What happened when Sanaa Seif tried to shame the authorities into releasing her brother?
When I finally tracked down Sanaa Seif at COP27, she had just blanked an old friend in the corridor. This was becoming a reflex, she explained, as she pulled me into a breathless dash through the conference centre hosting the climate talks, sending papers, pastry crumbs and apologies tumbling in our wake. “A schoolmate I haven’t seen for many years waved across the room at me during breakfast,” she said, swerving to avoid what appeared to be the entire Malian national delegation heading the other way. “I just ignored it. I don’t want to put anyone else in danger.”
Seif, 28, is a whirlwind blowing through this year’s United Nations climate summit on a desperate and possibly reckless mission to save her brother. Alaa Abd el-Fattah is a 40-year-old British-Egyptian writer, one of an estimated 65,000 political prisoners languishing in Egypt’s jails. According to official records, his crime was “spreading false news” by sharing a single Facebook post about a prisoner who died in custody in 2019. His real guilt, in the eyes of Egypt’s dictatorship, was to assert that the Egyptian people should determine their own future and live free from state violence. He has been in prison for most of the nine years since Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, now president, seized power in 2013.
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Sisi hoped that drawing world leaders to the climate talks at Sharm el-Sheikh would entrench his domestic authority and boost his international stature. But it has also provided Abd el-Fattah with a unique chance to amplify his cause. In protest at his prison conditions, he began a partial hunger strike in April, consuming only 100 calories a day. In early November he said he would stop drinking water.
In this disorientating bubble in the Sinai desert, public conversations have been conducted in the past two weeks that had not been heard in Egypt for years
“I understand his decision, and I’m proud of it,” Seif told me at the time. Back then she was crouched in the doorway of a flimsy tent pitched opposite the Foreign Office in London in the hope of compelling British officials to put pressure on Egypt. “He can’t control his destiny. But at least he can choose a time for his death that causes the biggest possible headache for the regime.”
A week later, in Sharm el-Sheikh, she was drawing attention from television cameras, well-wishers, awkward diplomats and plain-clothed security goons. “F---,” she whispered, as we attempted to move from one bewildering, hangar-sized event space to another, pursued by snapping phone cameras. “Before I came out here, when we were threatening to ruin Sisi’s big moment if Alaa wasn’t released, I sort of thought we were bluffing. Now, I’m scared.”
The decision to hold COP27 in Egypt put the climate movement in a tricky position. Despite its many flaws — the back-room jockeying and implausible promises — COP is the one environmental forum in which every government has a voice, at least theoretically. But as host, the Sisi regime had the opportunity to greenwash its record on fossil fuels — oil and gas production is one of the only consistently growing sectors of its debt-laden economy — and its human-rights abuses. (Neither the Egyptian government nor Hill+Knowlton, the Pr company hired by the Egyptian government for COP27, responded to requests for comment by 1843 magazine.)
In the run-up to the summit, debate raged among potential participants about whether the struggle for environmental justice and human rights can ever be separated. According to Hossam Bahgat, one of Egypt’s most prominent human-rights activists, the answer is straightforward: one is impossible without the other. He and other critics accuse the Egyptian state of pushing ahead with giant energy projects that harm the environment in places like El Dabaa and Idku. Members of these communities have become scared to contact Bahgat and his colleagues: “Visits from us are followed by visits by security, by intimidation and harassment,” he said.
Bahgat has faced trumped-up legal charges, leading him to suffer from a travel ban and the freezing of his assets for more than six years. But he disagreed with human-rights campaigners who called for a boycott of UN conferences staged in autocratic states. In this disorientating bubble in the Sinai desert, he said, public conversations have been conducted in the past two weeks that had not been heard in Egypt for years.
“Forgive the bluntness of the question,” said the interviewer, “but it seems as if your brother is willing to die?”
Some environmentalists privately expressed concern that controversy and press attention over Abd el-Fattah was distracting attention from greater priorities. “189m people per year in the global south are being battered by extreme weather and need loss-and-damage finance to survive,” one said to me. “That’s a human-rights issue, too.” Seif’s goal, one that preoccupied her as much as any other, was to illuminate the victims of ecological catastrophe and state oppression across the world, rather than draw the spotlight from them. As she campaigned, news filtered through Sharm el-Sheikh of new arrests in Alexandria, Cairo and other cities. Unable to crack down at COP, Sisi’s dictatorship was lashing out elsewhere.
Egypt’s surveillance apparatus has collided with the bureaucratic formalities of a UN jamboree. Accredited attendees were turned away at the airport without explanation; the official conference mobile app was exposed as a “cyberweapon” that provided the Egyptian authorities with access to people’s private data; food and drink ran out on the first day, causing delegates to wander around in a stupor under the desert sun. At one point, rivers of sewage ran down one of the main conference thoroughfares, pooling near the exit gate.
Seif herself has been imprisoned three times for her activism, and has witnessed other detainees being tortured. (In 2017 Human Rights Watch, an NGO, concluded that the scale of state violence in Egypt may amount to a crime against humanity.) During her latest and most prolonged spell behind bars, from June 2020 to last December, she began her evolution from someone who was “just getting angry and writing things on Facebook” into a strategic campaigner. She reckons the Egyptian authorities saw her as the weakest link in a family of activists. She came out of jail prepared to prove them wrong.
In her week at COP27, Seif tried to take advantage of every opportunity to push the regime. I watched as a British television-news channel manoeuvred her into a chair in an outdoor café for her seventh interview in two days, with many more ahead. “Forgive the bluntness of the question,” said the interviewer, “but it seems as if your brother is willing to die?” Seif looked down and stiffened for a second, almost imperceptibly. Then she raised her eyes, took a quiet breath, and carried on.
At COP27, every minute of Seif’s time was allocated to meetings and microphones, each passing hour another grim marker in her brother’s countdown. “You’re such a little element in this big equation,” she told me, her fingers trembling slightly as she rolled a cigarette from a battered tobacco pouch. “You have to find a way to hack the insanity.”
“I believe we should all concentrate on the task in hand,” Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, said at the conference. But as the plight of Abd el-Fattah generated more headlines, the Egyptian government’s control of the narrative waned.
Halfway through the third day of the event, Seif addressed a press conference on climate justice. An Egyptian pro-government parliamentarian stood up to accuse Abd el-Fattah of being a criminal, demanding to know whether Seif was “inciting foreign countries to put pressure on Egypt”. Seif sat near-motionless on stage as this furious, middle-aged man jabbed a finger at her, refusing to relinquish the microphone, then scuffled with UN security guards. “You are on Egyptian land,” he could be heard yelling as he was forcefully removed from the hall. Footage of the incident went viral.
“You are on Egyptian land,” he could be heard yelling as he was forcefully removed from the hall
“All that was going through my head was ‘They are messing up, stay calm, don’t screw this’,” Seif told me afterwards. “I’ve never felt so exposed,” she confessed later that evening as she headed to her next event. So many camera crews had gathered that extra floor-space had to be fenced off to accommodate them.
Seif watched her brother’s cause taken up around the globe, with calls for Abd el-Fattah’s freedom resounding in football grounds in London and public squares in Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels. That gave her as much satisfaction as statements by Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, and other politicians. (Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, raised Abd el-Fattah’s plight directly with Sisi, though critics said his intervention was inadequate. “Our priority is Mr el-Fattah’s welfare and securing his immediate release,” the Foreign Office told 1843 magazine.)
The phrase, “We Have Not Yet Been Defeated” became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated”. One man’s struggle seemed to stand for that of the planet.
The pressure on Seif to keep campaigning while staying safe had taken its toll. The day after her confrontation with the Egyptian parliamentarian, leaked photographs posted on social media appeared to show zoomed-in messages relating to Abd el-Fattah on the phones of conference attendees. Their origin was unclear, but many at COP27 believed they were released to intimidate Seif’s campaign. That afternoon an Egyptian “protest” in solidarity with the parliamentarian (who had himself posted the photos on his Facebook page) was organised inside COP. Seif had already changed her accommodation plans once since arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh, conscious that UN protection extended only to the conference centre. Now there was frantic talk of whether to move again. “I just want to curl up on the grass and close my eyes,” she confided.
There was little time for that, with officials from different governments pulling her aside for a “quiet chat” and passers-by stopping her for selfies. The sprawl of cavernous auditoriums filled with rows of national pavilions was a geopolitical maze for Seif, whose every move was fraught with risk as well as potential reward. She perched on some steps to read through her notes, only to realise that she was sitting under the awning of Saudi Arabia’s pavilion, erected by a close ally of Sisi.
Differentiating between would-be friends and foes wasn’t always simple. As Seif paused for breath in the shade of an artificial palm tree, an influential figure from Egypt’s pro-regime state-television network approached with a nervous smile. “I shouldn’t do this,” he said, before enveloping her in a hug. That night, it emerged that a legal complaint against her had been submitted, accusing her of “spreading false news”, the same charge levelled against her brother.
The campaign to save Abd el-Fattah had become freighted with a symbolism that went far beyond a single man, and beyond Egypt’s borders too. Four days after he had last taken water, there was still no proof that he was still alive, and no access to his jail cell for British officials or his lawyer. Rumours swirled: he was about to be released; he had been rushed to the hospital; he was already dead. “There are some open channels into the darkness,” Seif acknowledged. “But they are mostly silent.”
Rumours swirled: he was about to be released; he had been rushed to the hospital; he was already dead
During the 93rd hour of the water strike, as Seif stood amid a rally of climate campaigners, news finally arrived. Abd el-Fattah was still alive, but was being subjected to “medical interventions” by the prison authorities, a euphemism for force-feeding. Seif’s mouth tightened as she listened to her sister relay the update by phone. Then she slipped her mobile back in her pocket, steadied herself and strode towards the next meeting.
Even as she pleaded, Seif told fawning European leaders that Egypt’s human-rights crisis was made in their own capitals as much as in Cairo. She told earnest ministerial underlings that their bosses were responsible for Abd el-Fattah’s incarceration.
At the time of writing, Abd el-Fattah remains in prison. On November 15th, three days before the climate talks came to a close, Egypt’s government released a letter, purportedly written by Abd el-Fattah, announcing the end of his hunger strike. This individual has become an irrepressible antagonist to the leaders of a brittle dictatorship for whom memories of the revolution in 2011, which temporarily dislodged them, remain traumatic, and a figurehead for many people across the planet currently fighting for a future unencumbered by the entwined threats of climate breakdown and state violence. “I am the poison, I am the remedy,” Abd el-Fattah wrote in 2019. “I am the medicine, I am the cause.”