and referred to a military tribunal for trial.
Laila Soueif, Abdel-Fattah's mother and an activist herself, vowed on Wednesday -- day four of her hunger strike -- not to abandon her protest before her goals are met.
"I am good so far. My blood pressure is stable, but I will continue the hunger strike until Alaa is freed," she told The Associated Press by telephone. "It is becoming clearer and clearer that the military council is against the youth of the revolution and wants to make an example of Alaa so the rest will be silenced."
Mona Seif, Alaa's sister, said her mother was not showing any signs of physical frailty and that she was cheerful. She is surviving on water, cigarettes and tea without milk or sugar, Seif said.
Abdel-Fattah's detention and his mother's hunger strike -- both widely publicized at home and abroad -- are turning into a potentially major embarrassment for the military at a time when it is struggling to contain mounting criticism from the independent media and activists over its handling of the transition following Mubarak's ouster.
Activists accuse the ruling generals of torturing detainees, ignoring calls to stop trials of civilians before military tribunals -- there have been at least 12,000 since February -- and of making major policy decisions without consultations.
The military has also sparked a political furor by persistently attempting to push through a set of guidelines for the drafting of a new constitution, which is to be drawn up after the elections. The guidelines would declare the military the protector of "constitutional legitimacy," language that suggests the armed forces could have the final word on major policies.
Responding to the criticism, the military leadership insists it has every intention to step down when an elected government is in place. However, it already has failed to meet a six-month deadline it set for handing over power when it took over from Mubarak. According to a timetable put forward by the generals, parliamentary elections will be held over three stages starting Nov. 28, and presidential elections will be held late next year or in early 2013.
In the meantime, the generals have been trying to craft an image for themselves as the nation's foremost patriots, accusing pro-democracy activists of illegally receiving foreign funds. They also have stepped up moves to silence critics, leaning on managers of media outlets to tone down commentary on the army or ban vocal critics from political talk shows.
The generals also say they have no plans to field their own candidate for the presidency. Their assertions, however, are met with skepticism by many who suspect they are prolonging the transition period to give themselves time to find a military-friendly civilian to run for president.
"We did not stage a revolution in January so that the military can come along and rule us," said Hassan, Abdel-Fattah's wife, who visited her husband in jail on Sunday. "Alaa is encouraging people to come out and voice their opposition to military rule."
Late Wednesday, some 300 activists chanting slogans against the military rallied outside the prison where Abdel-Fattah is held to demand his release. There were no clashes with police or army troops.
"It is the military that is in a difficult position now. It will in the end have no choice but to free him because the pressure is immense," said activists and rights lawyers Gamal Eid, who took part in the demonstration. "But, like Mubarak, the generals don't want to be seen bowing to pressure."