Photo credit: Reuters
An interview with Sharif Abdel Kouddous by: Medea Benjamin
The worldwide climate meeting called COP27 (the twenty seventh Conference of Parties) shall be held within the distant Egyptian desert resort of Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt from November 6-18. Given the extremely repressive nature of the Egyptian government, this gathering will likely be different from others, where there have been large, raucous protests led by civil society groups.
In order tens of hundreds of delegates – from world leaders to climate activists and journalists – descend on Sharm el-Sheik from all around the world, we asked Egyptian Journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous to present us his thoughts concerning the state of Egypt today, including the situation of political prisoners, and the way he expects the Egyptian government will act with the eyes of the world upon it.
MB: For many who don’t know or have forgotten, are you able to give us a fast overview of the character of the current government in Egypt today?
The 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak, an rebellion that was a part of what has been called the Arab Spring, was very inspiring and had reverberations around the globe, from the Occupy Movement in the US to the Indignados in Spain. But that revolution was crushed in a really brutal way in 2013 by the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi–who later became president.
Immediately, Egypt is ruled by a really tight and closed clique of military and intelligence officers, a circle that is totally opaque. Its decision-making process doesn’t allow for any political participation and it doesn’t brook any sort of dissent or opposition. Evidently the federal government’s answer to any problems with its residents is to place them in prison.
There are actually tens of hundreds of political prisoners in Egypt immediately. We don’t know the precise number because there are not any official statistics and this forces lawyers and the very harassed human rights groups to attempt to painstakingly tabulate the hundreds of people who find themselves trapped behind bars.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen Egypt construct several recent prisons. Just last yr Sisi oversaw the opening of the Wadi al-Natrun prison complex. It’s not called a jail complex, it’s called a “rehabilitation center.” That is considered one of seven or eight recent prisons that Sisi himself has dubbed “American-style prisons.”
These prison complexes include inside them the courts and judicial buildings, so it makes a conveyor belt from the courthouse to the prison more efficient.
MB: What’s the status of this massive group of political prisoners?
Nearly all of political prisoners in Egypt are held in what known as “pre-trial detention.” Under Egypt’s penal code, you possibly can be held in prison for 2 years without ever being convicted of against the law. Nearly everyone held in pre-trial detention faces two an identical charges: one is spreading false information and the opposite is belonging to a terrorist organization or an outlawed organization.
The prison conditions are very dire. When you get sick, you might be in big trouble. There have been loads of deaths from medical negligence, with prisoners dying in custody. Torture and other types of abuse by security forces is widespread.
We’ve also seen the variety of death sentences and executions skyrocket. Under the previous President Mubarak, in his final decade in office, there was a de facto moratorium on executions. There have been death sentences handed down but people weren’t being put to death. Now Egypt ranks third on this planet within the variety of executions.
MB: What about other freedoms, reminiscent of freedom of assembly and freedom of the press?
Principally, the regime sees its residents as a nuisance or a threat. All types of protest or public assembly are banned.
Alleged violations carry very stiff prison sentences. We’ve seen mass arrests sweeps occur each time there’s any sort of public demonstration and we’ve also seen an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, with human rights organizations and economic justice organizations being forced to reduce their operations or mainly operate underground.The individuals who work for them are subject to intimidation and harassment and travel bans and arrests.
We’ve also seen a large crackdown on press freedom, an almost complete takeover of the media landscape. Under Mubarak’s government, there was a minimum of some opposition press, including some opposition newspapers and TV stations. But now the federal government very tightly controls the press through censorship and likewise through acquisition. The General Intelligence Services, which is the intelligence apparatus of the military, has grow to be the most important media owner of the country. They own newspapers and TV channels. Independent media, reminiscent of the one I work for called Mada Masr, operate on the margins in a really, very hostile environment.
Egypt is the third largest jailer of journalists on this planet and imprisons more journalists on charges of spreading false news than another country on this planet.
MB: Are you able to talk concerning the case of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who might be Egypt’s most famous political prisoner?
Alaa has been behind bars for much of the last decade. He’s in prison ostensibly for the crime of “spreading false news,” but he is basically in prison for these ideas, for being an icon and a logo of the 2011 revolution. For the regime, imprisoning him was a method to set an example for everybody else. That’s why there was a lot campaigning to get him out.
He has been in prison under very, very difficult conditions. For 2 years he wasn’t allowed out of his cell and didn’t actually have a mattress to sleep on. He was completely deprived of every little thing, including books or reading materials of any kind. For the primary time, he began expressing suicidal thoughts.
But on April 2 he decided to go on a hunger strike as an act of resistance against his imprisonment. He has been on a hunger strike for seven months now. He began with just water and salt, which is a sort of hunger strike that Egyptians learned from Palestinians. Then in May, he decided to go on a Gandhi-style strike and ingest 100 calories a day–which is a spoonful of honey in some tea. A median adult needs 2,000 calories a day, so it’s very meager.
But he just sent a letter to his family saying that he was going back to a full hunger strike and on November 6, on the eve of the COP meeting, he’s going to stop drinking water. This is amazingly serious since the body cannot last without water for greater than a number of days.
So he is asking on all of us on the skin to prepare, because either he’ll die in prison or he shall be released. What he’s doing is incredibly brave. He’s using his body, the one thing he has agency over, to prepare and to push us on the skin to do more.
MB: How do these repressed civil society leaders view the incontrovertible fact that Egypt is playing host to COP27?
It was very disheartening for loads of people in Egypt who work for human rights and justice and democracy when Egypt was granted the appropriate to host the conference. But Egyptian civil society has not called on the international community to boycott the COP meeting; they’ve called for the plight of political prisoners and the shortage of human rights to be linked to the climate discussions and never ignored.
They desire a highlight to be placed on the hundreds of political prisoners like Alaa, like Abdel Moneim Aboul Foitouh, a former presidential candidate, like Mohamed Oxygen, a blogger, like Marwa Arafa, who’s an activist from Alexandria.
Unfortunately, hosting this meeting has given the federal government an ideal opportunity to remake its image. It has allowed the federal government to attempt to position itself because the voice for the Global South and the negotiator attempting to unlock billions of dollars a yr in climate financing from the Global North.
After all the difficulty of climate reparations to the Global South could be very essential. It must be discussed and brought seriously. But how are you going to give climate reparations to a rustic like Egypt when you already know the cash will mostly be spent on bolstering this repressive, polluting state? As Naomi Klein said in her great article Greenwashing a Police State, the summit goes beyond greenwashing a polluting state to greenwashing a police state.
MB: So what do you think that we are able to expect to see in Sharm el-Sheikh? Will the standard protests that occur at every COP, each inside and out of doors the official halls, be allowed?
I feel what we’re going to see in Sharm el-Sheik is a fastidiously managed theater. Everyone knows the issues with the UN Climate Summits. There are loads of negotiations and climate diplomacy, but rarely do they amount to anything concrete and binding. But they do function a vital place for networking and convergence for various groups within the climate justice movement, a chance for them to come back together to prepare. It has also been a time for these groups to point out their opposition to the inaction by those in power, with creative, vigorous protests each inside and out of doors the conference.
This may not be the case this yr. Sharm El-Sheikh is a resort in Sinai that literally has a wall around it. It might and shall be very tightly controlled. From what we understand, there’s a special space that has been designated for protests that has been built out near a highway, distant from the conference center and any signs of life. So how effective will or not it’s to carry protests there?
This is the reason people like Greta Thunberg are usually not going. Many activists have problems with the structure of the COP itself nevertheless it is even worse in Egypt where the flexibility to make use of it as a convergence space for dissent shall be effectively shut down.
But more importantly, the members of Egyptian civil society, including the allies and environmental groups which can be critical of the federal government, is not going to be allowed to attend. In a departure from UN rules, those groups that manage to participate may have been vetted and approved by the federal government and may have to be very careful about how they operate. Other Egyptians who needs to be there are unfortunately in prison or are subject to numerous types of repression and harassment.
MB: Should foreigners also worry concerning the Egyptian government surveilling them?
The complete conference shall be very highly surveilled. The federal government created this app that you could download to make use of as a guide for the conference. But to do this, you’ve to place in your full name, phone number, email address, passport number and nationality, and you’ve to enable location tracking. Amnesty International technology specialists have reviewed the app and flagged all these concerns about surveillance and the way the app can use the camera and microphone and site data and bluetooth.
MB: What environmental issues related to Egypt will the federal government allow to be discussed, and what shall be off limits?
Environmental issues that shall be allowed are issues reminiscent of trash collection, recycling, renewable energy and climate finance, which is a giant issue for Egypt and for the Global South.
Environmental issues that implicate the federal government and military is not going to be tolerated. Take the difficulty of coal–something the environmental community could be very critical of. That shall be off limits because coal imports, much of it coming from the US, have risen over the past several years, driven by the strong demand from the cement sector. Egypt’s largest importer of coal can be the most important cement producer, and that’s the El-Arish Cement Company that was inbuilt 2016 by none aside from the Egyptian military.
We’ve seen massive amounts of cement poured into Egypt’s natural environment over the past several years. The federal government has built nearly 1,000 bridges and tunnels, destroying acres and acres of green space and cutting down hundreds of trees. They’ve gone on a crazy construction spree, constructing a slew of latest neighborhoods and cities, including a recent administrative capital within the desert just outside of Cairo. But no criticism of those projects has been or shall be tolerated.
Then there’s dirty energy production. Egypt, Africa’s second largest gas producer, is scaling up its oil and gas production and exports, which is able to mean further profits for the military and intelligence sectors involved on this. These projects which can be harmful to the environment but profitable for the military shall be off the agenda.
The Egyptian military is entrenched in every a part of the Egyptian state. Military owned enterprises produce every little thing from fertilizers to baby food to cement. They operate hotels; they’re the most important owner of land in Egypt. So any kind of business pollution or environmental harm from areas reminiscent of construction, tourism, development and agribusiness is not going to be tolerated at COP.
MB: We’ve got heard that the crackdown on Egyptians in anticipation of this global gathering has already begun. Is that true?
Yes, we’ve already seen an intensified crackdown and a large arrest sweep within the run-up to the climate summit. There are arbitrary stop and searches, and random security checkpoints. They open your facebook and whatsapp and they give the impression of being through it. In the event that they find content that they find problematic, they arrest you.
A whole lot of individuals have been arrested, by some counts 500-600. They’ve been arrested from their homes, off the streets, from their workplaces.
And these searches and arrests are usually not restricted simply to Egyptians. The opposite day there was an Indian climate activist, Ajit Rajagopal, was arrested shortly after setting off on an 8-day walk from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh as a part of a world campaign to boost awareness concerning the climate crisis.
He was detained in Cairo, questioned for hours and held overnight. He called an Egyptian lawyer friend, who got here to the police station to assist him. They detained the lawyer as well, and held him overnight.
MB: There have been calls for protests on November 11, or 11/11. Do you think that people in Egypt will come out on the streets?
It’s unclear where these protest calls began but I feel it was began by people outside Egypt. I could be surprised if people come out on the streets given the extent of repression we’ve been seeing nowadays but you never know.
The safety apparatus was very surprised in September 2019 when a former military contractor turned whistleblower exposed videos showing army corruption. These videos went viral. The whistleblower called for protests but he was outside Egypt in self-imposed exile in Spain.
There have been some protests, not very big but significant. And what was the federal government response? Massive arrests, essentially the most massive sweep since Sisi got here to power with over 4,000 people detained. They arrested every kind of individuals–everyone who had been arrested before and loads of other people. With that sort of repression, it’s hard to say if mobilizing people to go to the streets is the appropriate thing to do.
The federal government can be particularly paranoid since the economic situation is so bad. The Egyptian currency has lost 30 percent of its value because the starting of the yr, precipitated by a wide range of aspects, including the war in Ukraine, since Egypt was getting a lot of its wheat from Ukraine. Inflation is uncontrolled. Individuals are getting poorer and poorer. In order that, combined with these calls for protests, have prompted the preemptive crackdown.
So I don’t know if people will defy the federal government and exit into the streets. But I gave up attempting to predict anything in Egypt a protracted time ago. You only never know what will occur.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He’s a correspondent for the TV/radio news hour Democracy Now! and a fellow on the Nation Institute.
Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of CODEPINK and co-author of the book, “War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict.”