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Hossam Bahgat on the “Full-Scale Human Rights Crisis” in Egypt as Country Hosts COP27

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Image Credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters (Left Image)

Broadcasting from COP27, the U.N. climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, we speak to leading Egyptian human rights advocate and journalist Hossam Bahgat about how authorities have launched a widespread crackdown on political dissent. Hundreds have been arrested, including lawyers and journalists, and police have been stopping people randomly on the streets of Cairo and other cities to search the contents of their phones. Meanwhile, imprisoned British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah has sent a letter notifying his family that he has stopped his hunger strike and asked for them to visit on Thursday. Bahgat disagrees with calls to boycott COP27, and gained entry through asking a foreign environmental group to include him. “Sustained engagement with the Egyptian government in public and private about its catastrophic human rights record can actually lead to some change,” says Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Tens of thousands of delegates have come here to Sharm el-Sheikh to attend the COP27 U.N. climate conference. The summit is taking place under the most repressive regime in the history of the modern Egyptian state. Over the past decade, there’s been an unprecedented crackdown on human rights, on civil society, on the media, on environmental activism and much more. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are behind bars, the most prominent of which is the technologist, the activist, the writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah, whose case has become a lightning rod here at the summit and who just ended a more than seven-month-long hunger strike.

Meanwhile, outside Sharm, in Cairo and cities across Egypt, security forces have launched a widespread crackdown in the days leading up to and during the summit. Hundreds have been arrested. Security forces have locked down the streets, stopping random passers-by, forcibly searching for content on their phones. Lawyers and journalists have been detained, including, most recently, the journalist Ahmed Fayez, who was arrested after posting that Alaa Abd El-Fattah had been subject to a forced medical intervention. The Egyptian government, meanwhile, continues to tout its role as the host country of COP27 and has been working to bolster its international legitimacy through the summit.

For more on the human rights situation in Egypt and much more, we’re joined by Hossam Bahgat, executive director and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, one the country’s leading human rights groups. He has also worked as an investigative journalist for the independent media outlet Mada Masr. Over the years, Hossam Bahgat has been targeted by the government for his work. For the past seven years, he has been banned from traveling outside Egypt and had his personal assets frozen. In 2015, he was arrested and held for several days while under investigation by the military prosecutor, before he was released following international outcry.

Hossam Bahgat, it’s wonderful to have you back on Democracy Now! But today we are in your country. We are in Egypt, though Sharm el-Sheikh doesn’t exactly feel like the rest of Egypt. Is that right? Can you talk about the significance of this climate summit in this climate of fear for Egyptians outside this resort city?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Now, of course, it doesn’t really represent the rest of the country in normal times, but especially during these two weeks there is a certain degree of freedom, at least inside the U.N. zone, the so-called Blue Zone, where Egyptians can for the first time in many years express their views, hold public debates, speak freely to the media, but also interact with civil society and climate justice activists from all over the world without fear of prompt, instant reprisal, but, of course, with the fear of reprisal after COP on everyone’s mind.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does it feel for you here in Sharm el-Sheikh? I mean, you are banned from leaving Egypt. This must be such an unusual experience to meet with people around the world.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Definitely. I mean, it’s like really traveling to another country, except the world sort of came to Egypt for these two weeks, that it’s not just the kind of access that we have to official delegations, but the kind of connectedness and rebuilding of relationships and building of future partnerships around the issues of human rights and climate justice and environmental justice. But, most importantly, it is being able to breathe, really, because COP brought with it this level of oxygen that Egypt has been lacking for the past eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what’s happened through this period. I mean, in Sharm el-Sheikh, you have the climate summit, but in Cairo, people are being picked off the streets. You have the story of the journalist who reported on Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s medical condition being arrested, among — well, we have reports of hundreds of people arrested, among the tens of thousands who are imprisoned right now.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Yeah. I mean, this is just one glimpse, really, of what happens on a daily basis in Egypt. And it goes to show, in very clear terms, how what’s happening within the Blue Zone in Sharm el-Sheikh has not really stopped or changed the behavior of the Egyptian government in other cities, and especially in Cairo. There was a call for protests that came from opposition figures in the diaspora living in exile, marked at 11 — the 11th of November, to coincide —

AMY GOODMAN: Last Friday, 11/11.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Correct. To before — I mean, to coincide with COP. And, of course, before, the government of Egypt reacted in the typical paranoid and excessive way. So, for many weeks, security was everywhere on the streets. We saw the return of random stops and arrests, the illegal searching of mobile phones, looking for not just any critical posts but really whether the person had even liked or shared a critical post or had any interest in politics at all. The tally kept by independent human rights organizations from October ’til mid-November, ’til yesterday, is over 600 people arrested. About 40 of them have not reappeared yet, so are still forcibly disappeared, and including around 24 women.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet you did not support a boycott of the summit. Why?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: When Egypt was first declared as the host of COP27 late last year, there were some calls, especially from outside of Egypt, for campaigning to relocate or reconsider that decision. We disagreed with these calls. And then there were calls on activists to boycott this summit, and again we disagreed and actually urged activists from around the world to use this opportunity to come to Egypt.

Egypt has not allowed international human rights organizations or independent social justice activists to come into the country since at least 2014. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch came to Egypt this week for the first time in nine years. So, it’s not just this lifeline of support that we needed, but also a global spotlight that was put on Egypt for a few weeks before and the two weeks of COP that we haven’t had in a number of years, because, as you know, Egypt is only in the news when there is a crisis.

And from the outside, Egypt appears to be a stable country in a very unstable region, and there’s a degree of normalization with the level of abuse in Egypt. A story that says that the Egyptian regime arrested dissidents is old news, unfortunately. It doesn’t capture the world’s attention anymore. And it became even more difficult after the war in Ukraine. The world had forgotten about Egypt. So, this is really an important opportunity for us to be back in the spotlight, to use this opportunity to highlight the magnitude of the human rights crisis in the country and mobilize solidarity around it.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, you talk about Human Rights Watch being allowed back into the country, yet you have all of these hundreds of websites that Egyptians are blocked from accessing. Can you explain that? For example, even like WhatsApp.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Yeah. I mean, since around 2017, the government decided to really block any independent website that carried any critical views or information about Egypt. The problem is not just foreign websites like Human Rights Watch and Alhurra and Reporters Without Borders; the problem is that this blackout targeted 100% of independent Egyptian media outlets, so the number of news organizations that are Egyptian that are reporting news from Egypt that are available to the Egyptian people is now zero.

People have to, you know, download VPN in order to access these websites. So the government simply went around and blocked around 400 VPN websites so that Egyptian readers do not even have the app to download in order to access these news organizations. The number of blocked websites so far is over 600, and all of them are blocked illegally, so not according to Egypt’s abusive laws even or any legal regulation. It’s just security authorities that decide to pull the plug on any media organization or human rights organization that carries critical views.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Hossam Bahgat, I introduced you as a leading human rights advocate, but you are perhaps the leading investigative journalist in Egypt. And I wanted the camera to go to the two shot right now and look across the room from us. We’re right outside the plenary. Right across from us, it says ”UMS,” and you’ve got the U.N. climate summit logo. And you’ve got men who have been sitting there all day. You did an investigation of how the Egyptian military, through a private equity group, bought up most of the media in Egypt. Can you explain what we’re looking at here?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Yeah. I mean, UMS stands for United Media Services. This is a company that was established by Egypt’s General Intelligence Service for the sole purpose of purchasing all privately owned TV stations, newspapers and news websites.

Of course, anyone familiar with Egypt, even under the autocratic rule of Mubarak, remembers that despite the limits on freedom of expression and free media, Egypt had a vibrant media scene through privately owned, independent journalism, that really led Egypt to stand out, even within the Middle East, for its level of accountability journalism and independent reporting.

Shortly after President Sisi came to power, he started openly complaining about two things: about critical or opposition voices expressed in the media and also about the hours of political talk show every night that Egyptians turned to religiously every evening to follow the news and to learn about what’s happening in the country.

And so, the Intelligence Service simply went to one media outlet after the other and bought it over. And then, all of the media of the country is now under this UMS, United Media Services, or al-Mutahida. And that has really turned Egypt, within four years, into, you know, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Syria under Assad, where the headlines of every newspaper are the same. There is one news bulletin that is read out in every TV station, and there isn’t a single opposition newspaper or even column in Egypt now.

AMY GOODMAN: When you did the exposé on the military takeover of the media, what happened to you, when you did it for Mada Masr?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: I got in trouble before that one for other investigations that also looked into the military and security establishment’s takeover of the state, really, state capture by security agencies, if you want. And then, when I got into looking at this secret media acquisition, of course, our website was blocked, and then it was repeatedly blocked every time we relaunched it. And then, eventually, the government went public, and it’s actually now a well-known fact that United Media Services is owned by General Intelligence. They take pride even in that fact.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get accreditation, Hossam, to this U.N. climate summit? There were others, even foreign human rights activists, that got even accreditation and were denied entry here. How did you get to come here?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Believe me, it wasn’t easy. So, you know, all Egyptian organizations had to apply for a special permit to come for this COP only and to apply to the Egyptian COP presidency, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. So, we couldn’t apply directly to the U.N. for observer status. The Egyptian government kept that process secret — the very existence of that process was never announced — and then went around and handpicked, effectively preselected, the Egyptian organizations to invite. And then, all the names of human rights organizations that sought to receive this one-time accreditation were rejected. So, ultimately, the Egyptian government picked around 30-odd civil society organizations, and the number of human rights groups on that list was zero.

So, what we had to do is, of course, go around to partners in international organizations that have observer status from the U.N., and ask them to include us in their delegation. So, I am not here representing an Egyptian human rights organization, my organization. I got here with a badge from a German climate group called German Zero, and I thank them very much. But without them, really, I would not have been here. And the same is true for any Egyptian human rights defender who is on the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh this week.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Hossam Bahgat, there is someone who is not here on the ground, though, as a number of people said, should be the main person addressing world leaders, and that is Alaa Abd El-Fattah. And he is a leading political activist back to the Tahrir, to the Arab Spring. He’s been in prison for most of the last 10 years. Now, one world leader after another has come here. The German chancellor has called on Sisi, the president of Egypt, to free him. Macron, the president of France, did it through AFP, Agence France-Presse. What about President Biden? He was here on 11/11. He was here on Friday for a couple of hours with a large delegation, with Nancy Pelosi and others, the House speaker. Can you talk about what the U.S. is demanding in terms of Alaa, who has just finished a seven-month hunger fast, and what that meeting between Sisi and Biden was, what we understand? Did Biden make any demands, call for his release, his freedom? He is a British-Egyptian human rights leader.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: To our knowledge, there isn’t really a single head of state or government that came to COP and had a bilateral meeting with President Sisi that didn’t raise the case of political prisoners in general, and Alaa Abd El-Fattah in particular, because, of course, Alaa’s case became much more critical just before COP, because a week before, he went on a full hunger strike, after, as you say, seven months of a partial hunger strike, and then, on the very —

AMY GOODMAN: Including drinking no water for six days.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: On the very first day of the summit, he stopped drinking water. And so, that, of course, became the most urgent, most critical case. And our understanding is that President Biden, as well as several members, senior members, of his delegation, raised the case of Alaa with their counterparts.

Unfortunately, the Egyptian government has not only resisted all these calls for Alaa to be released or deported to the U.K., but also have kept him with absolutely no contact with the outside world for the last two weeks, until we got the very first note from him yesterday, with proof of life, saying that he started drinking water. And then, today, we got the letter that you read out, that says he has ended his strike. So, of course, we’re very relieved about that. But, as you say, Alaa is only one of many thousands of other political prisoners that are in jail in open-ended pretrial detention or have been convicted, simply for having expressed dissenting views or exercised peaceful activism.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know what’s going to happen? His family, his sister and mother, are expected to visit — I don’t know if it’s one or two who can go into the prison — for the first time in quite a while, on Thursday. His birthday is Friday. He’s asked for a birthday cake, may have news for them. But, in fact, last week, the lawyer was told he could go visit him. He was denied. He went back, he went back. He was denied. And what role do international leaders play when it comes to this? I mean, the U.S. gives billions of dollars of military aid to Egypt, so whatever President Biden said behind closed doors makes an enormous difference. The U.S. has enormous power, as do other Western countries.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Absolutely. And, you know, we’re all anxiously waiting for Thursday, because this will be the first time that Alaa will have been seen since October 31st, the last visit. As you said, his lawyer three times received official permit to visit him, and three times was turned away. It is our speculation that perhaps prison authorities and security agencies did not want Alaa to be seen in a very weak state after all these weeks and months of strike, especially because they have been repeatedly lying on the record, saying that Alaa was not striking at all. So, I think they were buying time maybe, until Alaa maybe regains some health and strength, before they allow him to be seen by anyone.

Of course, the United States is an influential country in the world, and especially so when it comes to Egypt, given not just the military support but, you know, a strategic and long relationship. And the Egyptian regime in the past two years has actually shown some sensitivity to outside criticism and an effort to improve its image, perhaps in the lead-up to the COP. And, you know, they have taken some positive signals to the outside world in terms of releasing some political prisoners or the recent call for a national dialogue with the opposition. That goes to show, really, that the sustained engagement with the Egyptian government, in public and private, about its catastrophic human rights record can actually lead to some change.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the American-style — I think that’s how the Egyptian government refers to it — prisons that Sisi has built? In fact, he referred to what you’re just saying in his meeting with Biden when the press gaggle came out. He was the first to raise human rights, as if to preempt something that Biden could say. But what these prisons are, like where Alaa is held?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: What the president called American-style prisons, I mean, I think when the president said it, he thought it was a good thing. And in his mind, he was perhaps referring to the size of the prison complex and the fact that it was maybe better maintained compared to Egypt’s very old and crowded prisons.

But as the case of Alaa and countless others came to show us, these two shiny prisons continue to act with the same utter disregard for the rule of law, openly violating Egypt’s own prison regulations, refusing to implement permits, visiting permits, issued by the country’s top public prosecutor, and denying Alaa the most basic rights.

Alaa, in his letter today, is celebrating, announcing to his family that they allowed an MP3 player in. This is the first time in three years that Alaa will be allowed to listen to music. And that’s unlike every other prisoner in that prison. You know, for three years, Alaa was campaigning for the prison authorities to pick any book of their choosing from the prison library to allow him to read. For three years, he was not allowed to read a book, to listen to music, to have a radio, to get out of his cell. And that just goes to show you how vindictive this state is and how adamant they were at breaking him. But he stood, and stood strong, and actually, you know, managed to stay not just alive but incredibly lucid and in very high spirits.

AMY GOODMAN: Compare Egypt today with Egypt that he and so many others protested 10 years ago, the Arab Spring, what happened in Tahrir, what that meant, not only for Egypt but for the world. What happened in this 10 years? What has Sisi brought this country to?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: I mean, back then — and, of course, you covered it extensively — under Mubarak, we worked and organized, because, of course, it was a country with a very troubling human rights record. There were ongoing violations, some of them systemic, with impunity and, you know, a complete failure of accountability. But it was, you know, an authoritarian country, and we were fighting for democracy.

What we have right now is a full-scale human rights crisis, that made Egypt, really, as I said, you know, in the same state as Belarus and Uzbekistan and other countries, where it’s not just that human rights violations are rampant, but that we have a regime that became one of the worst abusers of human rights in the whole world. And that’s not an emotional statement. If you look up any independent ranking of countries around the world on any measure of human rights, you will find Egypt among the worst three or five violators. Look at the number of journalists imprisoned, we’re number three in the world, after Turkey and China. Last year, we were number one in the world in terms of the number of death sentences, number three in terms of the number of actually carried-out executions, the sheer population of political prisoners, the number of blocked websites, the number of — you know, the almost nonexisting media sphere and the full criminalization of human rights work, where every human rights defender is facing criminal charges, asset freezes, travel bans — not just myself — and where engaging in any act of peaceful opposition has become grounds for imprisonment with no future of release.

AMY GOODMAN: So, my last question is: What makes you so brave, and what gives you hope? I mean, the U.N. climate summit ends this week. That is a level of protection that you and other people in civil society will not have. The level to which you are speaking out right now — you can’t leave Egypt — what could happen to you now?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: And we knew that we were — that we had to take a risk, of course, and we always knew that it was only a two-week conference, so, ultimately, it will be over, and we will all be back in Cairo. But it was really a choice between, you know, not doing anything and wasting this huge opportunity of having a U.N. summit on Egyptian soil, or taking that risk and facing possible consequences afterwards.

Initially, we decided to take that risk, that it was worth it. And then, with Alaa’s hunger strike, of course, you know, we lost any hesitation or fear, and we decided that we did not just have an opportunity, but an obligation to use this opportunity to tell our story. We hope that the world is not going to forget about Egypt once the COP is over, and so this stoplight goes elsewhere. But even if that happens, it will have been well worth it.

AMY GOODMAN: Hossam Bahgat, all the best to you, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, based in Cairo. He’s also worked as an investigative journalist for the independent media outlet Mada Masr. For the past seven years, he’s been banned from traveling outside Egypt and had his personal assets frozen. Thanks so much.

Coming up, we speak to one of the most prominent climate activists in the world, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda. Stay with us.

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