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Bill McKibben: Egypt U.N. Climate Summit Must Demand Freedom for Jailed Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah

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Image Credit: Twitter: @FreedomForAlaa (photo right)

We speak with climate author and activist Bill McKibben, who is pushing for the climate movement to demand the release of Egyptian prisoner and human rights activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah ahead of the next U.N. climate conference, which will be hosted in Egypt. McKibben says releasing El-Fattah to the U.K., which has agreed to house him, would be “the easiest of gestures” by Egypt, whose authoritarian leader met Saturday with President Biden. “The spread of authoritarian governments around the world is one of the things that’s making it difficult to deal with the existential challenge that climate change [presents],” says McKibben.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As President Biden faced widespread criticism over his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Biden met another leader accused of severe human rights violations: the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It was the first encounter between Biden and el-Sisi. The two heads of state reaffirmed their shared commitment of a strong partnership between the United States and Egypt, and Biden reiterated that the U.S. will continue its military support in Egypt. El-Sisi thanked Biden for the military weapons and security assistance provided by the U.S. government.

Their meeting came as The New York Times published a harrowing investigation into el-Sisi’s violent crackdown on government critics, journalists and human rights advocates, and el-Sisi’s regime’s mass detention of thousands who dissent. In an analysis of handwritten court logs kept by volunteer defense lawyers, the Times found that in just six months, from September 2020 to February 2021, there were about 4,500 people held in pretrial detention in Egypt, though the figure is likely much higher. Meanwhile, human rights groups estimate Egypt currently detains some 60,000 political prisoners, including people in pretrial detention and those who’ve been tried and sentenced, many accused of terrorism without evidence.

One of the most high-profile political prisoners is 40-year-old human rights advocate and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who rose to prominence with Egypt’s 2011 uprising, is serving a five-year prison sentence, convicted of, quote, “undermining national security.” El-Fattah has been imprisoned several times for most of the past decade over his activism. In 2014, Democracy Now! spoke to him in Cairo when he had been released on bail after nearly four months in prison.

ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: And it’s not just about me. I mean, there’s been activists in Alexandria who have been sentenced for five years, I think — no, two years. Two years. And the verdict was confirmed in the appeals process. There’s been several student groups that have been sentenced, anything from one year to five. These have been common. There’s also a couple of cases where students have been sentenced with crazy, like 14 years and 17 years and 11 years and so on. So, they are on a sentencing frenzy. I mean, this is not just about me. And it’s almost as if it’s a war on a whole generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s family has said he believes he won’t come out of prison alive. He has been on a hunger strike for well over 100 days, since April, protesting his captivity and the horrific conditions faced by political prisoners in Egypt, including torture.

In just a few months in November, Egypt is scheduled to host the U.N. climate summit, COP27, in the coastal resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. This comes as calls are mounting for Egyptian President el-Sisi’s government to release El-Fattah and other political prisoners.

We’re joined now by the environmentalist and climate activist Bill McKibben. He’s written a new piece for The New Yorker headlined “If Egypt Won’t Free Alaa Abd El-Fattah, It Had Better Brace for an Angry Climate Conference.” He’s author, educator, founder of the organization Third Act, which organizes people over 60 years old for progressive change, and one of the founders of His new book, just out, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened.

Bill McKibben, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Alaa and what’s happening right now in Egypt and why you, as an environmentalist, have taken on, championed his case as he wastes away in an Egyptian prison on a hunger strike for more than 100 days.

BILL McKIBBEN: One, the spread of authoritarian governments around the world is one of the things that’s making it difficult to deal with the existential challenge that climate change faces. And, two, the climate movement, Amy, may not be strong enough to — it certainly isn’t strong enough in the short term to put an end to global warming, but over two weeks in Egypt next November, it’s going to be strong enough to at least put the spotlight on the Egyptian government, if they can’t even bring themselves to release this one heroic guy, who’s now half-dead from being on hunger strike and who’s done nothing more than write and blog for the last 15 years. So, this one seems like a no-brainer. Civil society will be — there will be thousands of activists there in Egypt for the COP from all over the world. We don’t have to worry in the same way that Egyptians do about protesting their government. Abd El-Fattah’s name will be on people’s lips. His face will be on people’s T-shirts. It will be a big deal if the government doesn’t do the minimally right thing and soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any word coming out of this summit that Biden raised this with Sisi, raised the issue of Alaa?

BILL McKIBBEN: I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: You write at the beginning of your piece, “Alaa Abd El-Fattah may not identify as an environmentalist, but he understands that, absent a responsive government, it’s hard to achieve any change in a society’s status quo.” Explain.

BILL McKIBBEN: Amy, you and I were both at Paris for the historic climate talks. When I was in Glasgow last November — you were there again — it struck me how much had changed since Paris. We had country after country where really we can’t work anymore: Bolsonaro’s Brazil; Erdogan’s Turkey; I mean, it’s not like Russia and China were much — you know, very free back in 2015, but they’ve gotten much worse since; Modi’s India. As civil society — as the room for civil society to work contracts, it gets harder and harder to put the pressure on the fossil fuel industry for change, because fossil fuel and autocrats go together all too neatly.

AMY GOODMAN: His mother, Alaa’s mother, is Egyptian but was born in London, and so he just became a British citizen, as well. The family is pleading with the government to release him to live in Britain, if they won’t allow him to live freely in Egypt, Bill.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, Egypt actually has an easy out in this case. The guy is a British citizen. The Brits were the host of the last climate conference in Glasgow. So, it’s the easiest of gestures to do the right thing. And it won’t get everybody else out of jail in Egypt, but one at a time, one point at a time, we’ll do the best we can.

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