British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah has warned his family that he risks dying in prison, as he reaches a six-month hunger strike ahead of the Cop27 climate conference in Sharm el -Sheikh.
“I don’t want to upset you, but I don’t believe there is a chance of individual salvation,” he told his mother during his visit to Wadi al-Natrun prison. He submitted a list of demandsincluding the release of those held by Egyptian security forces and thousands of people held without charge in pre-trial detention.
Egypt’s move to restrict all but state-sanctioned participation in COP27 follows a nearly decade-long crackdown on civil society under Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), released on Monday.
The HRW report cites 13 environmental activists, some of whom fled the country fearing for their safety.
Human rights and environmental groups told HRW they remained wary of public engagement with Cop27, fearing state retaliation. “The security apparatus is likely to focus more than ever on environmental civil society in Egypt,” said one activist, who now lives in exile.
Activists “described a sharp shrinking space for independent environmental and climate work since the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took office,” including harassment and intimidation, cuts in essential funding, travel difficulties and fears of intimidation by security forces of their contacts or themselves if they conducted or organized field research, according to the report. “We didn’t even think of protesting,” said one activist.
Members of the environmental movement in Egypt also spoke of a sharp divide, where work perceived to be in line with government priorities, such as climate finance or recycling, has been given an expanded space to operate while activists feel unable to engage in activities that could be perceived as critical of the government or its private interests, including issues of water shortages or industrial pollution. One activist described government mega-projects, such as the Suez Canal economic zone or the building of a new capital, as “a red line”, adding: “I can’t work on that.”
Abd El-Fattah, a leading figure in Egypt’s 2011 uprising and regional pro-democracy movements, has spent most of the past decade behind bars and was convicted last year of terrorism for an article about torture on social networks. While the 40-year-old activist became a British citizen almost a year ago, British officials have been prevented from visiting him in detention to check on his well-being. He has now been on a hunger strike for 164 days to protest his treatment, consuming only 100 calories a day, and has threatened to escalate his strike into a water and salt strike.
“The last time I saw Alaa three weeks ago, he looked so exhausted. He had trouble standing up,” his sister, Sana’a Seif, said. “I was speechless. . I had no right to kiss her. Alaa sacrifices his life to demand his right of consular access while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is reluctant to act firmly to assert this right.
Supporters of the activist say the UK authorities are not using the leverage afforded by their cooperation with Egypt in their role as Cop26 president and key financial and political partners to push for freedom of Abd El-Fattah.
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised Abd El-Fattah’s case during a call with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi on August 25, and Liz Truss pledged while she was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs to secure his release. A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) declined to answer questions about how the continued detention of a British citizen might impact attendance at COP27, saying: ” We are working hard to obtain the release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah and we continue to take his case to the highest level of the Egyptian government.
In the weeks leading up to November’s climate conference, which Egypt is keen to promote as a green investment opportunity despite lingering human rights concerns, British International Investment, the development finance arm of the FCDO, pledged to invest an additional £87 million in Egypt, in addition to the projects worth over £660m it is currently funding. BII also recently signed a memorandum of understanding to fund a green hydrogen plant through a subsidiary in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, a project tied to Egypt’s vast military economy.
“The British and Egyptian governments strike huge trade deals ahead of COP27 while a British citizen is dying in an Egyptian prison. This is a horrible precedent with a country notorious for human rights abuses… Liz Truss said she was working for his release. Now that she is prime minister, she has to make it happen,” Seif said.
While Egypt has promised to allow protests at COP27, its foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, who oversees the conference, has stipulated that only limited protests in government-designated areas will be allowed. Egypt has also curtailed civil society activities, limiting the participation of national groups to those who are not critical of the government.
Egypt’s foreign ministry, which is leading preparations for COP27, declined to comment.