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Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner is dying as world leaders arrive for UN climate summit

As COP27 launches, Alaa Abd el-Fattah goes on hunger strike.

Trial of Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah in Cairo. Alaa is wearing a white uniform, with only his head and shoulders visible.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah on trial at the Cairo Police Academy in Cairo, Egypt, on November 11, 2014.
Mohamed Hossam/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As leaders of civil society, climate science, and the world land in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for the COP27 summit for climate negotiations, one of the country’s most prominent political prisoners has accelerated his protest against Egypt’s repressive government.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah is a 40-year-old computer programmer, blogger, and activist who has served about nine years in Egyptian prison. He was released briefly in the spring of 2019 and then rearrested that fall, held in pre-trial for about two years, and ultimately charged spuriously for disseminating false news. In protest of his conditions in prison, he started a hunger strike in April for 219 days, only consuming water and about 100 calories a day.

As the world’s climate gathering has kicked off, with President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and more due to visit Egypt, Alaa has escalated his protest and since Sunday has refused water.

Now, the British-Egyptian Alaa’s status is unknown. Each week, the prison usually allows a letter from Alaa out to his mother, the scholar and activist Laila Soueif, but none was received on Monday.

Alaa’s imprisonment is something that Americans ought to know about. Egypt is a close partner of the United States and the recipient of more than $51 billion of military assistance since 1979.

Alaa is a symbol of defiance in the face of the mass and arbitrary arrests of Egyptians, especially since the 2013 coup that ousted the country’s first democratically elected president and brought to power Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. There are an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. One expert I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, says that there may be more than 120,000 in total being held in military and black sites in the country.

But Alaa is more than a symbol; he is a human being. I’ve played trivia nights with him, between his stints in prison, in a friend’s Cairo apartment when I was living there in 2013. The blog he co-authored from the early 2000s was one of Egypt’s first aggregators and an incredible feat of free speech in a country with a highly regulated press. He comes from a prominent family of advocates for democracy, labor, and civil rights in Egypt, and his sisters and mother have fought tirelessly for his release. He’s an advocate for an open internet and open-source programming.

Many have presented Alaa as Egypt’s Nelson Mandela, but a fairer comparison may be to think of him as Egypt’s Antonio Gramsci, the Italian writer who suffered without proper medical care in Mussolini’s prisons, leading to his untimely death at age 46.

How Alaa Abd el-Fattah has fought for a more open Egypt

Since entering prison, Alaa has become synonymous with the independence and freedom Egyptians struggled for in the 2011 revolution.

That uprising, part of the broader Arab Spring revolts, overthrew the president of 29 years, Hosni Mubarak. But two years later, the combination of a military takeover and mass protests led to el-Sisi becoming president. He soon launched a crackdown more intense than Mubarak’s.

Alaa’s political activism dates much earlier. As a computer programmer, he not only built some of the most important blogs and websites in Egypt on the backend, but he emerged as his own voice, blogging in the early 2000s on the new technologies we now take for granted. He played a large role in the pro-democracy and anti-corruption drives that set the agenda for the 2011 revolt and challenged then-President Mubarak, including the Kifaya (Enough) movement in 2005 and the April 6 movement in 2008.

In 2019, while under probation, Alaa was arrested for arbitrary charges commonly used against dissidents: joining an illegal organization, receiving foreign funding, spreading false news, and misusing social media. He was held under pre-trial detention and then moved to a maximum security prison. His lawyer, Mohamed el-Baqer, was also arrested.

In April of this year, Alaa began a hunger strike in response to his worsening prison conditions, including living in a cell with no sunlight, being barred from having reading materials, and not being allowed out of his cell. Since day 55 of his hunger strike, he’s been transferred to a different prison and now has access to books, but he has continued his protest.

Alaa has written regularly for the independent news outlet Mada Masr, and his collected writings were republished last year as part of the book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.

In his blogging, essays, and handwritten notes from prison, he has focused on technology, freedom, and civil rights. One issue he often comes back to is climate. He argues, like many activists in attendance at the COP27 summit, that climate justice is essential. “We won’t find solutions if we operate as individuals with severely limited space for action,” he wrote in 2019. “We have to find new ways of organizing and working that transcend continents.”

The difficult tradeoffs presented by a climate conference in Egypt

Now, Alaa may die while the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, and other world powers are in Egypt.

This goes to a core tension at the heart of this year’s conference: How can those seeking innovative, global responses to the crisis of climate change engage with countries like Egypt without providing them cover?

It’s an acute question for the US, and Biden’s administration in particular. Addressing climate is a priority of the Biden administration, but so too is centering human rights, according to the president’s rhetoric. Biden hasn’t yet explained to Americans how his administration can do both.

It’s not that Biden shouldn’t go to Egypt, but if he’s going, he shouldn’t waste the opportunity to try to advance multiple priorities. In a letter, Democratic members of Congress urged Biden and the State Department’s climate envoy John Kerry to call on el-Sisi to release political prisoners.

Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says he told activists not to protest the location of the summit. He sees it as an opportunity to highlight what’s going on in Egypt, which is not usually seen outside the country.

“We needed the attention, we needed the solidarity, we needed the camaraderie, and I needed a stage, frankly. It’s been too many years,” Bahgat said on Tuesday at a civil society event. Last year, he was convicted of spreading fake news and insulting the government; the preeminent human rights organization he runs and its staff have been repeatedly targeted; and the journalism outlet where he used to work, Mada Masr, has also persistently been under threat.

The US State Department has been monitoring Alaa’s case. It’s worth emphasizing the extent to which the US is complicit in widespread violations in Egypt given the annual $1.3 billion of military aid Congress appropriates to Egypt.

Congress has for about a decade conditioned a portion of that military aid on human rights progress. This year, the Biden administration sought to release $170 million of the $300 million Congress had reserved in response to Egypt releasing 500 prisoners. But Appropriations committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) blocked $75 million of it, dismissing the State Department’s determinations that Egypt had improved its human rights record. “We should take this law very seriously, because the situation facing political prisoners in Egypt is deplorable,” Leahy told Reuters.

“We’ve raised repeated concerns about [el-Fattah’s] case and his conditions in detention with the government of Egypt,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week. “We have made very clear at the highest levels, including at the very highest levels, to the Egyptian government that progress on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, that will buoy — it will bolster, it will reinforce, ultimately will strengthen our bilateral relationship with Egypt.”

Yet that relationship seems just fine, with the first US presidential visit since President Barack Obama’s landmark 2009 Cairo speech. Although it’s an international summit, a one-on-one meeting with Biden would be a major boon for el-Sisi. Biden initially distanced himself from the Egyptian leader, not meeting him or calling him directly in his first months in office, until the Biden administration needed Egypt’s help in brokering an Israel-Hamas ceasefire in the spring of 2021.

El-Sisi’s prospective meetings with world leaders may give the former general even further license to deepen the arbitrary crackdown on dissent.

In April, Alaa was granted British citizenship while in prison, but that has still not afforded him consular access. Prime Minister Sunak said in a statement that he had raised the case with the Egyptian president but declined to answer questions from a Vice reporter on Tuesday about Alaa. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed Alaa on stage at COP27 and said that he had previously raised the issue directly with el-Sisi. (Alaa’s sister, Sanaa Seif, staged a sit-in before the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London last month.)

Alaa deserves our outrage and attention. As do the many other prisoners unjustly held in Egypt’s jails: the former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, activist Ahmed Douma, blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim, journalist Ismail Alexandrani, and many others whose names we may never know.

In the coming days, Biden and Kerry have a rare opportunity to say something directly to Egyptians — and the world — about why these political prisoners matter.