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.
Alaa just drank his last cup of tea in prison. Starting today he's on zero calorie strike.
In 5 days, as #COP27 starts, he will cease consuming water as well.
Alaa is not bluffing, he's fueled by hope to be reunited with us & rage at the 9 years stolen from his life. #FreeAlaa pic.twitter.com/5j1f5r2nil
— Sanaa (@sana2) November 1, 2022
So for @alaa, my beautiful amazing brother, there is no choice to be made, he moves forward knowing he has already won his battle irrespective of what will be written on its last page#FreeAlaa #FreeThemAll #Cop27 #Egypt pic.twitter.com/fYKBz1gOHu
— Mona Seif (@Monasosh) November 1, 2022
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.
— Ahdaf Soueif (@asoueif) November 1, 2022
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.
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.
We are 5 days away from #COP27 and I don’t know anyone who got their Green Zone access. Website has been a black hole of applications with all requests still “being reviewed”. Green Zone is only area theoretically “open to the public” but @COP27P still asks for prior registration pic.twitter.com/WH24AlwK3N
— hossam bahgat ???? ???? (@hossambahgat) October 31, 2022
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.”
This type of awareness raising used to be celebrated in Egypt, covered by media. The Indian activist would’ve made the talk shows a few years ago, environment minister would’ve received him for a photo. Not in today’s carceral Egypt. Ajit was arrested on day 1 of his march #COP27 pic.twitter.com/kzh5EHiRkl
— hossam bahgat ???? ???? (@hossambahgat) October 31, 2022