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A major voice of Egypt's 2011 uprising publishes an anthology of his writings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah is one of the most well-known voices of Egypt's 2011 uprising, but he's spent most of the past decade in prison. His case symbolizes what human rights groups call systemic repression under the current Egyptian president. Alaa's sister, Sanaa Seif, is here in the U.S. to promote her brother's new anthology of his writings, many of them letters written from prison.

SANAA SEIF: He's been deprived of books, reading materials, sunlight, fresh air. He's not allowed a clock. He's not allowed to be, like, aware of time.

INSKEEP: The book is called "You Are Not Yet Defeated." Seif herself has been imprisoned three times, and she spoke with Leila Fadel.

SEIF: It's very inhumane. The level of inhumanity differs on who you are - a boy or girl, high-profile or not. Unlike others, I had, like, access to a few things that helped me cope. But you have to fight over every little right.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And ultimately, your crime was that you criticized COVID conditions in the prisons, right?

SEIF: We've heard a lot of rumors that prisoners were suffering from COVID, and that was before - like, before the vaccine. And we were very concerned about what was happening inside. And there were no visitations. And knowing prison, I know this - the cells are very unsanitary. I know the number of people inside each cells. They're always stuffed with people. And then at some point, we knew that one of the employees in the prison where Alaa is died of COVID, and we were very, very worried. And during that time, they also banned Alaa of letters.

FADEL: So you had no access to him.

SEIF: Yeah. Yeah, we had no access, and we didn't know whether he was alive or not. So we decided to sit-in in front of the prison gate until we get a letter from Alaa - me and my mother and my sister. And so they brought hired, like, thugs to us - a woman dressed in civilian clothes. And they beat us up and they, like, forcibly removed us from in front of the prison gate while the guards and officers were watching. And they charged me of spreading false news, rumors about prisons not taking precautionary measures for COVID and for insulting a public official, which is the officer I insulted while being beaten up. It's quite absurd.

FADEL: So you're here in the U.S. because of the release of your brother's book, an anthology of his writings, his letters, his interviews from 2011, the time of the uprising against Mubarak to today. And he's one of the faces of Egypt's revolution, really - a vocal critic of every Egyptian regime, from Hosni Mubarak to the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who's the architect of an unprecedented crackdown on human rights in your country. And what he's in prison for is essentially for his activism, for his words, and yet this book is being released. Do you worry that this creates a bigger risk for your brother, for your family?

SEIF: The regime is so stubborn with Alaa. They've built up so much over the years of trying to create an example of him for the rest of us, like, for whoever believed or participated back in 2011, that I don't think anything will make his situation worse. So I'm not worried, no. Actually, I think, on the contrary. Having his ideas translated to, like, an English-reading audience might show that the Egyptian regime claim that they're taking all of these emergency measures because they're fighting terrorism or whatever their claims are - if you read Alaa's book, you'll see that they are not dangerous ideas at all, actually.

FADEL: What do you hope comes from this book, from putting his words into English, to an American audience, to a global audience?

SEIF: This is a critical time for him where we think there might be hope for his release, and we believe attention right now is really needed. I think for the audience themself - like, for the reader - there's value in what's in the book because I think our experience, the uprising - so, yes, we were defeated. But I think in our defeat, there's also inspiration for others who have not yet been defeated. This is the whole idea behind the book.

FADEL: You spoke about Alaa being on hunger strike since April 2, and that actually has helped his mental state and his ability to cope in prison. Could you speak more about that?

SEIF: The moment he decided to go on hunger strike, I think he became in a much better mental state because suddenly he's, you know, back to being resilient. And whether this ultimately will lead to something or not, I don't think he really cares that much. He doesn't want to keep complying to this humiliation without fighting back.

FADEL: You know, in his book, he does write about how you're not really human in prison. You can make no choices for yourself. And so this is his choice. His hunger strike is his choice, the one he can make.

SEIF: Yes, that's exactly it. Because in prison, you don't have much tools. The only tool you have as a prisoner is your body. So, yeah, I think it gives him agency.

FADEL: You said to me that they want to make an example out of my brother, out of Alaa. What does that mean? What is the message by what they're doing to your brother?

SEIF: It's a message to a whole generation that thought they were capable of changing something in the country. And the message was received a long time ago. They're stuck in this moment in time.

FADEL: In 2011.

SEIF: In 2011. And it makes sense, honestly, because it was a very strong moment where change was actually really possible. And they are aware of that. And so it's like this nightmare that keeps haunting them.

FADEL: You come from a storied family of human rights activists. Your mother is a professor and political activist. Your late father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam - renowned human rights lawyer in Egypt. You're a human rights activist - your sister Mona, also. And in Alaa's writings, he says, from my father, I inherited a prison cell and a dream. And your family has had to pay a really heavy price for that dream.

SEIF: Yeah, it is a heavy price, of course. It's unbearable. But because a whole regime has decided to fight a family for their own existence - so in a way, you have no choice but - it's kind of - it's an inevitable thing. It's not a fight that you can walk away from. So you just have to bear it, and you have to fight back.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCOEUR'S "STAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.