From a small blue tent pitched outside the British Foreign Office, Sanaa al-Seif led a one-woman protest in a bid to secure the release of her brother from an Egyptian prison as the Arab state moves prepares to host world leaders at the COP27 summit.
Like many Egyptians, she hopes the climate conference, which opens in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, will provide a rare opportunity to shine the international spotlight on the country’s dire climate record. of human rights.
“COP is an opportunity when eyes are on Egypt – an opportunity to speak out and breathe a little,” Seif said, surrounded by portraits of her incarcerated brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah. “It could save lives if the spotlight on human rights conditions continues to shine, and if governments include it in their engagement with Egyptian authorities.”
Abdel Fattah is one of the most prominent political prisoners among the thousands held by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime since the former army chief seized power in a coup in 2013. And the attention his case has garnered ahead of COP27 underscores how human rights concerns threaten to cast a shadow over the summit.
The Sanaa protest and the imprisonment of Abdel Fattah has already caught the attention of climate activists – Greta Thunberg was among those who visited his tent sit-in as a show of solidarity.
Amnesty International used a rare press conference in Cairo on Sunday to call for the immediate release of Abdel Fattah, who has been on partial hunger strike for more than 200 days.
“We are running out of time, so if the authorities do not want to end up with a death that they should have – and could have – prevented, they must act now,” said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty. “Twenty-four hours, 48 hours, 72 hours tops, that’s all they have to save a life. If they don’t, this death will [hang over] COP27. It will be in every discussion.
Callamard added that despite releasing some 776 political prisoners this year, Cairo has arrested 1,500 more people since April.
“We won’t be fooled,” she said. “The government cannot grope its way out of the situation. It must go through concrete, visible, authentic actions.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wrote to Sanaa Seif on Saturday to say the British government was “totally committed” to resolving Abdel Fattah’s case and that it “remains a priority”.
The 40-year-old, who was an icon of the 2011 revolution that toppled veteran president Hosni Mubarak, was granted British citizenship last year.
Dozens of British MPs have also raised his case in recent weeks, while 15 Nobel Literature laureates have pushed for leaders to use the summit to address the issue of Egyptian political prisoners.
Some activists say the scrutiny that accompanied COP27 has already caused the regime to at least signal that it is sensitive to outside criticism ahead of the summit.
Hossam Bahgat, the head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent advocacy group based in Cairo, said the government had released around 800 political prisoners this year and had also pledged to establish a political dialogue with the civil society and opposition parties.
The moves signal a tentative shift for a government that is widely described as the country’s most autocratic in decades.
Bahgat said the number of people released from prison was higher than in previous years, but added that “there are still a small number compared to the overall population of political prisoners”.
“What is more worrying is that the new arrests on political charges have not stopped going at the same rate, but it is still a positive signal,” he said.
The problem, he added, was that the positive measures were only “very nascent steps that do not constitute tangible or lasting change”.
For Abdel Fattah’s family, the fear is that time is running out because he has pledged to stop drinking water on Sunday.
“He already looked very fragile when I last saw him in August, so I don’t know how his body can still endure,” Sanaa said.
His brother has spent eight of the last ten years behind bars. The activist is serving a five-year prison sentence after being convicted in December of “spreading false news that undermines national security” for a social media post.
Sanaa, who plans to attend COP27, was only released from prison herself in December after serving 18 months on charges of spreading false news, inciting terrorist crimes and misuse of social media.
She feared that Sisi would use COP27 to show his domestic audience that he is strong and has the support of Western powers; she urged governments to take a tougher stance on rights violations.
“Whether Western politicians agree or not. . . this is how it is presented to us Egyptians and how it is used,” she said. “If Sisi thinks his PR might be ruined a bit, he’ll post some more.”
Despite his government’s human rights record, Sisi has maintained good relations with Western capitals that have traditionally viewed Egypt as an important and vital Arab partner for regional stability.
Former US President Donald Trump once jokingly described Sissi as his “favorite dictator”. The Biden administration has been more outspoken on human rights, but provided Egypt with $1.1 billion in military aid last year, while withholding $225 million on rights grounds .
“We have made very clear to the Egyptian government our concerns about human rights issues in Egypt,” a State Department official said. “In particular, politically motivated arrests are a major challenge in Egypt.
Bahgat said he fears that once COP27 is over, the regime will revert to its old ways, saying the small steps taken “could be very easily reversed… once the eye of the world is no longer on Egypt”.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington