“So, what can you do, if you are going to COP27?” Egyptian activist Sanaa Seif asked, speaking to the European Parliament on October 29, one week before the start of the climate summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh on November 6.
“Your delegation can be our representative,” she said. “We need you to raise human rights concerns. We need you to push your governments to raise human rights concerns, to push for amnesty. Alaa does not have to stay in prison. Alaa can be easily saved. My brother does not have to die in prison.”
As the world’s gaze has turned to Egypt and climate change, Seif sought to draw attention to the Wadi el-Natrun Prison Complex where her brother Alaa Abd Al-Fattah is being held. The well-known blogger and political activist may be penning the final chapter of his life. He has recently turned his partial hunger strike, which has lasted 200 days, to a full hunger strike.
“If you are serious about caring for the planet, you need to boldly adopt human rights,” Seif told the European Parliament. “The climate crisis is not about the planet. The planet will outlive us all. The climate crisis is about life on the planet. And life in Egypt as we speak is very dangerous. There are 103 million Egyptians, who are becoming poorer, more vulnerable and more illiterate every year. There are tens of thousands of political prisoners. Most of them will be worse off if the world simply flies in to shake hands at COP 27, make some investments in green hydrogen, and fly off again.”
The ultimate battle
On April 2, with the start of Ramadan, Abd Al-Fattah started his hunger strike. The Egyptian activist and blogger has been advocating for human rights in his country for over a decade, and has been imprisoned multiple times, with his most recent term beginning in 2019 on charges of spreading “fake news.” Seven months ago, after a prison visit, his sister Mona revealed he refused to receive food. Due to his hunger strike he only received medication.
Alaa’s lawyer Khaled Ali submitted a report to the Prosecutor General requesting Alaa to be provided with proper health care. According to his family, over the course of 200 days Alaa consumed only 100 calories a day in the form of honey-sweetened hot beverages.
Alaa had two demands. First, he asked that a judge be assigned to investigate violations of his rights. Second, he asked that a delegation from the British consulate be allowed visit him.
In a last-ditch effort to free him from prison, Alaa’s family in April revealed he had acquired British citizenship through his mother. She was born in Britain.
In response, attempting to improve the regime’s image, the Ministry of Interior declared in a statement in June that it had given the Public Prosecution Office “video clips [shot] inside the cell of convict Alaa Abdel Fattah, which prove the invalidity of his hunger strike.”
However, Alaa’s lawyer and family questioned that claim and requested the videos to be shown to them. The ministry did not comply.
In a letter from late October, which he gave his mother during a prison visit, Alaa announced he was turning his partial hunger strike into a full one.
“If one wished for death then a hunger strike would not be a struggle,” he wrote. “If one defers death by being ashamed of his mother’s tears only, one will reduce the chances of victory. Today is the last day that I will drink a hot drink. Or, to be more precise, since I am counting the days from when the lights come on at 10 am, tomorrow, Tuesday, just before the lights come on, I will drink my last cup of tea in prison. And 5 days later exactly, when the lights come on Sunday, November 6, I shall drink my last glass of water. What will follow is unknown.“
The unknown was explained by his sister Sanaa Seif, who said in a press interview that Alaa had been turned into a skeleton with skin due to his 200 days of partial hunger strike, during which he consumed only 100 calories a day, while an adult body needs over 2,000 calories a day.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Sanaa said her brother was never convicted of any violence. She also said she was grateful for all the support Alaa had received from activists all over the world. Yet, she was not optimistic about what was happening on the ground in Egypt. The file of Egypt’s political prisoners troubles many people, she said, but governments, whether they are Egyptian, British or otherwise, do not care.
Alaa’s decision to escalate his hunger strike follows the recent death of Alaa el-Selmy in the newly built Badr 3 Prison, after going on a full hunger strike to protest against the Egyptian regime’s cruel treatment of inmates. He demanded the right to have family visits. He died on November 4.
Prior to El-Selmy, Egyptian American Mustafa Kassem died in Tora Prison in January 2020 after going on a hunger strike.
Rajeh Al-Siyaji, a member of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, explained how the body after a few days of hunger strike enters a stage known as “starvation.” As energy no longer enters the body, it starts feeding on fat and energy reserves instead. When they are depleted, the body starts to consume internal tissue. The body will literally consume itself starting with the least vital organs.
“Hunger strikes that last for a long period of time make the body vulnerable to chronic disease, failure of the heart, liver, kidney or any other vital organs,” Al-Siyaji told Daraj. “In a partial strike 100 calories a day are provided to preserve the health of certain organs, including the brain, to prevent the patient from entering unconsciousness.”
“Yet, this does not provide adequate protection for the body’s health,” he continued. “It slows down but does not stop organ damage. The body needs fluids and water to sustain itself and obtain energy whether by feeding on external sources or on internal tissue. The body can tolerate a partial strike for a certain amount of time. Yet. the longer it lasts, the greater the risk.”
“In Alaa’s case, the partial strike began 200 days ago and culminated in a full hunger strike a few days ago,” he concluded. “As it is anticipated to evolve into a full-fledged water strike, we can confirm that Ala
Alaa’s family has tried to generate pressure on a global scale to include the subject of political prisoners in general, and Alaa in particular, in the negotiations leading up to the climate summit in Egypt.
After British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in October changed his mind about not attending the climate summit in Egypt, Alaa’s sister Sanaa organized a sit-in in front of the British Foreign Minister. Sanaa said she will attend the summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in person accompanied by a group of German activists.
Fifteen Nobel laureates in Literature have called upon world leaders visiting Egypt for the COP27 climate talks not to forget about to the thousands of political prisoners held in Egypt’s prisons – most urgently, the “writer and philosopher” Alaa Abd El Fattah who “six months into a hunger strike is at risk of death.”
“We ask you to raise their names, to call for their freedom, and to invite Egypt to turn a page an become a true partner in building a different future, a future that respects human life and dignity,” the signatories wrote in the petition launched by Fattah’s American publisher Harper’s Magazines
In May, 10 British MPs and 17 members of the House of Lords urged the UK government to take action to secure Alaa’s release. Three months later, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanded Egypt must resolve Alaa’s case and achieve what he called “positive progress.”
Meanwhile, many environmentalists, including leading Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, said they will not attend the COP27 climate summit, which they regard as an attempt to greenwash Egypt’s abysmal human rights record.
Father to Son
Alaa Abdel Fattah was one of the most prominent activists participating in the 2011 January 25 Revolution. Born in 1981, he was raised in a politically active family. His father was the late human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif Abdel Fattah, a prominent figure in the 1970s. His mother is Laila Soueif, an anti-torture activist and advocate for the independence of universities.
Alaa was detained three times. The first time was during a peaceful protest in 2006, under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, in which he called for the independence of the judiciary. The second time was in 2013, after he had returned from South Africa to Egypt to take part in the revolution. He was given a five-year prison sentence.
After serving his sentence, he remained under surveillance and had to spend every night in a police station. His 2019 arrest led to a two-year period of preventive detention ended, after which he was “recycled” and sentenced to another five years in December 2021.
At a conference on human rights in Egypt, his late father Seif apologized to his son Alaa for inheriting the country’s prisons. Alaa’s son Khalid was born in 2011 while his father was in jail.
Khalid did not inherit the prisons from his father. He only lived the consequences. Khalid was born with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which prohibits him from speaking. According to a blog post published by Mona Seif, Alaa’s imprisonment has caused Khaled great anguish.
Mona also said that Khalid’s condition had evolved for the better, after spending time with his father. The family has attempted to arrange a meeting between Alaa and his son through the many the interrogation sessions. Yet, one time, having preparing the Khalid for a visit, national security blocked it at the last moment, which caused the child extreme sadness.
Ever since, the family made sure Khalid did not know he was to visit his father until they were absolutely certain he would. But finally Alaa decided not to bring his son to come see him in prison, so he would not further suffer.
Alaa Abdel Fattah did not choose to challenge the regime nor did he choose to endure a slow death in the gaze of the world. Now the world has an opportunity to save one person, and support one family by returning their son, who has been deprived of a normal life for nearly 9 years.