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Alaa Abdel-Fattah: Leaders raise case of jailed activist with Egypt's president at COP27

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By AFP
Protesters gather near the British embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut to demand the release of jailed British-Egyptian political dissident Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Nov. 7, 2022.
Protesters gather near the British embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut to demand the release of jailed British-Egyptian political dissident Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Nov. 7, 2022.   -   Copyright  ANWAR AMRO / AFP   -  

Egypt's most notorious political prisoner, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is on hunger strike and has only a few days to live according to his supporters, was discussed by leaders gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh for the COP27.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had to answer successively to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron about the British-Egyptian prisoner, an icon of the 2011 revolution in Egypt.

Sunak had warned that Alaa Abdel-Fattah is "a priority" for London. On Monday evening, after meeting the Egyptian president, he said he "hoped to see his case resolved as soon as possible" and pledged to continue to "press for progress", according to a Downing Street spokesman.

Macron said President al-Sisi was "committed" to ensuring that Alaa Abdel-Fattah's health "is preserved" and hoped that "the next few weeks and months will bring results".

The Egyptian president's spokesman merely mentioned these talks without revealing their content.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, COP27 president-designate, assured CNBC that Alaa Abdel-Fattah "is receiving all the necessary care in prison".

All these claims are rejected by those close to Abdel-Fattah, including his sister Sanaa Seif, who is present in Sharm el-Sheikh where she has been meeting with officials and giving interviews.

Since April 2, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the bête noire of President al-Sisi, has been drinking only a glass of tea and a spoonful of honey a day in his prison in Wadi al-Natroun, northwest of Cairo.

Incarcerated several times since 2006, he stopped eating last Tuesday and drinking altogether on Sunday as COP27 opened in Sharm el-Sheikh, on the other side of the country.

On Monday, three Egyptian journalists announced that they were starting a hunger strike to demand his release.

"We stop feeding now because Alaa Abdel Fattah is in danger of death," Mona Selim told AFP during a sit-in in Cairo with Eman Ouf and Racha Azab.

They are demanding "the release of all prisoners of conscience", who number more than 60,000 in Egypt, according to NGOs.

Activists at the COP27 are multiplying posts under the keyword #FreeAlaa on social networks and several civil society speakers ended their speeches with the phrase "You have not yet been defeated", the title of the book by Alaa Abdel-Fattah.

"There is not much time left, at best 72 hours, to free Alaa Abdel Fattah. If (the Egyptian authorities) don't do it, this death will be in all the discussions at COP27," warned Amnesty International's secretary general, Agnès Callamard, on Sunday.

In Beirut, a hundred people demonstrated in front of the British embassy on Monday.

"He has embodied the Arab world's struggle against authoritarian regimes for the past 12 years," said journalist and activist Diana Moukalled, who held up a black and white portrait of the activist accompanied by the keyword #FreeAlaa.

Abdel-Fattah, an engineer by training and a pro-democracy blogger, who was for years part of all the revolts in Egypt, was sentenced at the end of 2021 to five years in prison for "spreading false information".

He was a leading figure in the Kefaya political movement in the 2000s, then in the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, in the huge marches against the Islamist Mohamed Morsi two years later and finally in the demonstrations against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Since his imprisonment, he has become "the symbol of the regime's arbitrariness", says Agnès Callamard.

According to Amnesty, since Egypt reactivated its Presidential Pardons Commission in April, 766 prisoners of conscience have been released.

But 1,540 others have returned to prison, including Sherif al-Roubi, a leftist figure who was re-incarcerated after receiving the pardon, the NGO notes.

"The president had announced an initiative that was supposed to put an end to imprisonment for opinion, but in reality, the opposite is true," said journalist Mona Selim.

Although its constitution guarantees press freedom, Egypt has around 30 journalists in prison. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Cairo is 168th out of 180 in the 2022 press freedom index.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah was first imprisoned in 2006, under Hosni Mubarak. He returned under Marshal Mohammed Tantaoui, the country's de facto leader between 2011 and 2012, under Morsi and then under President al-Sisi since 2019.

It was from his cell that he became a British citizen, in the middle of a hunger strike, as his mother Laila Soueif was born in London.