The story of one man, fighting to his last breath, to reveal the darkness that lies behind this year’s UN Climate Change Conference
Why this story?
Climate change is an existential crisis, one that requires an unprecedented scale of global diplomacy to resolve. It is only through a united effort that the world will even begin to tackle the problems facing us and work out a path through.
Each year, world leaders meet for the Climate Change Conference to discuss what action the world can agree on. This year, they are meeting in a resort city on the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. With African countries facing the worst effects of climate change, it makes sense. But there is another side to this. Egypt’s human rights record under its current leader, President Sisi, is worrying. There are violent crackdowns, repressions and no freedom for protest. By providing them with a platform to host the biggest act of diplomacy in the calendar, are we allowing Egypt to greenwash its reputation? Does the need for solutions to climate change trump all other concerns? And, in fact, is it even possible to achieve climate targets without a strong track record on human rights? Through the story of a dual-national Alaa Abd El-Fattah, we look at the uneasy pact the world is making with itself. Matt Russell, producer
Sanaa Seif: I was speechless when I saw him.
Mona: I was very shocked because he looked so frail and I couldn’t move past it
Sanaa: I fixed on his eyes because his eyes looked really strange. They looked sunken and just looked unreal…
Mona: And I kept on looking at him and I told him, Alaa, your body, you’ve lost so much weight. You are not there.
Ruth Michaelson, narrating: Alaa Abd El-Fattah is in prison.
Mona: Today is Day 184 of his hunger strike.
Omar: Today is Day 200 of his hunger strike.
Sanaa: Today is Day 213 Of his hunger strike
Ruth, narrating: And time is running out.
Sanaa: You don’t have to ignore us because you think this is inevitable. He’s just gonna die.
Ruth, narrating: Alaa is locked away inside Wadi Al Natrun, a notorious prison in the Egyptian desert. His charges say he’s a threat to national security. But his only crime, if you can call it that, is sharing a social media post about torture.
He’s become one of the Middle East’s best known political prisoners. A writer, technologist, a symbol of protest – not just in Egypt but around the world.
Naomi Klein: He does mean a lot to me. I think about his case every day, multiple times a day. And I think just as a writer, he means a lot to me.
Ruth, narrating: Alaa’s story is intertwined with Egypt’s recent history, a story of mass uprisings, widespread human rights abuses and violent crackdowns.
Naomi Klein: I had been following his case since his first arrest, in the midst of the revolution.
Ruth, narrating: A story of a family targeted by their own government for years for daring to speak out against these abuses.
As Alaa refuses food and even water inside his desert prison cell, hundreds of miles away the eyes of the world are focused on the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh. There, Egypt is playing host to one of the biggest diplomatic events in the world: Cop27, the United Nations’ annual climate conference attended by world leaders.
Mona: Just as it is about to start, Alaa is escalating his strike to include water, he is going to stop drinking water. In reality, this means that Allah has decided that the final chapter of our very long… story is finally here.
Ruth, narrating: The Egyptian authorities want to keep the global spotlight on this event, and for the international delegations arriving in Sharm el Sheikh to ignore Egypt’s human rights record. For some, the existential crisis of climate change trumps all; for others, this represents a moment for Egypt to greenwash its reputation as the world’s media descends.
I’m Ruth Michaelson. This is the Slow Newscast from Tortoise. This week: Egypt’s Bad Cop. The story of Alaa Abd El-Fattah – a British citizen – who is fighting to his last breath to highlight Egypt’s human rights abuses. All while the country’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, basks in the reflected glory of hosting a prized diplomatic meeting.
I lived and reported in Egypt for almost six years, until the government forced me out because of my reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic. I continue to report on Egypt, and I’ve continued to keep a close eye on what’s happening to Alaa.
Most people who visit Egypt will thankfully never have to make the journey to Wadi Al Natrun prison, which lies in the desert two hours northwest of Cairo.
It was once nicknamed “the Valley of Hell.” It’s since been refurbished and enlarged to a sprawling circular complex, where the buildings fan out like spokes on a wheel.
Sanaa: They call it the new American-style prison. There’s a lot of PR on it. And there was like a TV commercial about how lovely this prison is. And so it looks like, it looks like the, and it’s a big, big building, but it’s like there is a garden outside and, and things like that…
Ruth, narrating: Alaa has been locked up there since May this year.
Before that he was imprisoned in Cairo where the authorities kept him isolated with little ventilation, no electricity and almost no natural light. He was beaten when he arrived.
It was there that he began his hunger strike, demanding better conditions and freedom for the thousands of political prisoners like him.
And it got results, to an extent. The move meant he is now able to sleep on a mattress and has access to books.
But he also has to spend every day in a cell where the overhead fluorescent lights never turn off and cameras record his every move. He shivers under a fan that runs even in the winter months. And he is so isolated that he can only speak to his guards via an intercom. His family can visit him for twenty minutes each month, where they speak to him through a clear partition.
So Alaa perseveres with the hunger strike. In fact, he’s now intensifying it.
Sanaa: Alaa is not bluffing. He’s fueled by hope to be reunited with us and rage at the nine year stalling from his lifeI understand his decision. I’m scared for him, but I agree with his decision. There is no reason to endure prison… But Allah has the agency to at least choose the timeline for his death and to choose to have his funeral in the worst PR moment for Sisi.
Ruth, narrating: Egypt’s dismal record on human rights goes back decades. And Alaa’s own story shows this better than most. He was first arrested in 2006 when Egypt was ruled by autocrat Hosni Mubarak. He’s been imprisoned under almost every president since.
Sanaa: Alaa is my older brother. But I am also a human-rights activist who has been imprisoned several times in Egypt. And so yeah, that’s me. I’m the youngest in general, but the age difference between me and Alaa is 13 years. So to me Alaa is not… like we have this relationship where like, when I grew up, we are more of peers, but he’s also kind of a mentor figure, if you like friend and also father figure because of the age difference.
Ruth, narrating: That’s Sanaa Seif, Alaa’s younger sister. and an activist and filmmaker herself. Alaa and Sanaa are from a family that has never shied away from speaking up about injustice.
Sanaa: If you meet Alaa the first thing you’ll think of is he’s a geek. He’s like such a geek, you know. It’s part of his activism – it’s about about providing tools, providing platforms to empower people to just speak out their minds or things like that.
Ruth, narrating: Their father was a famous human rights lawyer. Alaa in particular has worked to try and inspire others towards change. This ability to inspire meant his personal story collided with history.
As millions of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 to demand the downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Alaa was in South Africa. He spent his days calling friends and family in Egypt to post news of the revolution for the world to read on his blog. Alaa is the kind of thinker that, for many, gave the revolution its voice.
And soon, as the protests grew, he decided to return to Cairo.
Sanaa: He was inspired and he just… he booked the first plane ticket he could find, and he came back. So the, the uprising started on the 25 of January, Alaa came back in February. And because of his prominence before that, he became a symbol in that movement.
Ruth, narrating: Sanaa and Alaa are reunited in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution.
Sanaa: So, then I saw him in the square and I was like, ‘You’re back’. He said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m back for good’. Yeah, we were very naive and inspired then.
Ruth, narrating: And as the demonstrations grew more powerful, Alaa became a figurehead for the 2011 protest movement. Writing in the country’s largest state newspaper, one Egyptian journalist even said that Alaa’s name was “synonymous with the revolution.”
Eighteen days of protests ultimately ended Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power, but Alaa knew the battle for the country’s future had only just begun. Egypt’s military remained powerful, and it had him in its crosshairs. And it wasn’t long before he got arrested for the second time.
The authorities accused him of inciting violence against the military, after he wrote an article about a protest in which the army killed 27 people and injured hundreds more.
For many, he remains a symbol of hope – of possibility. His name rung out as thousands marched through the streets of Cairo to demand his freedom. This hope that Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, could fully transform into a democracy was short-lived. In the summer of 2013, former defence minister, General Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi had swept to power in a coup. The country returned to military rule.
Soon afterwards, security forces raided Alaa’s home in the middle of the night and detained him. He is imprisoned for a third time, accused of breaking a new law that essentially banned protest. While in prison, the situation outside worsens. Sisi targets his political opponents, arrests journalists and shuts down any independent groups.
A 67-year-old former general who rose up through the country’s fearsome security services, Sisi is known for his hatred of politics and his ruthless attitude towards dissent. Even citizens who protested against fare hikes on the Cairo metro, or wrote comments critical of the government on Facebook were detained in raids by security forces, and sentenced to years in detention. This is far from the democracy Alaa fought for back in 2011.
Sanaa, at this point, feared the worst for Alaa.
Sanaa: The messages we got from people who were close to the regime, like really close, who talked to Sisi, personally about Alaa… several times people came back saying he’s very angryHe doesn’t want to hear those names. He’s personal about those names. And so… for me… that was sinking in. And so I was… starting to realise how they’re stubborn about Alaa. And so I wasn’t like… I didn’t expect that he would be out, honestly. I was like, they will just do something to keep him in prison.
Ruth, narrating: Alaa finally left prison in March 2019, but the terms of his parole meant he was forced to sleep every night on the floor of his local police station. Later that year, a spate of anti-corruption protests, this time against Sisi, broke out across Egypt.
Alaa had no involvement in them, but it was too late. Tainted by association with the protests in 2011, he was arrested and held without charge for two years. He was sentenced to another five years in prison last year. This time he was accused of spreading “false news,” for sharing a social media post about torture.
Sanaa: I’m not sure why it is personal. Like, years of my life were wasted in trying to figure out why would Abdel Fattah El-Sisi even know about my brother’s existence? Imagine being personal about him
Ruth, narrating: His sister, Sanaa was in prison too. Plainclothes security agents had snatched her from the street. She and her family had gone to complain to the authorities that they’d been assaulted outside the prison where Alaa was held.
Sanaa was charged with spreading “false news,” and “inciting terrorism.” And here’s where things were supposed to change for Alaa: the British government came in. Both Sanaa and Alaa gained British citizenship from inside prison late last year, through their mother who was born in London.
Sanaa says they had been looking for a way out even before they were arrested because of the messages they were getting from the Egyptian authorities. These were not subtle threats…
Sanaa: There was no longer empty promises of ‘if you just wait for…’ it was just consistent. That’s it. He going to… the plan is for him to remain in prison.
Even the messages that were being sent to me were like: leave the country because this is a sinking ship. You just have to forget about your family. It’s not gonna happen. So we were exploring every single option and that’s when we started seeing like, can we do something about my mum’s citizenship? Can she complain? Especially because she was beaten up.
Ruth, narraing: With both Sanaa and Alaa in prison, their sister Mona figured out the paperwork needed to issue their passports. Sanaa signed hers from a cage inside a prison courtroom. She was granted a consular visit and was later able to leave the country and move to London.
But the situation for Alaa is completely different. Egypt has prevented British officials from visiting him in prison for an entire year. This has also spurred Alaa’s hunger strike: One of his demands is a consular visit from British officials.
And so this is how we come – at the time of this recording – to day 216 of Alaa’s hunger strike. He has chosen to accelerate things, to remove all calories
Mona: I understand that he has tried as much as possible to endure the nightmare he was forced to live.
Ruth, narrating: This is Mona, Alaa’s other sister.
Mona: And nine years is more than enough for any human – more than enough. So with that decision, with Alaa’s decision, that means that probably before Cop27 ends in Egypt – unless something drastic changed in the way the Egyptian government and the UK government are dealing with Alex case – he will die in prison.
Ruth, narrating: There are thousands of prisoners currently locked up across Egypt on charges just as fabricated as Alaa’s.
But in many ways Alaa is different. He now has dual nationality– and having another government to advocate for you is supposed to change things. It’s meant to mean something. Dual nationals from America and from France have been freed from Egyptian prison in recent years.
Yet as the world turns its attention to Egypt and focuses on climate diplomacy, a citizen of last year’s host country lies locked away in the new host country.
The foreign office says it has raised Alaa’s case at the highest levels of the Egyptian government. They told us they are “working very hard to secure his release.” But outwardly, nothing has changed.
Sanaa says this quiet, backroom style of diplomacy has allowed the Egyptian government to call the shots, and that not enough has been done to free her brother.
Sanaa: We’re not, so technically we are – yes, we are British citizens. But I do sense it and I know it and I feel it that the British government’s not dealing with Alaa as a British citizen per se. He’s like a half-British citizen, maybe. It’s a new citizenship. He’s not, like… if Alaa was a different profile, if we were born here, maybe if we were white, it would’ve been different.
But I think that’s a stupid way to think because this is going to be a precedent and it is going to be precedent with a British citizen if Alaa dies in prison, if they allow this to happen. No matter how the authorities in the UK now feel like that he’s not entirely that British. It is a precedent and it is going to create precedent for others.
Ruth, narrating: The British authorities’ unwillingness to push for Alaa’s freedom is made even more frustrating by the cooperation that’s happening elsewhere.
Britain is one of Egypt’s largest private business partners, and the development arm of the foreign office recently declared it would fund $100 million worth of projects in Egypt.
Alaa recently told his family that he expects to die in prison. His decision to stop drinking water means it could happen soon. But Sanaa says she is refusing to give up. She’s hoping to appeal to the foreign secretary, James Cleverly…
Ruth: If you could get James Cleverly to understand one thing about that situation, what would it be?
Sanaa: It’s doable. I would explain to him that it’s doable. You don’t have to ignore us because you think this is inevitable – ‘he’s just gonna die’. It’s doable. It’s simple. It’s not gonna ruin your relationship with Egypt. It’s only gonna do good. Just don’t be so weak about it.
Ruth, narrating: On the same day that Alaa reached 200 days on hunger strike, Sanaa began a sit-in outside the foreign office.
Her protest is designed to force James Cleverly to pay attention.
She is sleeping in a tent, surrounded by pictures of Alaa and his son Khaled, with a sign that reads: “James Cleverly, bring my brother home.”
Sanaa: I feel like I need to be doing this and I’m really angry that there hasn’t been any progress and so I’m happy I’m doing something about it.
We keep getting assurances that everybody’s onboard but I don’t see anything happening. I don’t care how they go about it, I care about having my brother safe, but obviously it hasn’t been working.
Ruth, narrating: Last October, US climate envoy John Kerry announced that Egypt had been selected as Africa’s nominee to host the next Cop. It wasn’t clear who the other nominees were, or if there were other nominees.
The news reached Sanaa in prison.
Sanaa: I heard it on the radio by state media, Egyptian state media. So I heard it from the government’s propaganda. So it was scary… Like, so the world has its attention on Egypt and now they know because we are serious. And thanks to our president everybody realises the new republic and how President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is building a beautiful new Egypt and things like that.
Ruth, narrating: This week, diplomats, climate negotiators, world leaders and activists will gather in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, to try and shape a global response to the climate crisis. Sanaa will join them, as an observer.
This conference is happening at a crucial moment for Egypt, and for the world.
African nations are some of the most vulnerable to climate impacts, despite contributing just 3.4 per cent of yearly global emissions. And so, in some ways, Egypt hosting is fitting.
But there are also plenty of questions about what it means to hold essential negotiations in a military dictatorship that bans protest and jails dissidents like Alaa.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg says she won’t attend Cop27 because the space for civil society is so limited in Egypt. She even visited Sanaa’s sit-in outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall.
Her choice is clear: human rights should not be forgotten in pursuit of preventing a climate disaster.
We spoke to a number of officials involved in previous Cops.
They told us that Egypt was chosen in a nomination process among African countries. They said there were few countries on the continent who were willing or able to host thousands of delegates.
There was some concern about human rights. But the officials we spoke to were more worried about whether Egypt would actually do an effective job of negotiating essential emission cuts. Would they instead prioritise pushing for financial assistance to cover the cost of climate disasters?
Alok Sharma, the UK’s Cop26 president, who will be in Sharm el Sheikh, told us that he had personally raised concerns about the treatment of protesters…
Alok Sharma: Yeah, so, I mean I actually went to Egypt in January, effectively straight after Cop26, and I sat down and had a very detailed discussion with my counterpart, the cop president-designate Sameh Shoukry, also the foreign minister for Egypt.
And we went through, you know, all the learnings from the UK, and amongst the points I made, I was very clear that actually it’s really vital that civil society has a strong showing at a Cop. We were very keen to ensure that at Cop26 and also that as happens at every cop, there is an ability for civil society, for youth groups to be able to protest.
Ruth, narrating: Our reporting suggests Egypt’s bid to host was accepted from the start. In other words, there was no real process to speak of. No process through which to raise human rights as an issue.
In fact international support for Egypt is pretty clear. Earlier this year, the country received $6.2 million from the European Union and the African Climate Foundation to support them in hosting the conference.
Egypt has promised to allow protests at Cop27. But demonstrators will be in a purpose-built zone out in the desert, well away from where the actual conference is taking place. In an interview with a local TV channel, one Egyptian official described it as “chic.” It’s got restaurants, cafes, and a few palm trees. And, worryingly, protestors will need special permission to enter.
Naomi Klein: Eerything that we have won in the climate movement, and we have not won enough…
Ruth, narrating: Author and professor of climate justice Naomi Klein says Alaa’s case shows us that it’s impossible to separate discussions about climate change and the environment from human rights.
Naomi Klein: We, you know, we are starting to see some, you know, impressive rollouts of renewable energy, we are starting to see some, depending on the country, some significant resources going to frontline communities. We are… certainly our politicians have started to say the right things that we’re in an actual climate emergency – we’ve got a long way to go. But the extent to which we won these things, is intimately connected to our ability to exercise political freedoms.
All of this is connected to our ability to engage in investigative journalism, follow the money, call out the polluters, disrupt, occupy offices. I think that the reason we talk about a Green New Deal, which is something that we’ll hear about a lot at Cop, that got on the map because a bunch of young people who are part of the Sunrise movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s offices and then Alexandria Occasio-Cortez came in and joined them and cheered them on and then introduced a piece of legislation that was not in line with what her party stood for but that changed the whole debate in the US presidential election.
Everything we do in the climate movement that has any impact at all – and forget direct action – just like our communication and our research, all of it is criminalised in Egypt. So to the extent that we have made some gains, it’s because of our political freedoms. It’s not because our politicians wanted to do the right thing. We have had to drag them kicking and screaming.
Ruth, narrating: Klein also hasn’t been shy to call out parts of the climate justice movement who she says aren’t talking about Alaa’s case, fearing what this means for their role in the Cop27 talks.
Naomi: That is, frankly, what allowed the movement to kind of sleepwalk into the situation where a lot of people, I’ll be honest with you, are just now realising that they are about to go into a police state. They didn’t even really… they weren’t following what’s going on in Egypt. And I mean, I think I guess some of it we can understand, you know, we live in a time where a hell of a lot is going on but I don’t know, I don’t think you should be booking hotel rooms without checking into what you’re doing. And that’s why I say I think we’re living through a true failure of international solidarity.
Ruth, narrating: And against this backdrop, the UK and Egypt are talking frequently as the UK hands over the Cop presidency. This means that Alok Sharma’s team regularly speak to the Egyptian foreign ministry, who are not only responsible for Cop, but also oversee Alaa’s case since he’s now a British citizen.
This, naturally, begs the question – are they mentioning Alaa’s case at all? Alok Sharma told us they are…
Alok Sharma: In the case of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, we obviously on a government-to-government basis raise his issue very regularly. We had Gillian Keegan who was a minister in the foreign office until very recently, who during her visit to Egypt, raised this issue directly with the Foreign Minister Shoukry, the foreign secretary as well, James Cleverly, raised this issue with Minister Shoukry at the UN last month. And we take every opportunity to, you know, raise this particular issue. Human rights matters to us and it matters to very many countries.
Ruth, narrating: But this idea of quiet diplomacy, the softly-softly approach that the British government seems to favour, is exactly the kind of thing that Sanaa says is allowing the Egyptian authorities to ignore Alaa’s case.
Ruth: Do you think they understand what the stakes are, that they might, members of this government might be about to fly to a country that has allowed one of their own citizens to die in prison?
Sanaa: I don’t think… No. I don’t think the British government understands the stakes. I think a lot of people don’t understand the stakes. I know that if we get a consular visit, if the embassy team goes in and sees him things would be different because then they will understand the stakes. …
Ruth, narrating: The Egyptian government wants Cop27 to be about discussions of the environment that never touch on human rights, or politics at all. The government wants visitors to ignore their record of cracking down on protests, detaining political prisoners like Alaa, and thousands like him.
Sanaa and the rest of Alaa’s family fear that the British government will let them get away with this.
Alaa’s story matters on a global level. He’s gone from a symbol of hope to the embodiment of Egypt’s crackdown on its own people, and the counter-revolution that’s taken hold since 2013.
He is now more than seven months into his hunger strike. Sanaa recalls exactly what a hunger strike is like, as she once did the same thing in prison.
Sanaa: So at first the body relies on extra fat, and then when the extra fat is gone, the body starts breaking muscles to get energy. After muscles it moves to, like the more important kinds of fat, the fats that keep the body intact that are between organs. Last time I saw Alaa in August, I was really worried from how his eyes looked, because his eyes looked really sunken.
And my understanding is that the fats behind the eye are like the fats around the kidney. And so that means, although he can stand on his feet for a while, he has to kneel on some things.
Ruth, narrating: As much as Sanaa is determined to save her brother, she understands the physical risks he’s facing.
Sanaa: This is clearly a man closer to death than life. I don’t know if… I don’t think there is a way to know, because everybody reacts differently. There isn’t a way without proper medical tests and without attention, to know, like, where exactly is he in the danger level? Like, can he live another month or not? Maybe.
Ruth, narrating: Last June, Alaa passed Mona a message about Cop27:
“Of all the countries to host they chose the one banning protest and sending everyone to prison, which tells me how the world is handling this issue. They’re not interested in finding a joint solution for the climate,” he said.
It’s probably fair to say that Alaa saw this coming.
British government ministers, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, will be in Sharm el Sheikh. There is little evidence so far to suggest that they will use this opportunity to free one of their own citizens currently dying in prison in Egypt while they’re in the country for talks.
It really looks like the Egyptians might get their way. In other words, it might be business as usual.
A week before Cop started, Alaa wrote his family a letter. In it he said on day 214 – after more than seven months of hunger strike – that he would escalate further. He would cut out his 100 calories and drink only water.
And, on 6 November, the day the Cop began, he cut everything out, including water.
The human body can live without water for an estimated three days.
Alaa, at the time of recording, is still alive. Here’s part of what he wrote to his mother, read out by his sister. A reminder of the darkness that lies behind Cop27…
“You know the story, but it’s important that I tell it again. This journey, I’ve walked it while mostly looking behind me, because I could see nothing in front of me except extinction… the abyss.
Gradually with each step, each delay, something reached me. From a visit, from a letter, from a book, an image. From the news of the campaign, news of Khaled, and I started looking towards the future – a future for us as a family.
If one wished for death then a hunger strike would not be a struggle. If one were only holding onto life.
The decision was taken while I am flooded with your love and longing for your company.
Much love until we meet soon.
This episode was reported by me, Ruth Michaelson, Jeevan Vasagar and Barney MacIntyre. The producer was Matt Russell, with sound design by Tim Burchill. The editor was Jasper Corbett.
How we got here
There are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, but Alaa Abd El-Fattah is, in some respects, different to the rest. For one, he is not just an Egyptian citizen, but a UK citizen. And as the UK hands over the Cop presidency – having hosted it last year – to Egypt, through his story, we are able to explore if and how questions of human rights are tackled in climate negotiations.
But more than that, Alaa is taking a stand. He is on hunger strike, now more than seven months in. He’s escalating, no longer consuming any calories or water. There is a real prospect that he might die in an Egyptian prison as the world leaders meet to discuss climate change. Never have the choices our leaders make been set in such contrast. Matt Russell, producer
Join us at Cop27
Tortoise journalists will be hosting ThinkIns live from the New York Times Climate Forward venue in Sharm El-Sheikh this week. Join us online and weigh in with your thoughts on Cop27.