The escalation comes one day before President Biden is set to land in Egypt to visit the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, taking place in the coastal town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The United States is a close ally of Egypt and provides more than $1 billion in military aid to the country each year, but has repeatedly criticized its human rights record. Abdel Fattah’s family has made repeated public appeals to the White House to intervene in the case.
Abdel Fattah, who is 40 and a once-prominent activist in the 2011 revolution, has been in and out of prison for the past decade on charges human rights groups decry as attempts to silence dissent. He was sentenced to five years in prison last year after he was found guilty of “spreading false news undermining national security.”
His case has become a central topic at COP27 — especially after an Egyptian lawmaker confronted his younger sister, Sanaa Seif, at a news conference discussing his case.
Egyptian media reported Wednesday that a lawyer in Cairo has since filed a case against Seif, accusing her of “conspiring with foreign agencies hostile to the Egyptian state” and “spreading false news,” among other allegations. The filing alone does not ensure the case will be pursued, but the family said it amounts to an intimidation tactic after Seif’s outspoken support of her brother at the international conference, where Egypt hoped human rights issues would not take center stage.
The opposite has come true as the message #FreeAlaa has spread throughout the conference, garnering support from climate activists. On Thursday, some attendees dressed in white — the color of prison uniforms in Egypt — and gathered for a protest over climate justice and to express solidarity with political prisoners here.
The protests would be unthinkable anywhere in Egypt outside the U.N.-controlled zone at COP27 due to tight restrictions on public gatherings.
Ahead of the conference, Seif camped outside the British Foreign Office to demand a meeting with top officials and pledges they would ensure her brother, who claimed his British citizenship from prison last year and was issued a British passport, be released. The siblings’ mother, Laila Soueif, a math professor at Cairo University, was born in London.
On Thursday, the siblings’ mother — who has waited outside each day this week for a letter from her son — was asked to leave the area of the Wadi el-Natrun prison complex outside Cairo where he is being held.
The family’s lawyer, Khaled Ali, then announced on social media that he has been approved to visit Abdel Fattah and was on his way to the facility — his first visit since early 2020. When he arrived, he said, prison officials refused him entrance to the facility — saying the permission letter he received that morning was dated the day before.
Seif flew from London to Sharm el-Sheikh early this week, where she has repeatedly raised her brother’s case as part of discussions on human rights. The family, who last heard from him in a letter last week that he would stop drinking water on Sunday, has repeatedly warned that he could die before the conference ends next week. Seif said Wednesday that she does not know if he is still alive.
Several world leaders, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, raised his case directly with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. Under the terms of his sentencing, the presidency is the only office with the authority to pardon him. But despite days of demands, his family has still not had proof of life or seen any indication he may be released.
This week, U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Türk called on Egypt to immediately release Abdel Fattah. “No one should be detained for exercising their basic human rights or defending those of others,” he said. “I also encourage the authorities to revise all laws that restrict civic space and curtail the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.”
Egypt’s U.N. mission in Geneva issued its own statement rejecting the remarks, accusing Türk of undermining the independence of Egypt’s judiciary and the credibility of his own office.
His description of Abdel Fattah’s imprisonment as “unfair,” the statement said, was “an unacceptable insult.”