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Egyptian Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s Sister on the Aftermath of His COP27 Water Strike

11 minute read

After days of uncertainty, Sanaa Seif finally has proof that her brother Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a jailed Egyptian pro-democracy activist with British citizenship, is alive.

Abd El-Fattah has been on a partial hunger strike since April, only consuming 100 calories per day. He intensified his protest by refusing any food or water since the start of COP27, the U.N.’s annual climate conference that is being held this year in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh. The conference began on Nov. 6 and wraps up on Friday.

Seif, a film editor and activist in her own right, has become an increasingly familiar face on the global news circuit since she traveled to COP27 to deliver a press conference campaigning for her brother’s release. Seif’s family received a note in her brother’s handwriting from the prison stating that he started drinking water again on Nov. 12. Why it took prison authorities two days to inform his distressed family is a question Seif posed on Twitter.

“I felt relief at first, but then I felt all the stress that was accumulated and my whole body is aching,” says Seif, who is now back in her Cairo home.

On Nov. 10, Abd El-Fattah’s family was informed by Egypt’s Wadi el-Natrun prison that he had “medical intervention with the knowledge of a judicial authority” to counter his water strike. After this, they did not hear much else about his welfare. The 40-year-old dissident, who has been jailed for his criticism of the Egyptian government, emerged as a leading figure in the 2011 uprising that overthrew former autocrat President Hosni Mubarak. Abd El-Fattah has spent the majority of the past decade behind bars.

Seif tells TIME about her attendance at COP27, the global response to Abd El-Fattah’s situation, and the emotional toll it is taking on herself, her sister Mona Seif, and their mother Laila Soueif.

Read More: Column: Egypt Isn’t Qualified to Host COP27

TIME: How did it feel to hear your brother is still alive?

Seif: Since he stopped drinking water and since I went to the conference, I couldn’t sleep at all. I slept maybe an hour, two hours a day. But when we [got proof of life] I was so relieved because I was imagining things that don’t make sense. On Sunday in particular, I was really worried and I was imagining things like what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

The world knows your brother as an activist, but what is he like as a person?

He’s very nerdy, very intellectual. He reads a lot about everything but in a fun way, and he is very curious about everything. If you sit and talk about your passion he’d love to spend hours just researching that and exploring it with you. He’s a very kind brother.

What was your shared childhood like and how did it influence your political engagement?

My mum’s side of the family are academics in psychology, literature, and medicine so the idea of reading was big. My mom is a professor of mathematics, but she was also one of these professors who were very supportive to the students in their [political] movement, so she was active, and my father was a human rights lawyer. Alaa was very inspired by my parents and their activism, especially my mom. I wasn’t at all political until 2011 made me.

How did you and your family become such a target for the regime?

I think it started with the Maspero demonstrations [led by Coptic Christians] in 2011. This was after Hosni Mubarak fell and the military was running the country until we had an election. They were protesting against something like the [demolition] of a church. The military attacked them viciously and there was a big massacre. I was there filming as I was working in an office nearby, and some journalists told Alaa so he came to pick me up. He saw what was happening and also became engaged. We went with the families to the hospital and to the morgue. It led to fighting for autonomy and Alaa was later summoned to military prosecution. That was the first time we were in a clash with the military like that. We were all campaigning together and that’s when we became high profile activists.

You just returned from COP27. Why did you decide to go and can you tell me about your time there?

I have been campaigning properly since April. I’ve been trying to advocate for Alaa not only in Britain, but also in the U.S., in Brussels with the European Union, in Germany, in France. But there was always this impasse where officials don’t want to talk in public, even though they say they’re very sympathetic. So I felt like if I go to COP27, if we get the proper attention, then maybe the silence will be broken.

Since then you’ve reached U.S. President Joe Biden, and U.K Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also spoke out. How do you feel about the reaction from global leaders now?

I’m really thankful, but I’m a bit disappointed that it took me and human rights groups putting ourselves on the line. Because it’s not only my brother’s case, but many cases of political prisoners in Egypt were presented to these offices before. And all of these leaders were reluctant to raise concerns strongly in the time leading up to now. It turned out that it didn’t cost relationships, bridges weren’t burned between countries. The conference did not just collapse. The climate is not better or worse because we talked about human rights.

Do you think Rishi Sunak could do more to help Alaa, who qualified for British citizenship last year?

I can believe that it’s challenging to get Alaa out of prison, but it’s the fact that the U.K. did not get us proof of life. Of all of these governments that intervene, the U.K. were not the ones who got us proof of life or consular access, which is a strong indicator that they’re not doing enough, because consular access is their right.

It’s very frustrating when I hear politicians say “we raised the case,” especially after the big media boom that happened in COP. None of you have raised the case as much as the family—you have to be pushing for the case, not just raising the case.

Some have accused the Egyptian government of using COP27 to greenwash their global image. Do you think that’s accurate?

Yes, it is. But it has turned on them a little bit. I think the idea was to do some greenwashing but the PR was for local or internal purposes; a show of force that “I have the support of the West and other governments. I’m internationally stable.” Because this is a regime that, domestically, people are unhappy about.

With so much publicity and media attention on Alaa’s case, why do you think they’re still refusing to release him to British authorities?

Egypt’s first response is always uncalculated. They did a big propaganda media campaign against me and the family claiming that we were spies and there were these lawsuits for espionage. The other reason is that we’ve seen increased pressure, but I don’t think any of the governments have put a timeline on this. The only person that’s putting a timeline is Alaa with his body.

Read More: Why the Arab Spring Failed—And Why It May Yet Succeed

What role has letter-writing played for your family?

People have mostly stopped using handwriting, yet I know the handwriting of my family and friends because for years we have been communicating with this form. It has made us all closer as a family on a deeper level. Me and my brother, for the past decade, our communication has been letters, as you never have quality time during a visit to talk about things. Letters are meant to be weekly, but sometimes one gets banned so when I write to Alaa, it’s like I’m writing a diary.

How has your mother been affected during this time?

I saw my mom yesterday but up until then I didn’t know. We would talk to each other quickly about tasks and letters but none of us had the guts to discuss what’s happening. She’s like me in the sense that she’s trying to pull herself together and look strong, but it’s obvious that she’s not. Both of us slept when the letter came out. It feels like we’re on the edge of something.

And when did you all last see Alaa in person?

My mom saw him on Oct. 17, so about a month ago. I saw him in August and he looked very frail and scary. I was speechless when I saw him. I was so excited to see him and I had loads of things to talk about but I couldn’t say anything when I saw him.

You have been arrested yourself in Egypt. Can you tell me about your own experience in prison?

I was in prison three times. Every time was because I was advocating for Alaa. But the first time I was arrested in a demonstration, calling for the release of prisoners, it was against a new anti-demonstration law that Alaa and others were arrested on. The first time I was sentenced to two years but was pardoned after a year and three months. The second time I was sentenced to six months for insulting a public official. The third time, in 2020 during COVID-19, I was trying to get a letter to Alaa. They had banned visits. He was in a maximum security prison and was facing the worst treatment ever. It was overly vicious and he was tortured. The only way we could get proof of life was letters and then they banned them.

In June 2020, me, my mom, and my sister stood outside the prison gates and said that we’re not leaving without getting a letter from Alaa. We were beaten up while the police were watching. The next day, we went to the public prosecutor to file a complaint and put this on the record. They told us a prosecutor will meet me to review the incident. At the gate of the public prosecutor[‘s office], a van took me and said they have an arrest warrant against me and they took me to state security prosecution, which is emergency prosecution that deals with terrorism cases. In the end, I was sentenced to a year and a half for spreading fake news about COVID precautions not being properly enforced in Egyptian prisons.

Have Alaa and your family experienced much solidarity from other Egyptians?

I’ve always found solidarity with our family locally in Egypt, but the way it has to be expressed is very hidden. All of the time, wherever I walk, people are giving me gestures that they’re proud of me and that they’re happy. But what’s happened after the propaganda that we are spies, is that it has been more polarized—there are people who are fed this propaganda and people who are proud.

What are your hopes for Alaa, your family, and Egypt?

My hope for my family is that we get to reunite in peace in London. It’s closer now than it was before. I’m not very hopeful for Egypt, I feel like we were lucky [to have British citizenship] but not all Egyptians have this. I am hopeful that the attention we have brought to Alaa’s case will embarrass the government so people can get a little breathing room, but this cannot solely be our job—it needs momentum. Egypt is in a big economic crisis and that means the regime is forced to be part of the world so maybe this regime will learn that it needs to drop its shortsightedness and think wisely.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com