As Egypt hosts COP27, prisoner Alaa Abd el-Fattah risks his life
The Take talks to the sister of the activist on a hunger and water strike imprisoned in Egypt.
The world’s eyes are on Egypt this week, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP27 – taking place in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. But while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi positions himself as an environmental leader, one of his country’s leading activists could be about to die.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days, in a protest over his imprisonment. But on Sunday – the first day of COP27 – he stopped drinking water as well. Will the international community do anything to save him?
In this episode:
- Mona Seif (@monasosh), human rights activist and sister of Alaa Abd el-Fattah
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
Antonio Guterres: President el-Sisi, thank you very much for this wonderful hospitality and for this spectacular organisation.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He’s among the world leaders gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for COP27, hosted this year by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: We have to ask ourselves an urgent question here: Is it not about time to put an end to all this suffering?
Halla Mohieddeen: But while Sisi positions himself as a leader on climate change, a different reality is hidden from view. Activists in Egypt, including many environmentalists, have faced a severe crackdown during Sisi’s presidency. An estimated 60,000 political prisoners are behind bars. And now, during COP, one of them could die on hunger strike. I’m Halla Mohiedeen, and this is The Take.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: Alaa Abd el-Fattah is one of the most well-known human rights activists and young writers in Egypt. He’s also a British citizen. He’s been in and out of prison for much of the last nine years and has been jailed or charged by every Egyptian government in his lifetime. His current charge stems from a Facebook post he reshared. Alaa has now been hunger striking for over 200 days to protest his imprisonment. And since COP27 started on Sunday, he has stopped drinking water as well, hoping to draw more attention to his case with the world’s eyes on Egypt. Without water, the human body can only survive a few days. I’m talking to one of Alaa’s younger sisters about what can be done to save his life. We recorded this interview on Monday the 7 of November. As of publication, there’s been no proof of life from Alaa since his water strike began.
Mona Seif: I’m Mona Seif. At the moment I feel like my main identity is that I’m Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s sister. Me and the whole family are trying to get him out of prison before we lose him completely.
Halla Mohieddeen: Alaa came to fame during the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.
Mona Seif: He is really one of the most prominent voices that rose during the January 25th Revolution, 2011. And his writings ever since were sort of a mix between a diary to what we as a generation were going through and facing, but also an expression of voices of a lot of us and those people who couldn’t speak up.
Halla Mohieddeen: Here he is back then, speaking to Al Jazeera English. This was on January 29, 2011.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah: I think every action taken by the Egyptian people in the past 20 years is now bearing fruit. It’s inconceivable to think of them as failures because they have led to what we are seeing now.
Halla Mohieddeen: So Mona, life is clearly different now. Can you just talk to us about who Alaa is as a person?
Mona Seif: He is the kindest of us three. And I’m not just saying this is an exaggeration, this is the reality. He is an amazing father. He’s also the best friend of my mother. They are both geeks. He really has this special connection with each and every one of us.
Halla Mohieddeen: And for Alaa, this moment is the latest chapter in a long nine years since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in a military coup.
Mona Seif: Ever since they came to power, end of 2013, Alaa has been in prison. Even when he was briefly released after finishing a full five-year sentence, they re-arrested him again. And our, you know, family’s entire life has been taken over by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s prisons and courts and police stations.
Halla Mohieddeen: Yeah, just talk to us about his most recent arrest.
Mona Seif: His most recent arrest was really strange and was really unexpected.
Mona Seif: Alaa was released in March 2019 after finishing a full five-year sentence. Contrary to the law, he was forced to spend every night in a police station locked. So every night at 6pm he would turn himself into the police station and they would only let him back out again at 6am.
Halla Mohieddeen: This was after he’d completed his earlier sentence. But Mona says Alaa used his 12 hours a day of freedom to get his life back on track, especially to reconnect with his son, who’s now 11 years old.
Mona Seif: But six months later, in September 2019, all of a sudden unexpectedly he was taken from the police station directly to state security prosecution, and from then on started this new trip we are having with prisons, which was more brutal and more violent than anything we’ve experienced personally as a family.
Halla Mohieddeen: Alaa was sent to maximum security prison. Mona says, along with Amnesty International, that he was tortured. And it took two years just to learn why: he was charged after resharing a Facebook post about the death of a political prisoner. Mona called the trial a sham.
Mona Seif: He is currently serving a five-year sentence for sharing a Facebook post. It was very weird because also they decided not to count the initial two years he was in pretrial detention. So it’s as if they set the clock to zero again. And it kind of hit us. We realised that as long as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in power, he does not intend for Alaa to be out of prison at all, and that whenever a case is over, they will just strum up a new case and new charges and just make sure he spends the rest of his life in prison, if not die in it.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s gonna seem really incredible to a lot of our listeners that he’s been subjected to another prison sentence for simply sharing a post someone else wrote on Facebook.
Mona Seif: Well, I understand it seems so incredible. And it would seem so incredible to anyone not living in Egypt and not experiencing the reality of how it is to be living in a country ruled by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with his level of brutality and oppression. Honestly, Alaa is not the only one like that. Basically, every democracy voice, who had a powerful presence during 2011 are languishing in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s prisons right now. Writers, journalists, political activists and human rights defenders. But also thousands of people who were either young activists or not active at all, who were randomly arrested and who had been sent to prison as well. And particularly with people like Alaa, my brother, they want to set an example because they are constantly terrified that people will repeat their attempt to change things and overthrow the regime back in 2011.
Halla Mohieddeen: Alaa said as much himself during the revolution.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah: Whoever comes after that is going to rule in mortal fear of the people. They are going to remember these scenes forever.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now he’s been on hunger strike, hasn’t he? For quite sometime now.
Mona Seif: Yes. He’s been on hunger strike, which was mostly partial since April. So he was taking 100 calories a day to sustain him and to give us a chance to strengthen his struggle and hopefully secure his release. He truly believes they meant to leave him in prison until he dies. And I think this is Alaa’s way of seizing back what power he has left by using his body, to fight back against what they have decided for him. Especially that he has endured nine years of this and already earlier this year he had told us that he cannot fathom enduring another year in prison.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now he’s decided to escalate this hunger strike, hasn’t he? He’s no longer taking in water.
Mona Seif: Yes. So we get a weekly letter. He notified us last week that he’s escalating with the beginning of COP27. He’s stopping water. So early morning, 6th of November, was the last glass of water he drank. When you stop water, it’s a matter of days and so it really is now up to the governments and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is in COP27 right now, to find out a way of resolving this quickly with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and getting all out of prison before he dies.
Halla Mohieddeen: For the Egyptian government’s part, they’ve been asked about Alaa multiple times during the conference. Here’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry in an interview with US network CNBC.
Sameh Shoukry: I am confident that prison authorities will provide the healthcare. And the care that is available to all inmates, as is the case in any other penal system.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shoukry also cast doubt on Alaa’s hunger strike and mentioned the Egyptian government has yet to recognise his British citizenship. Mona says she wishes the world could see just how frail her brother has become. She last visited him in September, after not seeing him for some time.
Mona Seif: I was horrified at how much weight he lost, and I kind of got stuck in the visit, and I kept on telling him, you look so frail, I don’t understand. And when I stepped out of it, all I could think of is if people could see how he looks. They would realise the severity of the situation, and I think this is precisely why they won’t allow the consular visit and they won’t allow any image or footage of how he looks right now.
Halla Mohieddeen: You mentioned that Alaa has this British citizenship as well as an Egyptian one, but do you get the sense that the British government has been, well, doing anything really? Why do you think he’s not been given a consular visit?
Mona Seif: The UK government has been asking repeatedly, for a consular visit. but they have not done any action, which makes it seem like this is a serious request, and anything in the relations with Egypt, even diplomatically, would be affected.
Mona Seif: While they were demanding consular access, while Alaa’s case was deteriorating, everything was business as usual between the UK and Egypt, including that their official accounts are promoting tourism videos to Egypt and declaring that they are investing more millions of pounds in Egypt and so on. So, I’m not even sure why would the Egyptian government have taken them seriously.
Halla Mohieddeen: Right, The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he plans to raise the issue with Sisi. Do you get the sense the prime minister understands the urgency of this matter?
Mona Seif: I’m glad Rishi Sunak is in COP27 because I honestly feel like this is our last chance to get Alaa out. But having said so, we are worried, that them stepping up or them taking it seriously is happening a little bit too late. Because, while the Egyptians are going to try and stall as much as possible, and I truly believe they want Alaa to die.
Halla Mohieddeen: After the break, Mona tells us how COP27 is hiding Egypt’s poor record on the environment and human rights.
Halla Mohieddeen: While President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in the limelight this week for hosting COP27, many activists, including Mona, say the path to COP has been paved with repression, and Egyptians have paid a high price.
Newsreel: Egypt has launched a crackdown on civil society.
Newsreel: Just days before the UN climate summit begins in Sharm el-Sheikh, hundreds have been arrested.
Halla Mohieddeen: And Mona thinks the world has turned a blind eye to what’s happening in Egypt.
Mona Seif: It is absolutely hypocrisy and we have to remember that Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s regime is thriving because of that hypocrisy.
Mona Seif: It’s not just about COP27. Powerful western governments are willing to turn a blind eye about many of the crimes he committed because of business deals and because he’s a key player in the regional policy. So it is only natural to expect that the hypocrisy will extend and include COP27. If you actually look at the record of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, they have been anti-green in Egypt. They have been removing all the greenery from the city. They have been destructing heritage. They have been all about building more concrete, bridges and prisons and buildings. So honestly, if there was a serious investment in having a proper conversation about the climate crisis in the first place, they wouldn’t have held it in Egypt for sure.
Halla Mohieddeen: Mona says she thinks the reality will filter through to COP one way or another – and there are a few signs it has. Attendees have noticed that many websites they want to consult for information are blocked. The official COP app has been criticised for invasive privacy concerns. And Alaa’s case was mentioned in an opening session, referencing the title of his book, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated”.
Halla Mohieddeen: Can you explain why Alaa’s case has become such an issue at this climate summit? I mean, what would you say to people who say that human rights issues are distracting from the main issue, which is of course, climate and global warming?
Mona Seif: Honestly for me, you can’t have a serious discussion and a serious attempt at resolving the climate crisis, without it being in an environment of free speech and people being able to talk and have discussions and arguments and organise within themselves. But also, particularly with Egypt, the voices that would be of benefit are those in prison. Alaa has engaged with the climate crisis, but not just that. We have Ahmad Badawi, who is a solar power engineer – is in prison for years. When we were having constitutional referendum, he raised just a banner on his own in the streets saying “Vote No”, and he’s in prison now for four or five years. The reality is the people who should be representing Egypt, who should be joining in the discussions and the plenaries and groups in COP27, are those in prison, not Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government and their officials who are completely not interested about climate crisis or saving the planet.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now you come from a family of activists. Your sister Sanaa has just travelled to Sharm el-Sheikh for the conference to draw attention to Alaa’s situation. But doing that is a massive risk as well, isn’t it?
Mona Seif: Definitely doing that is a massive risk. It’s a massive risk, particularly with Sanaa because, Sanaa our youngest has already been in prison three times.
Halla Mohieddeen: God.
Mona Seif: Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power, given that Alaa is now on a water strike, we know that we have only a matter of days and so she felt that any risk is worth it as long as we don’t actually risk losing Alaa.
Halla Mohieddeen: But you could lose her.
Mona Seif: Yes we could, in terms of she could get detained. But we talked, me and Sanaa, and we honestly think that we’ll never be safe unless Alaa is out of prison.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s, and I’m just speaking personally here, I don’t know if I would have that kind of courage and that kind of strength that you and your family are demonstrating here. It’s something I just don’t think I’d be able to do, personally.
Mona Seif: I think, you really will be surprised what you are capable of doing when the people you hold dearest to your heart are in danger. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago. This journey has been about us developing and discovering new strengths in ourselves. And so, I understand how people might look at our story and feel I could never do this, but I’m seeing so many other families doing amazing things that nobody can imagine.
Halla Mohieddeen: You talked earlier about you can’t go back to a normal life unless Alaa is freed. I mean, have you ever dared to think about what normal life could look like after this?
Mona Seif: So, I had it for a while, but then when Alaa was re-arrested in 2019, this was completely squashed. I couldn’t focus on my career. I couldn’t focus on my life with my husband. All I could feel was a sense of danger and any imagination of a normal life was completely wiped out of my head.
Halla Mohieddeen: But Mona said something shifted around the end of last year, when her family finalised the paperwork for Alaa’s British citizenship, and it finally seemed there might be a way out.
Mona Seif: He feels that for the first time in years, there’s an opportunity for him to change the plan the Egyptian regime has for him, which is to remain in prison until he dies, and he is trying everything he has, including putting his life at risk, to seize this opportunity and be reunited with us as a family and actually have a go at a future away from this madness.
Halla Mohieddeen: Given the price that your family is paying, have you ever just wondered, is this worth it?
Mona Seif: Um, no. And I know it’s such a weird thing, and it’s basically because I don’t understand how else to survive, how else to exist as a human being. When you deal with this kind of, you know, lunacy, you feel comforted even if you’re paying a very high price, that at least you are sticking to your own voice and your own values, and you don’t wake up one day ever feeling self-loathe. I look back at everything, and I can’t imagine a moment where you have acted differently.
Halla Mohieddeen: To the generation of 2011, Alaa is an iconic figure. I want to know what you would say to Egyptians who want to support him and other prisoners but are afraid that they’d end up in prison themselves or risk their families who are still in Egypt. What would you say to them?
Mona Seif: I would say I understand. I understand fear. I don’t think anyone could really understand how violence became such a normal part of our daily life in Egypt. And how fear rules everything everywhere. And not just on politics – in academia, in people talking on Facebook, people even discussing television series. Everything, everything. Somehow this regime finds a way of people ending up in prison for it. We get a lot of love and support from people who are unable to speak up in Egypt because they are afraid of the consequences. So, I honestly understand, and I feel like it is up to others, especially people from around the world who are watching this and who have less to risk to help us raise the issues and the stories of those in Egypt, and those in prison until something major shifts and changes.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Ashish Malhotra, Alexandra Locke and Negin Owliaei with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K Li, Amy Walters, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are the Take’s engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back on Friday.
This episode was produced by Ashish Malhotra, Alexandra Locke and Negin Owliaei. Ruby Zaman fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke, Chloe K Li, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei and our host Halla Mohieddeen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.