Alaa Abd El Fattah 1

It is the fall of 2022. Close to 33,000 delegates across the world are in Egypt. Not in Cairo, Giza, or Alexandria, but across the Gulf of Suez in Sharm El Sheikh. These delegates have failed to outnumber the 60,000 (reportedly, that is the number) incarcerated in their host’s prisons. If COP will ever be remembered, this one would be for the call of freedom!

White flags are now waving alongside the green ones in Sharm El Sheikh. Climate justice is meaningless without the freedom to think, speak and write.Talking about climate change, Egyptians under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have witnessed only one climate – of horror and terror. Though it is getting darker and clouds of despair are setting in, they can’t hold the moon and stars hostage for ever. Darkest nights still can have a rainbow. Hope.

It has been close to a decade since Sisi has been crushing the voices for freedom and democracy in Egypt. One of the free minds incarcerated in an Egypt prison called Tora is that of philosopher-writer-blogger and dissident, Alaa Abd El Fattah, 40. And he has already spent close to a quarter of his life behind the bars.

Alaa is turning out to be Sisi’s biggest nightmare. The dictators of the world, high on power and backed by their counterparts who may not appear ‘like-minded’ to naked eyes, know little that they can capture a body but not the mind. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Indian Jesuit priest suffering with advanced Parkinson, died in a Mumbai prison in July 2021, imprisoned by a heartless regime in Delhi. Months before his death, he wrote,“A caged bird can still sing.”

These are ironical times. If the largest plastic polluter, Coco Cola, can be the official sponsor of  COP27, why can’t an autocratic Sisi be the host? In Sharm El Sheikh, Coco Cola and Sisi share one interest in common — greenwashing and whitewashing. In whitewashing, the regime has failed. It has been unmasked. Post COP27, we can confirm two things – carbon emissions will continue to rise and Sisi will remain the dictator of Egypt with innumerable peaceful dissenters in prison.

Alaa, a British-Egyptian human rights defender, was a prominent voice during the 2011 revolution, resulting in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, another dictator for close to three decades. In the last nine years, Alaa has merely spent 300 days out of prison. Of the almost 185 days of this 300, he has spent 12 hours every day at a police station. In December, 2021, Alaa, along with his lawyer, Mohamed el-Baqer and blogger Mohamed Oxygen, were convicted for ‘spreading fake news’ by a ‘State security emergency court’. In short, Sisi’s kangaroo court.

This court, while sentencing Alaa for five years and others for four years, denied defence lawyers any access to case files, or, to present defence. This verdict can’t be appealed. These courts were created after a state of emergency was declared in April 2017 and arbitrary and far-reaching powers were granted to the security forces – to detain, interrogate, with surveillance of private communication, censorship in media, etc. Sisi, the supreme leader, held the power to ratify all verdicts. Alaa is serving a prison sentence at least till January 2027. His two years’ pre-trial detention is not counted.

There are hundreds of such stories like that of Alaa, Baqer and Oxygen are in prison today. Official figures from Egypt confirm at least 190 executions in 2020 and 2021 and 365 prisoners have been added to the death row in 2021 alone. Many are executed, or, are going to be, with the kangaroo courts turning into death chambers.

While the Egyptian ruler may have lifted the emergency late last year to prepare for COP27, there is an emergency – to defend freedom and fight for democracy. A message coming strongly from COP27 is — ‘No Climate Justice Without Human Rights’.

Since April 2, 2022, Alaa has been on a hunger strike and for the past seven months he has been only consuming 100 calories a day. November onwards, he gave up all food and as COP27 commenced on November 6, he gave up water also. In a letter to his family, he wrote, “If one wished for death then a hunger strike would not be a struggle. If one were only holding onto life out of instinct then what’s the point of a strike? If you’re postponing death only out of shame at your mother’s tears then you’re decreasing the chances of victory…. I’ve taken a decision to escalate at a time I see as fitting for my struggle for my freedom and the freedom of prisoners of a conflict they’ve no part in, or they’re trying to exit from; for the victims of a regime that’s unable to handle its crises except with oppression, unable to reproduce itself except through incarceration.

Hunger strike is the most powerful tool of civil disobedience and resistance. History reminds of its power as a political tool which has triggered the downfall of many regimes. Mahatma Gandhi, who undertook hunger strike on multiple occasions, often made the deaf British Raj listen. It was his strategy of non-violently refusing to cooperate with injustice.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum to Gandhi was Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary executed by the British in 1931 when he was 23. He undertook 116 days of hunger strike in the Mianwali Jail of Punjab in undivided India. On the 22nd of his hunger strike, when his father visited him in jail, he was lying in a cell with fetters on his legs. His body didn’t allow him to get up, he had become weak physically, but he never allowed himself to be force-fed. Jail authorities kept food in his cell to break him. He showed determination, continued to fast, for he had the moral strength to dream and hope.

Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike lasted for 16 years; from 2000 to 2016, she was force fed. She was demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in India, especially in the Northeast.

It would be unfair to draw parallels and comparisons between them, their struggles, or, their meanings of hunger strike. It is not the heroism that connects Alaa and others here, but it is their clarity of thought and love for freedom. It is their ability to inspire, share courage and make dictators look weak and exposed.

In the wake of global pressure building up, solidarity freely crossing marked boundaries, protests not only in Sharm Al Sheikh but also in several world cities, and on social media with hashtags FreeAlaa, SaveAlaa, FreeThemAll and Others, the interventions of several heads of states, especially from western democracies, are being closely watched.

Sisi and his regime has unleashed its dirty trick industry. They are desperately negotiating so that COP27 can be over and they don’t have to act. Alaa’s mother has been waiting every day outside the prison to receive her son’s letter. Alaa’s lawyers are made to run to the prison and denied access. Alaa’s sister is disrupted by an Egyptian lawmaker in an open press conference. State-backed smear campaigns are on against Alaa. What stops Sisi to allow the British Consulate and Alaa’s family to visit him and see for themselves that Alaa is unharmed, not tortured and force fed? Probably, it is the fear of Alaa’s thoughts, his smile and warmth that they would carry back from the prison.

In Bhagat Singh’s words, “Every tiny molecule of ash is in motion with my heart, I am such a lunatic that I am free even in jail.”

(The latest news is that Alaa has written a brief letter to his mother saying he has started taking water. He wrote the letter on November 12, received by his family on November 14. His sister Sanaa says that this is finally a sign that he is alive. His hunger strike continues. His lawyer has not been allowed to visit him again, third time in a week, despite written permissions. Indeed, the world is waiting for his freedom.)

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