Release Alaa Abd el-Fattah

Alaa Abd el Fattah

The on-going high profile international get together of presidents and prime ministers, top leaders, policy-makers and experts at the climate change conference of COP27 at the Red Sea Resort at Sharm-al-Shaikh near Cairo in Egypt is turning out to be a big headache for General Abdul Fattah El-Sisi, president and dictator of Egypt, and all his miscellaneous generals and ministers who have found themselves caught up in what has become a lead international headline in the media, with campaigners, celebrities, Nobel-prize winning authors, film actors, and civil society activists raising the pitch to a crescendo. Indeed, Sisi is in a Catch-22 scenario, with the focus having shifted from him as a host, to him as a dictator who has imprisoned hundreds of peaceful dissidents in jail using cooked charges.

COP27 is fast turning out to be a life and death issue for jailed blogger, philosopher-author, dissident and civil society activist, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the -Egyptian human rights defender, who has been in and out of jail for long periods since the last 10 years and who has refused to take water in the notorious Tora prison since the summit began.

Ecologists like Greta Thunberg has termed the global meet nothing but ‘Greenwashing’. The Greens are calling it yet another dubious whitewash of highly volatile and life-threatening issues when global warming and climate change has become a dangerous reality in everyday life across the world. This has been accompanied by the bloody ravages of war, mass internal displacement and migration poverty and war, and sharp inequality and mass poverty in the post-pandemic era with a handful of multi-billionaires becoming obscenely super rich.

However, Sisi is perhaps in trouble for the first time since he took over, crushing the dreams of the legendary Tahrir Square mass uprising in 2011 which toppled another long-term dictator, Hosni Mubarak, after 29 years of exercising ruthless power over a restless and oppressed population. Despite the huge upsurge at Tahrir Square, which became an inspiring and integral part of a rainbow of people’s peaceful revolutions across the Middle-East, beginning from the streets of Tunisia, the movements were largely crushed everywhere despite creating the hope of a new era of democracy, enlightenment and modernity. Protests were banned effectively at Tahrir Square in 2013, with warnings of severe punishment and long imprisonments for those who dare to defy the regime.

Despite the warnings, many simply refused to allow the dreams of the original uprising to die and continued to write, speak and peacefully protest: young Alaa was one of them. Soon, he became an iconic symbol of dissent and freedom in a country which has hardly tasted the fruits of freedom and democracy in its entire post-colonial history.

Meanwhile, the new British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, under great pressure from diplomats, politicians, media and activists in his own country, spoke to Sisi on the side-lines of the summit, and claimed to have seriously raised the issue of Alaa. Joe Biden is apparently taking up the case of political prisoners and Alaa in jail urgently and immediately. Several former and current leaders across the world and in the West are intervening to save the life of the writer and dissident on what are clearly cooked up charges.

The Guardian reports that On the sidelines of the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, reportedly told the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that he was “committed” to ensuring the democracy activist’s health “is preserved” and that “the next few weeks and months will bring results”.

Indian writer Arundhati Roy, in a video message which has gone globally viral, has sent a message to Alaa, filled with angst: ‘‘Wondering what our freedom means when you don’t have yours. Wondering what life means when you are going to die. Wondering what climate change conferences mean when countries which are hosting them are incarcerating and killing people.’’

Several Nobel laureates have asked world leaders at the summit not to forget about the thousands of political prisoners held in Egypt’s prisons — ‘‘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 an open letter they have written, ‘‘Alaa has spent the last ten years — a quarter of his life — in prison, for words he has written. For his essays, social media posts and speeches and for the ideas he has put forward into the world, ideas about democracy and the law, technology and labour — ideas that should be celebrated, but instead have cost him his freedom. As Nobel laureates, we believe in the world-changing power of words and the need to defend them if we are to build a more sustainable, genuinely fairer future We urge all representatives of governments, environmental groups and businesses to use the means at their disposal to help those most vulnerable, not just to the rising seas, but to the imprisoned and forgotten. A just transition cannot solely concerned with bringing down emissions, but must be a transition away from exploitation and coercion.’’

Their letter says: ‘‘If the world gathers in Egypt and leaves without even a word about the most vulnerable, then what hope can they ever have? If COP27 ends up a silent gathering, where no one risks speaking openly for fear of angering the COP Presidency, then what future is it that will be being negotiated over? We understand well what is at stake with the negotiations and their urgency. But it is not through compromise with authoritarianism that crises are averted. We believe that it is through more democracy, more transparency and more civic participation that the truest route to sustainability lies. We ask you to raise their names, to call for their freedom, and to invite Egypt to turn a page and become a true partner in building a different future: a future that respects human life and dignity. We ask everyone support the call from Egyptian and international human rights groups for a prisoner amnesty. We ask you to read the words of Alaa, whose powerful voice for democracy is close to being extinguished. If words are to hold their importance, then we must all stand up for them.’’

The laureates have quoted Alaa: ‘‘As he wrote in 2019: ‘The crisis is not one of awareness, but of surrender to the inevitability of inequality. If the only thing that unites us is the threat, then everyone will move to defend their interests. But if we collect around a hope in a better future, a future where we put an end to all forms of inequality, this global awareness will be transformed into positive energy.’’’

‘‘Hope, here, is necessary. Our dreams will probably not come to pass, but if we submit to our nightmares we’ll be killed by fear before the Flood. Indeed, we cannot surrender to the inevitability of inequality. We cannot yield the possibility of a different future to an amoral managerialism of crisis. We must ensure that our words are spoken in defense of the most vulnerable—because we know that our silence puts them at greater risk.”

The open letter has been signed by Svetlana Alexievich, JM Coetzee, Annie Ernaux, Louise Glück, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Kazuo Ishiguro, Elfriede Jelinek, Mario Vargas Llosa, Patrick Modiano, Herta Müller, Orhan Pamuk, Roger Penrose, George Smith, Wole Soyinka and Olga Tokarczuk.

Several international human rights organizations, among others, have appealed for the immediate release of political prisoners and Alaa. They include, Amnesty International, PEN international, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve. Film organizations include Sundance Institute, International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam, the European Film Academy and Société des Réalisateurs de Films, among others.

They have appealed to the Egyptian regime to release activists, journalists, lawyers, writers and artists who are rotting in prisons and detention centers. They have called upon Sisi to immediately end the illegal and abusive practice of pre-trial detention that is reportedly being used routinely, including reported stories of torture in detention.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post has reported on November 8, 2022, that ‘‘the small space afforded to dissenters in Sharm el-Sheikh is proving costly to Egypt’s regime. On Tuesday, Egyptian lawmaker Amr Darwish interrupted a news conference featuring Sanaa Seif, Fattah’s sister, with an outburst from the crowd. ‘You are here summoning foreign countries to pressure Egypt,’ Darwish said in Arabic, berating Seif in front of dozens of international journalists. ‘You are here to call for a presidential pardon for a criminal inmate.’’’

Darwish was escorted out by UN security personnel. “His disruption may have been an attempt to defend the government’s jailing of Abdel Fattah,” wrote Siobhan O’ Grady and Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post. “Instead, human rights advocates said it perfectly exemplified to a crowd of foreign observers a side of Egypt that officials here have tried to conceal from COP27 delegates.”

“This kind of intimidation and harassment is the least we have to experience. The only reason we actually had the press conference at all is because it happened in the area under UN control,” Hossam Bahgat, Executive Director, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the newspaper.

Climate campaigners agree. “There is such an intrinsic connection between human rights and climate justice,” Jean Su, a board chair for Climate Action Network International, told The Washington Post. “The credibility of COP27 and its outcomes will be at stake if Egypt fails to respond to the call for the release of Alaa and other prisoners of conscience.”

Allison McManus, research director at the Freedom Initiative, has appealed to US President Joe Biden to intervene immediately. “There is something truly perverse in Sisi’s assumption that the world would ignore Alaa’s plight because we were so impressed with Egypt’s ability to hold an international conference,” he said in a statement. “As we are seeing, he grossly miscalculated: this COP will be remembered as Alaa’s COP.”

Alaa’s family has raised fears that he might be tortured in the prison, and force-fed against his will, even as he is handcuffed and reportedly in solitary confinement.

Said Sanaa Seif, Abd el-Fattah’s sister, in a press conference at the venue of the summit: “We need proof of life. The scenario I imagine is that Alaa is handcuffed somewhere and put on an intravenous drip against his will. That would be torture, and he shouldn’t be living that. The solution is simply just to let the British embassy see him. This has to end. It can end. There are three ways: let the British embassy visit him; put him on a plane out of Egypt today; or he will die, and be relieved of this nightmare. Whatever happens, I feel Alaa has won – I just hope that he is not sacrificed for it. He’s in prison because he’s someone that believed the world can be a better place.”

Amit Sengupta is a senior journalist

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