COP27, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and the Dreams of the Revolution—A Conversation with Omar Robert Hamilton and Ashish Ghadiali
On November 6, 2022, the 27th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) will open in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Heads of state, climate scientists, environmental activists, corporations and civil society groups are invited to gather in “natural beauty” to “enhance and accelerate the implementation of climate action and follow up on our collective commitments and pledges.” Branded “the Implementation COP,” with an aim to deliver on the 2015 Paris Agreement, Egypt has declared the issue of “Loss and Damage”—compensation by wealthy countries for irreparable climate harm—a priority.
Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the British-Egyptian political prisoner and revolutionary activist, has declared that on the day the conference starts, he will take the final escalation in his over 200-day hunger strike and cease drinking water. In a letter to his mother from prison, Abd El-Fattah wrote, “when the lights come on Sunday November 6, I shall drink my last glass of water. What will follow is unknown…I’ve taken a decision to escalate at a time I see as fitting for my struggle for my freedom and the freedom of prisoners of a conflict they’ve no part in, or they’re trying to exit from; for the victims of a regime that’s unable to handle its crises except with oppression, unable to reproduce itself except through incarceration.”
These two narratives—Egypt’s hosting of COP27 and the fate of its political prisoners—have been insistently linked by Egyptian civil society activists. The Egyptian Human Rights Coalition on COP27 has mobilized around the assertion that climate justice cannot exist in the absence of open civic space, pointing to the arrest of environmental activists in Egypt and the foreclosing of independent research on the environment and emissions due, in part, to Egypt’s restrictive NGO Laws. Beyond this, they advance a more essential point about climate justice, one captured in recent remarks by Abd El-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif, a human rights activist who has been imprisoned by Egyptian authorities three times, yet who will still be traveling to Egypt for COP27. In her words, “The climate crisis is about life on the planet, and life right now in Egypt, as we speak, is very dangerous.”
As the lead-up to COP27 intensifies, commentators are weighing in on the tensions between political repression in Egypt and the notion of a “climate just” world espoused by campaigners and the UN. Moving beyond the narrower framework of boycotting the Egyptian state as host, activists have called for a show of international action. In part, their call is a simple recognition that climate justice cannot be achieved without confronting all forms of violence, including political repression. For Egyptian activists, this COP provides an opportunity to highlight the abuse of human rights and the plight of political prisoners as well as a chance to advance radical agendas within a binding international framework. The impending vote on Loss and Damage intersects with the work of the Climate Vulnerable Forum—a South-South cooperation platform established in 2009 ahead of COP15—in highlighting how particular countries are disproportionately affected by climate change. The call by Egyptian activists is also an appeal to our capacity to act beyond nations in the interest of life. As Naomi Klein put it, in an expansive essay on COP27 and Alaa, “if international solidarity is too weak to save Alaa—an iconic symbol of a generation’s liberatory dreams—what hope do we have of saving a habitable home?”
In advance of the conference, MERIP invited racial and environmental justice activist Ashish Ghadiali to speak with novelist, filmmaker and cousin of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Omar Robert Hamilton, about the tensions underpinning COP27, with an eye to its setting in Egypt. Ashish and Omar share a history of working on the ground to document political organizing and upheaval, contributing to social movements in Egypt, Palestine and the UK by producing texts of and for the people.
When we invited this conversation, in early October 2022, we could not have anticipated how the velocity of political events would impact their dialogue and its implications for the coming COP. Speaking from the protest camp established outside the UK Foreign Office by Sanaa Seif, Omar was interrupted by the resignation of then-Prime Minister Liz Truss, meters from where he stood. Days later, Alaa Abd El-Fattah announced his resolve to go on a full hunger strike with the start of the conference. Their conversation has been edited, condensed and organized for clarity.
[Ashish and Omar spoke by phone on October 21, 2022 amid an extended sit-in at the UK Foreign Office, convened by Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif.]
Ashish: So, let’s start with where you are right now.
Omar: I’m physically standing outside the Foreign Office in London. We’ve got a tent up here where Alaa’s sister Sanaa has been camping out since Tuesday [October 18, 2022], Alaa’s two hundredth day on hunger strike. The idea to start sitting here, we felt, would do two things: on the one hand, Alaa has a lot of friends and supporters and the campaign has picked up many along the road. And [the camp] would give a physical point at which people can come and stop in, take a photo or bring ideas. We were trying to think about what we could do, maybe little public events to just give a focal point to this thing that’s been going on for years and has supporters and friends around the world. And hope that that also keeps you as high as possible on the agenda of the Foreign Office, which is the buildings surrounding us here. This is basically a final effort to make the government deliver on the thing that they say they’re going to deliver in the build-up to COP.
Ashish: What did the British government say they would deliver?
Omar: Since December last year, the British government has been trying to get consular access to Alaa in prison. Alaa is a writer, he’s a technologist. He was a prominent youth activist in the revolution in 2011 in Egypt and he has been in prison basically since General Abdel Fattah El Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013. He’s thought of as a symbolic prisoner almost—one the regime is determined to keep in prison as a message to the revolutionary youth that he was part of: that the hopes and democratic dreams of the revolution will not come to pass.
They recognize that the COP process is very deeply flawed and has been used to greenwash corporations in various countries for a long time. But there is a sense that this is the first time that it will actually whitewash a regime of the level of authoritarianism and violence that we see from Egypt.
Ashish: How does this campaign relate to COP27?
Omar: Egypt is under very intense scrutiny, and there are definite wings of the environmental movement concerned about what it means for Egypt to be hosting the conference. They recognize that the COP process is very deeply flawed and has been used to greenwash corporations in various countries for a long time. But there is a sense that this is the first time that it will actually whitewash a regime of the level of authoritarianism and violence that we see from Egypt.
Ashish: Something to really think about is what’s at stake? Because the other framing of this COP isn’t just about green hydrogen and capitalist co-optation. November the sixth, the first day of this COP, is also a provisional agenda vote on Loss and Damage, proposed by Pakistan as chair of the G77 plus China. It’s taken since 1991 to get Loss and Damage this far, and it could become part of the formal negotiations moving forward, so there is such a complex balance of forces at play in this moment and this event, and we could be putting all our energy into saying boycott the COP.
Omar: Nobody in Egypt is saying boycott the COP. There was a big discussion about whether that should be the call, and it was decided that was not the call. The call that came out is outlined by COP Civic Space, which is a coalition put together by Egyptian human rights groups. It’s not to boycott, but to use COP as an opportunity. And that was definitely a conscious decision from within Egyptian society.
Connecting COP to the Revolution
[This strategic action on the part of civil society activists and supporters of Alaa Abd El-Fattah compels onlookers to view COP27, the Egyptian revolution and state repression as points along a shared axis. We cannot disconnect the work of documenting, archiving and making accessible the modes of protest in the 2011 uprisings from the conversation about to begin in Sharm el-Sheikh—Alaa’s plight draws them together. In their conversation, Ashish and Omar traced this trajectory through the work and experiences of Abd El-Fattah and Omar, cousins through birth and revolution.]
Ashish: You were part of that generation of revolutionary youth in Egypt. You moved to Cairo in 2011. Why?
Omar: I’m British Egyptian. I was brought up in London, but I grew up going to Egypt and Egypt was part of my life. When the revolution of 2011 broke out, I decided to stay full-time.
I was working on a film and then I had the misfortune of having left three days before the revolution started because I had a job in Washington, D.C. And then I got back on a plane after January 28, which is the big day where they fought and beat the police. I got on a plane the day after. I was in Cairo from January 30, which was the fifth day of the revolution. Like everyone else involved, it totally transformed me and what I thought of the world and what I felt was important and what I thought I wanted to do in the future. I decided to stay there and worked as a filmmaker. Together with a group of friends, we set up a documentary collective, Mosireen, where we would film what was going on in the streets and then release videos on YouTube. We did street screenings, distributing images and videos about what was going on inside the revolution. Then I morphed into being a writer after the military coup made that kind of work impossible anymore. I spent two and a half years after the coup working on a novel about the revolution, following its rise and fall.
Ashish: Between these two big projects, there was the initial arrest and imprisonment of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. Was there some sense that you could have shared his fate?
Omar: I’ve always held an inside/outside position. Whereas Alaa is very much a leader inside the thing—that’s what makes him who he is. He’s someone who is from totally inside the country, inside the language and the people. One of the first big things he did was in 2011, after the revolution, he was trying to set up a way to crowdsource input into the new constitution, or the constitution that would be written—following on from an example set by the ANC in South Africa. He would host things called #tweetnadwa, which were fora for discussion, a hybrid of people in real life but also people asking questions through Twitter. This was before hybrid events became totally normalized in the last couple of years. I think he’s always had a very different position and trajectory.
Ashish: It’s useful to understand that distinction and the context of Alaa’s work that made him stand out in the way that he has. You started off the conversation by saying that you’re standing outside the Foreign Office right now in order to urge the British government to do what they said they would do. What are your hopes?
Omar: Alaa’s mother was born in London in 1956. And that meant that her children had the right to acquire British citizenship. When it became clear that the Egyptians essentially intended for Alaa to die in prison, his family began to look at how to do the paperwork to get him his passport. And that came through in December 2021, from which point the British government has been involved in his case. We feel they’ve taken it up with interest.
We had James Cleverly, as Minister for Middle East and North Africa, who said that he was working urgently on consular access. And then when Liz Truss was Foreign Secretary, she told Parliament that she was working on it. That was June 21, 2022. Then the government here collapsed. One of the last things that Boris Johnson did while in office was to put out a statement on August 25, saying that the matter of Alaa had been raised with President Sisi and that he had expressed his hope for swift and positive progress. You’ve got top-level engagement and the top levels of the government working on it, saying that they’re working for release, but it hasn’t led to anything. And that’s partly because the Egyptians are always tough customers and stubborn negotiators. And it’s no doubt partly because they also are observing the chaos here and know that they can just keep stalling—the people they’re negotiating with or against may not be around for much longer.
He’s not going to break his hunger strike. This is the thing that’s giving him strength and resilience and to be honest, that also means that he’s the one leading his own campaign.
But at the same time, Alaa continues to be on hunger strike, and you can’t pack up and say, “Well, we’ll come back to this in the spring, or come back to it once Labour is in power.” He’s not going to break his hunger strike. This is the thing that’s giving him strength and resilience and to be honest, that also means that he’s the one leading his own campaign. As a prisoner, everything is taken away from you, all your agency is taken away from you, and your voice is taken away from you. But when he decided to go on hunger strike, we were following, and I think that gives him back some of the agency that they’re trying to take from him. So we don’t have any choice except to keep working or trying…to keep looking for some angle or some breakthrough. Some point of leverage.
Ashish: What you’re bringing to the forefront is a tangible example of what political chaos means for livelihoods of people where government fails to function. In terms of engagement with the Foreign Office, there’s chaos at the top, but there’s also an entirely functioning civil service. Can you offer any insight through this very specific prism about what happens in a moment like this in terms of due process and decision making?
Omar: I get the sense that the civil service and the civil servants are working, that they’re doing everything that they can and that they are genuinely supportive and engaged. The issue is that when it comes to any kind of negotiation with the Egyptians, it takes a level of political will and determination, and this level of political seriousness can only come at the ministerial or the prime ministerial level, in the end. The decision to keep Alaa in prison is a decision that is made at the very, very top. This is a decision that comes from Sisi, we believe, so it needs to come from the top on other sides as well. It needs a push from the very top and a push that the Egyptian state would take seriously.
[With rain pouring down on the tent camp in London and reporters scrambling to digest the change in government leadership, Omar and Ashish brought their conversation to a close. As an editorial team, we were struck by the palpable tension that cut through this part of the recording, which was inflected by the question of defeat. Their final exchange compels us to ask how—and indeed whether—to measure the success of social movements when the cost of failure can be unimaginably high. This is where our transcript is least complete, as the moment continues to unfold.]
Ashish: It feels very difficult to hold those two realities together. To hold what Sisi’s regime means within the context of the revolution, and what it means to be a host government for COP27, talking the talk on hydrogen plants. I guess this speaks to a wider crisis of tactics, of how we continue to build meaningfully and effectively, towards a just future in the context of climate breakdown. Because what the counter-revolution in Egypt equates to is something that we’ve really seen all around the world. Egypt was iconic with the optimism of these networks and social movements, and we saw so many examples of the rise of left populist movements. There was an underlying belief that this was the future, and what we’ve seen across the board is that mode of politics has been continually threatened by techno-capitalist authoritarianism, of which there is something deeply symbolic in the COP conversation coming to Sharm el-Sheikh. Having lived through so much of that in your own organizing, where do we go next?
Omar: I don’t know the answer right now, but I think you’re very right. It is somehow finding its summation in Egypt hosting COP.
 “CPD Sameh Shoukry’s open letter to parties and observers’ days before COP27,” CBFP, November 3, 2022.
 “Sanaa Seif addressing EP subcommittee on human rights,” Youtube, October 29, 2022.
 Naomi Klein, “From Blah, Blah, Blah to Blood, Blood, Blood,” The Intercept, October 7, 2022.