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Egypt Arrests Hundreds in Crackdown Before COP27 Climate Summit, Pressured to Free Alaa Abd El-Fattah

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Image Credit: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egyptian authorities have arrested hundreds in a crackdown on dissenting voices ahead of COP27, the U.N. climate conference, which starts Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh. Fifteen Nobel laureates have signed an open letter asking world leaders to pressure Egypt into releasing its many political prisoners, including human rights activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who plans to intensify his six-month hunger strike by forgoing water on the opening day of the climate summit. “He’s organizing all of us from his prison cell,” says Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Egypt has launched a crackdown on civil society just days before the U.N. climate summit begins in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hundreds have been arrested. This is Mohamed Lotfy, the director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

MOHAMED LOTFY: [translated] What we see is toughening of the security grip, even on the civilians passing by on the streets, an interference in their personal lives and breaching their privacy by forcing them to open up their mobile phones and inspecting their political views on social media. … The Egyptian government is always concerned about its image, and the best way to improve Egypt’s image is to improve its human rights record, because the international media will all be focused on Egypt during COP27.

AMY GOODMAN: Rights activists say Egyptian authorities published guidelines limiting protests during COP27 to designated zones and will require 36 hours’ advance notice. This week Egyptian authorities released Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal after detaining him on his March for Our Planet from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh. He described his detention.

AJIT RAJAGOPAL: I was kept there for hours and hours and the whole night. I was not — they have not informed me well what is the charge against me, what are they going to do, what should I — how can I help them in the process. Nothing was being informed. And even I didn’t get any food from them, as well, even water, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the family of 47-year-old Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Al-Salami says they’ve been told he has died in prison after two months on complete hunger strike to protest his conditions. Fifteen Nobel laureates have signed on to a letter to world leaders attending the climate summit, asking them to, quote, “devote part of your agenda to the many 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,” they wrote. The majority of the Nobel literature laureates since 1986 signed the letter.

Alaa Abd El-Fattah will begin a complete hunger strike, forgoing even water, on the opening day of COP27. He has already been on a hunger strike for more than 200 days. As we broadcast today in New York, his family is about to hold a news conference on efforts to free him.

Meanwhile, in the latest news, 56 U.S. lawmakers have sent a letter to President Biden saying Egypt’s capacity to address critical climate demands is, quote, “undercut by its refusal to allow the meaningful participation of environmental and civil society groups, activists and those most impacted by the climate crisis.” This is State Department spokesperson Ned Price being questioned Wednesday.

REPORTER: Ned, on Egypt, do you have any comment on the death of Alaa Al-Salami in Egypt prison after starting a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his detention? And any reaction to the hunger strike that Alaa Abd El-Fattah has started today?

NED PRICE: So, we are closely following the case of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. We have followed it throughout his pretrial detention, his conviction and his subsequent and current incarceration. We have raised repeated concerns about this case and his conditions in detention with the government of Egypt. We have made very clear at the highest levels, including at the very highest levels, to the Egyptian government that progress on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, that will buoy, it will bolster, it will reinforce, ultimately will strengthen our bilateral relationship with Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a reporter for the Egypt-based Mada Masr.

Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you can give us the latest news? Again, as we speak, Alaa’s sisters are about to hold a news conference in London, where they’ve been holding a sit-in for weeks. Can you talk about what’s happening and the response of the U.S. government? Because President Biden will be in Sharm el-Sheikh at the U.N. climate summit on November 11th, next Friday.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right, Amy. As we’re going to air right now, both of Alaa’s sisters, Sanaa and Mona, are about to hold a press conference. They last night — they’ve been camped out there since the 18th of October. And last night, James Cleverly, the British foreign minister, did meet with them. He tweeted out that he is working tirelessly to help secure the release of Alaa. While this is encouraging that he finally did meet with Sanaa and Mona after so many days waiting outside his office for — and we have to remember Alaa is a British citizen, and so are Mona and Sanaa, and that’s why the British government is being called on to intervene — that, well, you know, this kind of language has been used before. Boris Johnson, when he was prime minister, spoke to Sisi, and we still haven’t seen any kind of change. Alaa hasn’t been granted a consular visit by British officials in prison. And I think unless there’s really top-level intervention — the new British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is attending the climate summit — we’ll have to see what happens.

Alaa, in a letter to his family, announced that — he was on a partial hunger strike for many months, consuming just 100 calories a day, which is like a spoonful of honey in tea, and that was helping to sustain his hunger strike. He stopped taking that on Tuesday, so he’s back on a full hunger strike. And on Sunday, he is going to essentially stop drinking water. And the body cannot last very long without water. So, Sanaa is — if it gets to that point, if he’s not released, Alaa will do this. Sanaa is planning to travel to Sharm el-Sheikh to the climate summit, if that happens, as an official delegate. And so, she will go, and she’ll hold an event on the 8th with the secretary general of Amnesty International and the executive director of Human Rights Watch and with the German climate envoy to help put pressure on the government to release Alaa.

You mentioned in the lede that a prisoner, Alaa Al-Salami, just died in prison, in the Badr 3 so-called rehabilitation center, a prison, a new prison. He was on hunger strike for two months, and he died. What they said was medical neglect and because of his hunger strike. And we have to remember, back in early 2020, an American citizen, Mustafa Kassem, who was imprisoned unjustly for six years in Egypt, he was an Egyptian-American dual national, he was on hunger strike for many months. He decided to go on a water strike on a Friday. He was taken to the hospital when he decided to — refused to take liquids, and he was pronounced dead on Monday. So this is extremely serious.

You know, Alaa’s sisters say he’s not bluffing. He’s fueled by hope to be reunited with his family and also by rage at the last nine years that have been stolen from his life. And I think he very clearly understands the timing of this and what he’s doing. He’s organizing all of us from his prison cell. He’s using his body, the only thing he has agency over, to inject some sense of meaning into this moment, with this climate summit, and to spur us all into action. And he’s, I think, done with prison. You know, he won’t serve these five years. He’s done with it. And he’s trying to, I think, also organize the meaning and the impact, if it gets to that, of his death.

And let me just end this thing on Alaa. You know, he wrote this letter to his family announcing his plans for the water strike. I’ll just read a short translated portion of it. He said, “If one wished for death, then a hunger strike would not be a struggle. If one were only holding on to 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” — and then he goes on to say, “I have 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 have 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. The decision was taken while I am flooded with your love and longing for your company. Much love, until we meet soon, Alaa.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, has anyone been able to visit Alaa? I mean, from what he says, he’s longing for their company, so I assume not. Is he able to see a lawyer? And also, you said that high-level intervention is required to secure his release. Has there been any response at all from Egyptian authorities?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Alaa gets, as many prisoners do, one visit by one family member once a month for 20 minutes behind a glass barrier. They’re not allowed to touch him or hug him. He doesn’t visit with lawyers. Only immediate family members are allowed to visit him.

The Egyptian government has not addressed this publicly, Alaa’s imprisonment. They point to his conviction in December for five years over resharing a Facebook post about torture in prison. That’s his official charge. So we haven’t seen that.

But, you know, it’s a bit — it’s worrying also that, as you mentioned, we’re seeing this intensified crackdown in Egypt in the run-up to the summit, when all the world’s eyes are on Egypt, as world leaders are heading there and tens of thousands of delegates and activists are planning to go. Literally hundreds of people have been arrested over the past week. They’ve been arrested off the streets. They’ve been arrested from their homes. They’ve been arrested from their workplaces. At least 150 of them have been put into pretrial detention on terrorism charges, all part of a massive case that’s been dubbed in the media as the climate revolution case. They’re all being asked about these protests that we’ve seen online calls for, plans for protest on 11/11, November the 11th. And, you know, that will be while the summit is underway.

There’s a massive security presence in Cairo and in other cities across the country. Police are randomly stopping people on the street, taking their phones, forcing them to unlock them, looking through Facebook and WhatsApp and looking for political content, and often detaining people if they see anything they don’t like.

As you mentioned, international activists are not immune to this. An Indian climate activist who was trying to do this solo climate justice march to Sharm el-Sheikh was detained overnight, interrogated for several hours. He called an Egyptian lawyer friend to come help him. When the lawyer came, the lawyer was detained and held overnight. They were both released.

They recently just arrested a journalist, Manal Agrama, who had written some critical posts on Facebook about the government. They came to her home, arrested her. Currently her whereabouts are unknown.

So, all of this is kind of happening in the run-up to the COP and to this summit which many of the key climate activists and environmental allies from Egypt, from civil society in Egypt, will not be able to attend.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, where are all these arrests taking place? And are people anticipating that these will continue even once the summit begins next week, on Monday?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The arrests are taking place across Egypt, in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Ismailia, in Suez. It’s kind of happening everywhere. There’s a redoubled massive security presence on the streets. The security apparatus seems to be extremely paranoid about these calls for protests on November the 11th. It’s unclear if we’re going to see protests on that day. It’s very hard to predict. Clearly there’s a preemptive crackdown to try and prevent anything. And yeah, the government is clearly also very paranoid after it just floated the currency. The Egyptian pound is at a record low against the dollar. Inflation is way up. People are poorer. And this comes in a context where the answer to any problem with a citizen is incarceration.

And so, I think it’s very telling that we’re seeing increasing calls for the release of political prisoners. We saw this letter by 56 lawmakers in the U.S. We’ve seen people in the U.K. come out. We’ve seen multiple organizations, civil society call for the release of political prisoners. There’s an editorial in The Washington Post today. You know, this is — as Naomi Klein said, this COP is more than just greenwashing a polluting state; it’s greenwashing a police state.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we’re going to end with the words of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. You interviewed him, and we also have interviewed him on Democracy Now! But, Sharif, very quickly, if you can just tell us who he is, why one Nobel literature laureate after another has signed on to this letter? Fifty-six congressmembers and senators have demanded that Biden call for his release.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Alaa, he’s a technologist, a writer and an activist, and he emerged really in the 2011 revolution as a key thinker and organizer and an icon of change. He has been imprisoned for much of the last nine years, mainly because of his ideas, for the versatility of his mind and what he stands, and he stands as a symbol of 2011 and a symbol of change. So I think that’s why there’s been so much campaigning around releasing him, because if someone like him can be released — and he’s being imprisoned to set an example for others, basically, that this is what happens when you try and fight for change. So I think his release would also mark a significant step forward for change in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sharif, we want to thank you for being with us. Also Sharif Abdel Kouddous will be joining us as we cover the Sharm el-Sheikh U.N. climate summit the week after next, the second week of the COP, and people should tune in for our weeklong coverage. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporter for Mada Masr, usually based in Cairo, Egypt.

We’re going to turn now to the words of Alaa himself. Alaa recently published a book, the name of the book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. He has been jailed for almost all of the last decade, since the 2011 Arab Spring, Tahrir uprising. We spoke to him in 2011. This was after he was first arrested and ordered jailed by a military court, then briefly released before being imprisoned again. He described the inhumane conditions he faced in prison.

ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: The first five days I was put in a pretty bad prison. Now, all prisons — well, all prisons in the world are bad, like, you know, losing your freedom is quite tough, but also all prisons in Egypt are in very poor conditions. And so, even if they don’t torture you, just spending one night there is already, you know, a bit too much. But I was in a particularly bad prison, and they made sure to put me in a particularly bad cell and to deny me, you know, any comfort. So, for instance, I was in a complete darkness for five days. It was very filthy and very crowded. It was nine of us in a two-by-three-meter cell, having no access to water or toilet except 10 minutes per day.

You know, so, basically, they knew they couldn’t torture me, because of the solidarity and the media attention, so they just made sure to try and use every other measure to, you know, put me at discomfort or at a psychological pressure. Now, every other person who was arrested in the Maspero incident were tortured severely. And torture is still very systematic in — you know, in police stations and in prisons and so on. But they knew that they couldn’t torture me.

AMY GOODMAN: Alaa Abd El-Fattah, speaking to us in 2011 soon after the uprising in Tahrir. We’ll be broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Egypt. Tune in for that. And also tune in on November 8th for our three-hour election night special. We’ll be broadcasting live starting at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up, we will look at the possibility of negotiation and ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia. Stay with us.

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