Egypt Releases Prominent Democracy Activist After 5 Years in Prison

The imprisonment of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who rose to prominence with the 2011 Arab Spring, was seen as a sign of Egypt's return to Mubarak's autocratic rule

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Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah speaks during a TV interview at his house in Cairo on December 26, 2011.
Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah speaks during a TV interview at his house in Cairo on December 26, 2011.Credit: AFP

A leading Egyptian pro-democracy activist was released from prison early Friday after serving a five-year sentence for inciting and taking part in protests, his family and lawyer said.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah rose to prominence with the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East and in Egypt, toppled long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. To many, his imprisonment three years later — at a time when authorities imposed draconian laws banning public gatherings and unauthorized demonstrations — was another sign of Egypt's return to Mubarak's autocratic rule.

Abdel-Fattah's sisters, Mona and Sanaa Seif, posted on Facebook that "Alaa is out," along with a video of him at home, playing with a dog. His lawyer, Khaled Ali, confirmed the release by posting: "Thanks God, Alaa Abdel-Fattah at home."

Facebook pages set up in support of Abdel-Fattah, including "Free Alaa," posted videos for him grinning, hugging and shaking hands with friends as he walked out of a police station in Cairo. In the background, women were ululating.

Though out of prison, Abdel-Fattah's sentence stipulates that for the next five years he will be under police "surveillance" and has to report to a police station every day, sign a logbook and leave. It's unclear to what extent that part of his sentence will be carried out.

An outspoken dissident, Abdel-Fattah was detained several times before under different governments for lobbying for civil rights on social media and in public. An influential blogger, he hails from a family of political activists, lawyers, and writers. His late father was one of Egypt's most tireless rights lawyers, his sisters are also political activists and his aunt is award-winning novelist Ahdaf Soueif.

But Abdel-Fattah's five-year sentence was his longest prison term. He was convicted for taking part in a peaceful demonstration following the military's ouster in July 2013 of Egypt's freely elected but controversial Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

After Morsi's ouster, Egypt's military-backed transitional authorities waged a heavy crackdown on his supporters who had rallied against his ouster, including a sit-in by Islamists in Cairo that was broken up by security forces in an operation that left hundreds dead.

Within weeks, the government also went after secular and liberal activists who opposed a newly introduced law banning street protests without prior permission from authorities. The new law required participants to formally ask the Interior Ministry three days in advance whether they can hold a rally while also setting prison terms and high fines for violators.

The demonstration that led to Abdel-Fattah's arrest and sentencing was against trials of civilians before military tribunals, known for their swift and harsh rulings.

Security forces raided his house after the protest, beat up his wife and confiscated his laptops but he was not there. He later turned himself in.

"I don't deny the charge," he wrote in a statement released at the time. "It's an honor to hold responsibility for people's rallies in defiance of legalizing the return of" the rule of Mubarak.