As the earth hurtles towards climate catastrophe, the world’s nation-states engage in discussions and negotiations on how to respond to global heating through large, deliberative conferences like the current 27th United Nations Climate Conference (COP27). Currently convening in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, almost 35,000 participants, including scores of activists, over 90 heads of state, and official delegations from 190 countries, are taking part.
The contradictory mix of activists and ruling class leaders at this UN conference—sponsored by Coca Cola(!)— is doubly underscored by the fact that this year’s conference location is Egypt. In an attempt at “greenwashing” its human rights record as one of the foremost authoritarian states in the Arab world, Egypt bid to become this year’s host of the conference, claiming that they would represent the Global South and serve as a “bridge” between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Egypt is attempting to rehabilitate its international standing while also positioning itself as a regional power. The irony of Egypt also being a net gas exporter and emerging energy partner to the EU—aiming to help replace Russian gas amidst the Ukraine war—should not be lost on those who understand the existential climate threat..
Under the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi—who took power in a counterrevolutionary coup in 2013—Egypt is an open police state. Its abuses and political repression have earned it significant notoriety for the 65,000 political prisoners kept in prisons (a conservative estimate), many held with no conviction in pre-trial detention and under brutal conditions, including torture. Through the conference, the plight of one of the country’s most prominent political prisoners—Alaa Abd el-Fattah—has come under the spotlight. The fight to free Alaa and Egypt’s political prisoners shows the necessity of interlinking climate justice with struggles for social justice and democracy.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah is leftist activist, writer, and technologist who became one of the most well-known voices of the Egyptian Revolution. He has been imprisoned for the vast majority of the past decade for his role in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, his organizing to expose military complicity in repression such as the 2011 Maspero massacre, and his writings on the trajectory of the revolution. This latest imprisonment in 2019 has seen him jailed in the notorious maximum security wing of Tora prison, known as “the Scorpian” with particularly brutal conditions—inhospitable space, denial of visits, torture, medical neglect and a suspicious number of deaths in custody. “It was designed so that those who go in don’t come out again unless dead,” said former warden Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar; “It was designed for political prisoners.”
Alaa’s treatment is undoubtedly because of what he represents. As one of the most prominent symbols of the 2011 revolution, he stands for the aspirations of the millions of Egyptians who overthrew Hosni Mubarak as a part of the wave of revolutionary upsurges that spread across the MENA region during those heady years. As Egyptian journalist Sharif Abdel Koudous described:
“Alaa is imprisoned and paying a very heavy price because the regime is making an example out of him; he is a symbol that they are trying to crush. He is a symbol of 2011, and there is an element of revenge in the regime’s treatment of him.”
And yet Alaa continues to fight even behind bars. Since April of this year he has been on hunger strike. He has used a combination of water, salt, and honey to maintain the minimal calories to survive. With the eyes of the world fixed on Egypt for COP27, Alaa decided to escalate the fight for his freedom. On the first day of the COP27 conference, Alaa stopped drinking water, turning his partial hunger strike into a full hunger strike. While individuals on hunger strike with water and salt or minimal calories can live for months, people who refuse water often can only live for days. In a letter to his family, Alaa explained that in this final period, he would either get out of jail by forcing his release through this exertion of pressure, or do so by his own death.
Since Alaa switched to a full hunger strike, his family has been denied any access to him, or even confirmation that he is still alive. However, on November 10th, they were informed that he has received so-called “medical intervention,” which likely means force-feeding via feeding tube, a form of torture also used by the U.S. in military detention prisons like Guantanamo. This is the regime’s twisted mechanism to keep Alaa alive to prevent a possible outbreak of protest from emerging and breaking their shaky mandate over the country. As of November 12, Alaa’s family received word that he has resumed drinking water while he remains on hunger strike, though they have not yet been provided any more details. It appears that Sisi refuses to let Alaa either live or die.
The organizing to free Alaa has responded by attempting to escalate external pressure. Alaa’s sister Sanaa Seif traveled from Britain—where she was holding a sit-in to demand that British government officials take her brother’s case seriously (as Alaa is also a British citizen)—to attend COP27. Sanaa is just 28 years old but she has been imprisoned for a total of three years in Egypt, each time for campaigning for her brother and demanding communication with him inside prison. Thus, returning to Egypt risks her own freedom. Already, a pro-regime lawyer has filed a case calling for her arrest by accusing her of “spreading false news,” conspiring with foreign agents, and “incitement against the Egyptian state.” This sets the dangerous precedent of her being arrested again while in Egypt attending the conference. Nevertheless, on November 8 she spoke at the conference about her brother’s case despite disruptions carried out by a pro-regime Egyptian member of parliament. Sanaa also participated in a protest on November 12 by hundreds of activist attendees at the conference, and spoke to tens of Egyptian journalists brave enough to risk the regime’s repression.
As Alaa and his family continuously reiterate, Alaa’s plight is but one symbolic instance of the broader brutal repression carried out by the counterrevolutionary Sisi regime. The calls to free Alaa are connected with a campaign to #FreeThemAll, including other prominent prisoners like Mohammed el-Baqer and Mohamed Oxygen. Hunger strikes have been used by other prisoners such as socialist activist Hisham Fouad. Just a week before the start of COP27 another political prisoner—Alaa Al-Salami—died due to medical neglect in relation to his own hunger strike.
Since his 2013 coup, former general and current dictator Sisi has ushered in a period of repression even harsher and more repressive than the pre-2011 Mubarak years. This began with the August 2013 Rabaa Massacre, in which Sisi’s regime carried out the slaughter of over a thousand Morsi supporters, the largest massacre in Egypt’s modern history. As dictator, Sisi has spent significant time and energy building new prisons and imprisoning activists from the 2011 revolution, whohave become known as “generation jail.” In 2013 Sisi reinstated the “state of emergency” laws that were used by Mubarak to maintain the dictatorship—one of the key demands of the 2011 Revolution had been to remove them. This was augmented in 2015 by an “anti-terrorism” law, again used to smear and more easily imprison activists. Sisi has also shut down the vast majority of independent media outlets, and imprisoned, raided, and threatened the remaining outlet, Mada Masr. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is the third worst country in the world in terms of imprisoning journalists. Earlier this week, another Egyptian journalist was disappeared when he arrived at the Cairo airport before traveling abroad.
Activists in the Egyptian Campaign for Climate and Democracy issued a statement criticizing Sisi’s hosting the conference as greenwashing his regime and the complicity of the states of Global North:
“The aim of this greenwashing is twofold: first, to extract as much financial aid as possible from the rich industrialized countries. Most of this money will end up being siphoned out of the country into the bank accounts of Sisi and his generals in those same industrialized countries. Second, is to distract from his abysmal human rights record, and as usual, the leaders of the supposedly democratic Western governments will allow him to get away with it.”
Repression has been on display at the conference itself with a wave of mass arrests of Egyptian activists in the lead-up to the conference, the arrest of other international climate activists like Indian Ajit Rajagopal, the discovery that the mobile app being suggested to participants was a “cyber weapon” spying on activists and tracking location, and the visible army of police and undercover security agents standing on every corner.
COP27 ends on November 18th, which likely means only a handful more days of global attention on Alaa’s case, and a small window to pressure and demand an end to his imprisonment and now likely torture. His release could mean the start of a change in the Sisi regime policy towards political prisoners. But the question of climate change and human rights abuses is not confined to Egypt—as repressive states become more prominent globally, and state repression generally intensifies, attempts at “greenwashing” become more commonplace. This underlines the imperative of linking climate change efforts to social justice demands and ramping up our solidarity efforts, shining a light on each case of resistance that emerges, as part of the fight to #FreeThemAll.
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