UPDATE: A letter to Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s mother, written November 12, said he is “drinking water again” and “receiving medical attention”, BBC reports. “I can sleep today without nightmares,” his sister said in response.
With a pro-democracy blogger and activist reportedly being force-fed in prison, a relentless crackdown on protesters and undocumented workers, and a conference app raising serious concerns about unwarranted surveillance, Egypt is not getting the public relations bounce it was counting on as host of this year’s COP 27 climate change summit.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah, an Egyptian-British pro-democracy activist who rose to prominence during the Arab Spring more than a decade ago, has been on hunger strike for more than six months. He was imprisoned on charges of “spreading false news”, apparently for sharing a social media post about the torture of a fellow prisoner, and is now refusing not only food but water.
Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), described el-Fattah as “an iconic figure who inspired millions of Egyptians” who is now “on the verge of dying”.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, says el-Fattah’s life is “at acute risk” and has urged his immediate release. His family, fearing that he may be force-fed—something they say would amount to torture—is demanding evidence from the government that he is still alive after warnings that he could die before the COP is due to end November 18.
“We know that they are happy for him to die,” Fattah’s sister Sanaa Seif told a news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. “The only thing they care about is that it doesn’t happen while the world is watching.” Seif told the BBC she believed the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, could achieve freedom for her brother, and she was sure he “can do it if it is really a priority”.
Sunak stressed his “deep concern” over the case during a meeting with Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, adding that el-Fattah’s case “grows more urgent by the day”
Those who have intervened on el-Fattah’s behalf also include a former British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, who served in Cairo from 2014 to 2018. Describing Fattah’s release as “the defining issue for British-Egyptian relations,” Casson called him “a man of vision and values for the future of Egypt.”
The fate of Alaa Abd el-Fattah is exciting particular concern in the United Kingdom, but Türk went further. “I call on the Egyptian authorities to fulfill their human rights obligations and immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, including those in pre-trial detention, as well as those unfairly convicted,” he said.
That amounts to a sizeable challenge to Egyptian authorities. On November 6, quoting a Reuters report, Amnesty International said “hundreds of people in the past two weeks alone” had been arrested in connection to calls for protests during COP 27. The report said at least 151 detainees were currently being investigated by Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution.
That must worry many Egyptians, and they won’t be alone. The number of people attending the COP this year exceeds 30,000. And while many are officials and others bound by the constraints of their work, many more will be campaigners, NGO members, freelance journalists, and others intent on seizing the opportunities a COP presents. Egypt’s jails are thought already to hold about 65,000 political prisoners.
But the ominous details behind a “cartoon super-villain” conference app suggest no change of heart on the part of the government that holds this year’s COP presidency. The Guardian reports the software is causing “mounting fears over the surveillance of delegates,” after cybersecurity experts warned it would give authorities access to a user’s location, photos, and even emails when it is downloaded. That would enable Egypt’s authoritarian rulers to keep an unwelcome eye on both foreign participants and domestic critics.
The app demands a range of permissions from users before installation, including the ability for the government to examine emails and images and establish users’ whereabouts and personal details, according to one expert who analysed it for the Guardian.
“This is a cartoon super-villain of an app,” said Gennie Gebhart, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “The biggest red flag is the number of permissions required, which is unnecessary for the operation of the app and suggests they are trying to surveil attendees. I can’t think of a single good reason why they need these permissions.”
But it works on any user who doesn’t read the fine print before downloading new software…which is to say, just about all of us. At last report, about 5,000 COP participants had downloaded the conference app.
The World Press Freedom Index 2022, published by Reporters Without Borders, places Egypt in 168th place out of 180. “If Egypt takes the climate seriously, if it cares about life on this planet, it must prove it by releasing its 23 imprisoned journalists,” said Jonathan Dagher, head of RWF’s Middle East desk.
“It is Egypt’s journalists and in particular the environmental journalists who will judge whether the country keeps its COP27 promises.” ECRF’s Lotfy told Reuters.
And the ability of the media to report freely and responsibly what climate heating is, what are the prospects of limiting its effects, and what that will mean for all of us is more than Egypt’s concern alone.
“Journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in the world,” the United Nations says. And for all the professional journalists imprisoned or killed for doing their jobs, there are many more freelancers who work with less protection and back-up, or none at all. A colleague once described a journalist’s job as “bearing witness and analysing” what they see and hear. Worldwide, there are plenty of people intent on preventing that happening.
Most of us would agree that we want a world of climate justice. That comes at a price, yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that justice is an integral part of climate adaptation, another preoccupation at COP 27.
The Solutions Project describes climate justice as “what happens when those who have the most resources to address the climate crisis actually use them to protect vulnerable communities …” The argument over how to achieve that is raging now in the conference halls of Sharm el-Sheikh. On every continent, those who have so much to contribute to the debate are living—and dying—unheard.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC News Cairo bureau chief.