Alaa Abdel Fattah’s hunger strike threatens to overshadow the climate in Egypt at COP27
“You are calling foreign countries here to put pressure on Egypt,” Darwish said in Arabic. “You’re here to get a presidential pardon for a criminal inmate,” he continued.
He interrupted Seif several times as he tried to translate his words into English, shouting as he was escorted out of the building by UN security. “Don’t touch me. You are here in the country of Egypt. I asked him a question. he must answer me.’
His failure may have been an attempt to protect the government’s imprisonment of Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist during the 2011 revolution. Instead, human rights advocates said it set a perfect example for Egypt’s crowd of foreign observers, which officials here tried to hide from COP27 delegates.
Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard, who had visited Abdel Fattah’s mother in Cairo before flying to Sharm el-Sheikh, confronted Darwish in the conference room during his outburst. He later tweeted that his comments “give us all a little sense of the state of fear and silence in the country right now.”
The incident did not surprise Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who was seated just a few rows ahead of Darwish at Tuesday’s event.
“This kind of intimidation and harassment is the least we should try. “The only reason we actually had a press conference is because it happened in a UN controlled area,” he said. “A press conference for Sanaa Seif would have been unthinkable in Cairo or anywhere else if not for COP27 in Egypt.”
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, he added, is “completely staffed by pro-regime parliamentarians who have been handpicked by the security agencies, and this is expected of them.”
Bahgat, who has been repeatedly indicted in Egypt and fined last year for tweets, traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh to receive accreditation from a German non-governmental organization. Every Egyptian human rights group that has applied for accreditation through the government has been rejected, he said, forcing local activists to go through foreign groups.
Amid complaints from COP delegates that some websites were blocked in Egypt, including Human Rights Watch, the ban appeared to be lifted on Tuesday. WhatsApp calls, which were normally blocked here, also started going through.
Activists have long raised concerns about tight security and a lack of transparency at climate conferences. Last year in Glasgow, Scotland, they criticized conference organizers for restricting observers from meeting rooms. But one civil society representative who has been helping fellow activists with security and other rights issues this year said the situation in Egypt is uniquely troubling.
“This is probably the most repressive police in the history of the COP,” said a civil society representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect members of his organization.
There were relatively few demonstrations at the conference venue. And outside the “Blue Zone”, the area of the General Conference controlled by the United Nations, there were none.
For attendees accustomed to seeing violent demonstrations surrounding COP meetings, the silence in Sharm el-Sheikh is deeply disturbing and could be a “tipping point” for civil society’s trust in the COP process, the representative said.
“There is such an intrinsic connection between human rights and climate justice,” said Jean Su, board chair of Climate Action Network International.
“The credibility of COP27 and its outcomes will be at risk if Egypt does not respond to the call for the release of Alaa and other prisoners of conscience,” he said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who is also serving as a COP27 presidential candidate, told CNBC in an interview this week that Abdel Fattah “is receiving all the necessary care in prison.” But Abdel Fattah’s family has expressed concern that Egyptian officials are force-feeding him. His mother, Leila Sueif, a professor at Cairo University, waited outside his prison for two consecutive days, but did not receive proof of life.
In one of the most direct statements by a Western leader on Abdel Fattah’s case, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday called for his release “so that this hunger strike does not end in death.”
He described the situation as “very depressing”.
At an event held in the German pavilion of the conference on Tuesday evening, so many people gathered to see Seif speak alongside human rights groups that the crowd overflowed into the corridors and neighboring pavilions.
As the event drew to a close, half a dozen young protesters rushed the stage.
Wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with the words “#FreeAlaa #FreeThemall”, they started chanting. “Free Alaa! Free Alaa.” Soon members of the crowd joined in. But one woman started shouting, apparently trying to counter the protest.
UN security escorted Saif off the stage.
Among the protesters was Wiktoria Jedroszkowiak, a 21-year-old activist from Warsaw. He said he felt obliged to use his “privilege” “as an EU citizen” to expose human rights abuses in a way that Egyptian citizens could not safely do. “We can’t talk about climate justice without talking about free speech and human rights,” he said.
As he spoke, one of the protest organizers was quick to urge Jedroszkowiak to remove his shirt before leaving the venue. Inside, he was protected by the United Nations. Outside, it was unclear what the Egyptian government might do.
“It’s absurd,” Jedroszkowiak said. “There are only five places at the protest site. We can’t do our job here as climate activists.”
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