The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Egypt, don’t lose sight of the despot and his political prisoners

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Paris on Dec. 7, 2020. (Michel Euler/AP Photo)
3 min

When attendees at the United Nations’ 27th climate conference, in Sharm el-Sheikh, look out at the glittering Red Sea starting Sunday, they will surely find the sight an inspiration to save the Earth. But they should also look the other direction toward Cairo, seat of a ruthless police state under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. They should not be blind to — or silent on — their host country’s contempt for basic human dignity.

They should pause a moment and recall Alaa Abdel Fattah, a British Egyptian activist who was a leader of the pro-democracy movement that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011. He has been behind bars for most of the past eight years, and is now serving a five-year sentence on a spurious charge of “broadcasting false news.” He has been on a hunger strike barely keeping himself alive, but he recently announced a complete stop to food and water, leading family and friends to fear that he will die.

Read this editorial in Arabic.

The conference-goers should ask why some of those most equipped to help Egypt grapple with climate change are behind bars. Among them is Seif Fateen, an MIT-educated environmental engineer who was working on solutions to complex energy sustainability problems. He has been in pretrial detention since 2019, with no charges ever brought against him — like thousands of others in Egypt. And Ahmed Amasha, a veterinarian and an advocate for environmental justice who was forcibly disappeared in June 2020 for six months and remains in prison. And Safwan and Seif Thabet, the father and son leaders of Juhayna Food Industries, who have established a farm-to-consumer model and stressed sustainability but have been held in pretrial detention for refusing to surrender the company to a state-owned business.

When a group of Egyptians began planning a protest for Nov. 11, they were arrested and accused of “joining and financing a terrorist group, misusing social media, publishing false news, and incitement to commit a terrorist crime,” the Egyptian Front for Human Rights reports. The Sissi regime is a systemic and merciless human rights abuser. Mr. Sissi periodically frees a fraction of political prisoners to mollify critics. But his true side was exposed on a television program the other day when he phoned in after being criticized by the leader of a political party. “I used to be in charge of the security apparatus during the Mubarak era as the head of military intelligence,” he said, ominously. “I am privy to everything. I know everyone’s past.”

In picking a host city, the annual U.N. conference on climate change ought not neglect the underdeveloped corners of the globe, which are more vulnerable to food insecurity, disease and deprivation. But everyone who is concerned about saving the planet should care as much about the cause of liberty and the imperative to stand up to dictators. The plight of political prisoners in Egypt, and the stain of despotism spreading around the globe, cannot be ignored as conference attendees gather on the shimmering beachfront of Sharm el-Sheikh and ponder how to assure a better future.

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