Opinion guest column

Seif Fateen: An MIT-educated professor languishing in Egypt’s prisons

The Biden administration and its spokespeople can no longer delay action on human rights

We write to draw attention to the appalling conditions of degradation and helplessness that have befallen a member of the MIT community in Egypt. Our hope is that some members of the Institute will be motivated to join a campaign to save Seif Fateen and redress the cruel injustices that he has endured for more than three years.

Seif Fateen completed his PhD at MIT in 2002. He lived and worked in the U.S., where three of his seven children were born, until 2005. On his return to Egypt, he took up a faculty position at Cairo University, and from 2009 until his arrest in 2018, he regularly posted educational videos to his YouTube channel, including a popular series on thermodynamics for chemical engineers. In 2012, he became Assistant to the Minister of Higher Education, a short-lived tenure that was brought to an abrupt end in July 2013 by the military coup that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. The July 2013 coup was led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former field marshall and chief of military intelligence of the Egyptian army, against the nascent Egyptian democracy less than three years after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Fateen’s function in the Ministry of Higher Education under Morsi, together with his association with former parliamentarians when Morsi was president, seems to have been his crime in the eyes of the Egyptian security services.

In November 2018, security officers affiliated with the Interior Ministry raided Fateen’s home, confiscating laptops, mobile phones, and books. He was arrested without a warrant, taken blindfolded to an unknown detention center, and forcibly disappeared for more than nine months; his family knew nothing of his whereabouts or whether he was even alive.

In coordination with Fateen’s daughter Rahma, currently a college student in Norway, the Freedom Initiative, a D.C.-based human rights organization, first alerted the public to Fateen’s case in March of this year. They reported that Fateen had been subjected to torture and mistreatment, including beating, electric shocks to the genitalia, and prolonged periods during which he was blindfolded and handcuffed to a pipe in the wall. He was eventually moved to the Qanater prison complex in September 2019 and has been held there since. He is now confined to his cell, which he shares with over 20 other inmates, for at least 22 hours a day. He is allowed visits by a single family member once per month and is prevented from receiving books, warm clothes, or medicine.

Alan Hatton, who was Fateen’s PhD advisor at MIT in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was shocked to hear of his former student’s confinement and the severity of his treatment in Cairo, recalling that Seif was one of the kindest and most honorable students he has had the pleasure of working with — someone who cared deeply for his family, his country, and his religion, and who was a highly-regarded academic in Egypt. It is truly unfortunate that his service to education in Egypt during the short Morsi governance should have resulted in such brutal treatment by the Sisi regime.

While Seif Fateen is only one man caught in the web of a sprawling complex of prisons, his torment epitomizes the scourge of ruthless repression that countless Egyptians have had to suffer since the July 2013 coup, when Sisi unleashed a police state far more repressive than the government of his autocratic predecessor Hosni Mubarak — an assessment U.S. congressional researchers confirm.

After more than three years of waiting for a reprieve from a notoriously erratic judicial system, Fateen is one of very few incarcerated Egyptians with international contacts. It is a matter of great courage for his family to risk retaliation by bringing his case to public attention.

On Sisi’s watch, Egypt's security agencies have indiscriminately jailed critics, human rights defenders, and public figures across the political spectrum, from leftists to Islamists. They have acted with no restraint, brazenly cranking up repression so that not even the faintest whispers of opposition to Sisi's policies can persist. And this has happened with unflinching American support. For decades now, the top two recipients of the U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program have been Israel (about $3.1 billion annually) and Egypt (about $1.3 billion annually), and together they account for about 75% of the total annual FMF.

The numbers from advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International tell a grim story for those who fall prey to Egypt’s security apparatus. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reports that “torture and ill-treatment have become systematic in Egypt’s prisons, and security services enjoy impunity when treating detainees inhumanely.”  This assessment is corroborated by an extensive documentation in a report from the State Department, which also mentions on page eight that the total prison population is currently estimated “at more than 119,000 located in an estimated 78 prisons, including approximately 82,000 convicted prisoners and 37,000 pretrial detainees."

Although President Joe Biden is in the habit of asserting that “human rights are at the core of U.S. foreign policy,” he has never called out the Sisi regime for its policies of  “extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, mass trials, mass death sentences, torture, and systematic intimidation of media workers.” In fact, in a meeting with the Egyptian president July 16, Biden declared that he is “looking forward to working with [Sisi] on a whole range of issues,” none of which included the Egyptian government’s brutal abuse of political prisoners.

Perhaps more diplomatic, but no less deceitful, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has invoked “the totality of our interests” to explain delays of action on human rights. It is high time to challenge the Biden administration and its spokespeople: How is “the totality of our interests” undermined by demanding the release of a single innocent human being, Seif Fateen — a defenseless professor of chemical engineering arbitrarily detained in Egypt?

T. Alan Hatton is the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice.

Assaf Kfoury is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Boston University.

Haynes Miller is a professor emeritus in the Department of Mathematics.