Prominent author Ahdaf Souief and three other women activists, who were arrested on March 18, Wednesday, were released in the subsequent days following a global outcry. Ahdaf’s sister Laila Souief, her niece Mona Seif and political science teacher Rabab El-Mahdi were the others arrested for participating in the protest. They were demanding that prison authorities in Egypt take serious steps to prevent the possible spread of the Coronavirus disease and protect jail inmates.
There were fears that they would be charged with taking part in “illegal protests” as the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi-led government in the country has enacted a law to make protests without prior sanction illegal.
Three of the four arrested are related to Alaa Abd El Fattah, the Egyptian blogger and activist who has been in prison since last September. The government has charged him with instigating protesters against the el-Sisi regime. Abd El-Fattah was a prominent activist during the 2011 Arab Spring protests which led to the fall of long-term ruler Hosni Mubarak. He was later charged by the coup regime of el-Sisi in 2013 and served a jail term for six years. He was re-arrested soon after his release last year.
Several human rights groups have also voiced their concern over the conditions inside Egyptian prisons. Any outbreak of the Coronavirus infection in the overcrowded prisons could lead to a health disaster.
Laila Shouief, mother of Abd El Fattah, wrote a letter to the Egyptian attorney general earlier, stating that “the only way to prevent detention centers becoming hubs for spreading the pandemic and endangering the entire population of the country is to release as many prisoners as possible,” The Guardian reported.
The government has disallowed visits by relatives of prisoners fearing the spread of COVID-19.
As per government sources, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Egypt as of March 18 was 196, with six deaths reported. However, independent estimates put the numbers at around 6,000 or more.
PEN International, a group of poets, essayists and novelists, issued a joint statement with PEN America and PEN English to demand the immediate release of Ahdaf Souief and the others arrested. In a statement, the group says, “Egypt’s detention and arrest of several activists…demonstrates that the Egyptian government is more concerned with its reputation than the rights of its citizens, including their freedom of expression and right to information.”