ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — President Biden’s brief stopover at the U.N. climate conference known as COP27 on Friday included “intensive consultations” on the case of Alaa Abdel Fattah, the British Egyptian political prisoner on a hunger and water strike in an Egyptian prison.
Abdel Fattah’s family staked their hopes on Biden’s visit as a possible step toward his release, as fears mount he may die in prison. An activist during the country’s 2011 revolution who comes from one of Egypt’s most prominent intellectual families, Abdel Fattah has spent much of the past decade behind bars and was most recently sentenced to five years in prison after he was found guilty last December of “spreading false news.”
The United States is a close ally of Egypt and provides more than $1 billion in military aid to the country each year. Biden has pledged to make human rights a focus of his presidency and, specifically, to hold President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi accountable for human rights violations.
The family also asked that Biden secure proof of life for Abdel Fattah before departing from Egypt. The last the family heard from him, he said in a letter he planned to stop drinking water on Nov. 6. Several days later, officials at the prison where he is being held informed his mother, Laila Soueif, a London-born math professor at Cairo University, that a “medical intervention” had been conducted on her son “with the knowledge of a judicial authority.”
The family fears authorities could be force-feeding him or that he may have already died. Egyptian officials have insisted he is in good care.
Speaking to reporters on board Air Force One after departing from Egypt, Sullivan said he did “not have an update on [Abdel Fattah’s] condition.”
“The Egyptians have one story on this; obviously his family has a totally different story,” he said. “And this is a circumstance where it’s not trust but verify. It’s verify. And we’ve not been able to do that.”
For the past week, Soueif has waited outside the prison where Abdel Fattah is being held, asking for a letter or other proof of life from her son.
On Thursday, Egypt’s public prosecution office released a statement claiming Abdel Fattah was in good health and had last received a family visit on Nov. 7 — a claim the family vehemently denies. That same day, Abdel Fattah’s lawyer, Khaled Ali, announced he had received written permission to visit Abdel Fattah in prison. When he arrived at the complex outside of Cairo, he was denied entry, he said.
Abdel Fattah claimed British citizenship through his mother last year, but Egyptian authorities have refused to allow British consular access to him in prison.
His case — and Egypt’s human rights record more broadly — garnered massive attention at COP27, which Egypt hoped would raise the country’s profile on the world stage. Several world leaders, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have directly raised Abdel Fattah’s case with Sisi.
Amr Adib, the most influential TV presenter in Egypt, read from a letter by Abdel Fattah’s sister, Mona Seif, on his Friday night show, in which she pleads for a pardon for her brother — describing in detail how his absence has distressed his son, Khaled, who is 10.
“If [one] believes he should continue in prison, see where your benefit is,” Adib said. “The benefit of this country. If it benefits you to release him, release him.”
“If it were up to me and I could decide, I will look for the benefit of the country,” he said.
Families of political prisoners often opt to stay quiet on their relatives’ cases in hopes that behind-the-scenes diplomacy might offer a better shot at securing freedom. Abdel Fattah’s family is long past that point. After being jailed repeatedly for a decade, he is now among the most prominent political prisoners in Egypt. His claim to British dual citizenship has added further international interest in his case.
Abdel Fattah’s family — and some British lawmakers — have criticized Sunak for not doing more to secure his release or receive an update on his health while on the ground in Egypt.
“There is a question about the extent to which trying to resolve these cases diplomatically is best done through public pressure or private engagement,” Sullivan said. “That’s a constant debate, a constant calibration.”
Abdel Fattah’s younger sister, Sanaa Seif, who herself has been jailed three times in Egypt, is attending the climate summit. At a news conference earlier this week, a pro-government lawmaker confronted her over her activism and was escorted out of the building by U.N. security after he refused to back down — drawing more negative attention to Egypt.
By the time Biden arrived Friday, pressure was mounting for the Egyptians to release Abdel Fattah. But activists and observers also feared that the window through which COP27 shone a spotlight on Egypt’s human rights violations was closing. The summit continues for another week but most world leaders visit only during the first half of the conference.
On social media, Egyptians shared memes joking about what might await them after the conference closed, including one of Sisi that said in Arabic, “Just wait until the guests leave” — a reference to a common phrase Egyptian parents might use if their children are misbehaving in front of visitors.
After Biden left on Friday, Sullivan told reporters, “the president directed his team to work with the Egyptians on a number of specific cases, one of them being [Abdel Fattah’s].”
“I can say emphatically that we believe that Alaa Abdel Fattah should be released,” he said. “But in terms of talking through the specifics of our discussions with the Egyptians,” he added, “I’d like to leave those behind closed doors for the moment.”
Abdel Fattah’s case has been taken up by the hundreds of climate activists and civil society organizers who flood COP each year, who say they see freedom of speech as intimately connected to their fight for climate justice.
Typically, this point of a COP conference would see tens of thousands of marchers parading through the streets of the host city, waving flags, blocking traffic and demanding greater action from negotiators.
But Egypt’s tight restrictions on protest meant that this year’s demonstration was much smaller and restricted to the official conference venue known as the blue zone. Heavily monitored by both U.N. and Egyptian security, a few hundred people marched along the central avenue that runs through the conference venue.
One cluster of youths sang the chorus to Shakira’s “Africa.” Another group chanted, “Keep it in the ground.” Activists with the Micronesia Climate Change Alliance walked behind a banner that read, “We’re not drowning, we’re fighting.”
At the Saturday demonstration that usually marks the midpoint of the conference, his sister Seif was front and center, appearing subdued compared to the raucous crowd. But when someone called out, “The people we love are under attack,” Seif lifted her head to shout in response: “Stand up, fight back.”
O’Grady reported from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Sarah Kaplan in Sharm el-Sheikh contributed to this report.