Nobel Laureates Press Egypt to Free Alaa Abd El Fattah, Writer on Hunger Strike, Before COP27

Nobel winners have urged world leaders to use their remarks at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt to press for the release of political prisoners, including Alaa Abd El Fattah.

23 November 2011 - Cairo, Egypt - Protesters gather near Mohamed Mahmoud Street. On the wall a meassge saying "Free Alaa". Street battles raged around the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, near Tahrir square, with police and army troops using tear gas and rubber bullets to keep the protesters from storming the ministry. The clashes  have left at least 38 killed and 2,000 protesters wounded, mostly from gas inhalation or injuries caused by rubber bullets fired by the army and the police. The United Nations strongly condemned what it called the use of excessive force by security forces. The clashes resumed despite a promise by Egypt's military ruler to speed up a presidential election to the first half of next year, a concession swiftly rejected by tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. The military previously floated late next year or early 2013 as the likely date for the vote, the last step in the process of transferring power to a civilian government. The standoff has plunged the country deeper into crisis less than a week before parliamentary elections, the first since the ouster nine months ago of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. Photo credit: Benedicte Desrus / Sipa Press/bdcairo.007/1111232142
In November 2011, Egyptian protesters gathered in Cairo near graffiti calling for the post-revolutionary military council to free Alaa Abd El Fattah, an iconic blogger and activist. Photo: Benedicte Desrus/Sipa

Fifteen Nobel Prize winners called on world leaders visiting Egypt next week for the United Nations’ COP27 climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh to demand freedom for political prisoners, “most urgently, the Egyptian-British writer and philosopher, Alaa Abd El Fattah, now six months into a hunger strike and at risk of death.”

In a letter sent on Wednesday to heads of state and climate envoys due to speak at the climate conference, the Nobel laureates urged them “to bring the voices of the unjustly imprisoned into the room,” by speaking their names and reading from Abd El Fattah’s writing.

Abd El Fattah, a jailed writer and activist whose calls for democratic change in Egypt have frightened four successive authoritarian governments into prosecuting him for just attending protests or posting critical comments online, has been on a “Gandhi-style” hunger strike since April, consuming only 100 calories a day. His activist sisters, Sanaa Seif and Mona Seif, revealed this week that he plans to stop drinking water on Sunday, when COP27 begins.

Abd El Fattah, known to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers as @alaa, rose to international prominence as one of the most compelling voices to emerge from Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Although he has spent much of the past decade in jail, a collection of his writing, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated,” which includes reflections smuggled out of prison, was published last year.

“Alaa Abd El Fattah’s powerful voice for democracy is close to being extinguished, we ask you to breathe life into it by reading his words,” the Nobel laureates wrote to leaders, including President Joe Biden, who plan to attend the conference.

In response to a request from Abd El Fattah’s publishers, the letter was signed by Svetlana Alexievich, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Ernaux, Louise Gluck, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Kazuo Ishiguro, Elfriede Jelinek, Mario Vargas Llosa, Patrick Modiano, Herta Muller, Orhan Pamuk, Roger Penrose, George Smith, Wole Soyinka, and Olga Tokarczuk.

When Abd El Fattah, who comes from a family of Cairene rights activists, was first jailed in 2006, a campaign to demand the release of the activist blogger was launched online, including on a blog called, simply, “Free Alaa!”

That slogan, and an image of the young writer’s curly hair, was revived as a social media hashtag in 2011, when the military council that took power after Mubarak was toppled by the Tahrir Square uprising detained him for reporting on a subsequent massacre of Coptic Christian protesters by the army.

In the years since, Abd El Fattah’s family and supporters have been forced to defend him again and again from unjust prosecution and imprisonment by the authorities: first during the brief rule of the freely elected Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, and then after Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Morsi’s defense minister, seized power in a coup in 2013.

Abd El Fattah has been held in harsh conditions in Egyptian prisons for most of the past decade, after Sisi banned street protests and criminalized online dissent. Since he revealed plans to begin a full hunger strike, his family has intensified efforts to save his life by calling for supporters to press the British government to intervene. Because Abd El Fattah’s mother was born in London, he was able to obtain British citizenship last year.

In the buildup to COP27 in Egypt, climate activists have pointed out that their counterparts in the host country are still not free to even protest for change.

“The reality most of those participating in #Cop27 are choosing to ignore,” Abd El Fattah’s sister Mona Seif observed on Twitter last month, “is not just that Human Rights and Climate justice are interlinked, but in countries like #Egypt your true allies, the ones who actually give a damn about the planet’s future are those languishing in prisons.”

Swedish youth climate activists Greta Thunberg and Andreas Magnusson joined Abd El Fattah’s sisters at a protest outside the Foreign Office in London this week.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 30: (L-R) Mona Seif, sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, climate activists Greta Thunberg and Andreas Magnusson, and Sanaa Seif, sister of Abd El-Fattah, pose for a photograph during at sit-in for jailed British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah on October 30, 2022 in London, England. Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a British-Egyptian blogger and activist, has been on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison for six months. His sister, Sanaa Seif, has been staging a sit-in outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office in an effort to force the British government to intervene. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Alaa Abd El Fattah’s sisters, Mona Seif, left, and Sanaa Seif, right, with climate activists Greta Thunberg and Andreas Magnusson at sit-in outside the U.K. Foreign Office on Oct. 30, 2022, in London.

Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

During the 2020 campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden pledged that he would condition $1.3 billion in U.S. security aid to Egypt on respect for human rights from Sisi, who had been coddled by President Donald Trump. “Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists … or threatening their families is unacceptable,” Biden tweeted that year. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”

But last year, Biden administration officials reportedly told Sisi’s government that just $130 million of aid would be withheld until Egypt ended the prosecutions of a few nongovernmental organizations and dropped charges against or released just 16 of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails. (A report released this year showed that nearly 6,000 Egyptians were jailed for political activities during Biden’s first year in office.)

In the days before the climate conference, Egypt’s government has made it quite clear that protesters are not welcome anywhere outside the strictly controlled “Climate Demonstrations Designated Zone,” in the conference’s “Green Zone.” According to Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, permission to access that zone appears to be impossible for activists to obtain.

At least 67 people were reportedly arrested this week in Egypt for speaking out about the inadequate response to climate change, including an Indian activist who set off on a protest march from Cairo and Egyptians who were detained on charges of “spreading false news” for sharing calls on Facebook for demonstrations.

“This type of awareness raising used to be celebrated in Egypt,” Bahgat noted. “Not in today’s carceral Egypt.”

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