Imprisoned Egyptian and Bahraini activists turn to hunger strikes

A wave of hunger strikes in Egypt and Bahrain began when imprisoned Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah stopped eating last week. Other noted activists being detained in Egypt quickly followed suit in an effort to raise awareness on their unjust imprisonments under the protest law. Among them are Ahmed Douma, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Maher, Hamada Al Nubi and Wael Metwalli — all of whom have been deeply involved in advocating for justice and human rights since the uprising that began on January 25, 2011. Alaa’s sister Sanaa Seif, who was imprisoned for protesting her brother’s imprisonment in June, has joined the hunger strike as well. Human rights lawyer and activist Mahienour El-Masry also began a hunger strike on August 25. Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American who was arrested for participating in the Rabaa sit-in last summer, has been on hunger strike since January 26 of this year.

In an open letter that he released on the first day of his strike, Abdel Fattah stated, “I am asking your permission today to fight — not just for my freedom, but for my family’s right to life… I am depriving my body of food until I am able to be at the side of my father in his fight with his own body, for the dignity of the body needs the embrace of loved ones.” The imprisonment of Abdel Fattah and his sister prevented them from visiting their gravely ill father, noted human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif, who passed away last week from complications of a heart surgery. Both Abdel Fattah and his sister have continued their strike since.

In another instance Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja, a human rights activist and co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, began a hunger strike on August 26 after she was stripped of her Bahraini citizenship and detained upon returning to Bahrain from visiting her imprisoned father. At the start of her strike she stated, “I won’t voluntarily leave [Bahrain]. My only demand is to be let into my country.”

In a hearing last weekend, al-Khawaja was charged with taking part in the “Wanted for Justice in Bahrain” campaign back in November 2011, assaulting the police, and insulting the king — all of which, particularly the latter, are very serious charges in the country. On August 31, she ended her strike out of concern that she would cause stress to her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja — another notable human rights activist who is serving a life sentence in prison for speaking out against government abuses. He has been on hunger strike since August 25 and, according to family sources, is currently in grave condition.

While hunger strikes are nothing new in the region, the uptick in recent weeks reveals that these activists are not only sustaining immense oppression and torture, but are also continuing to resist.