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Free Them All

By Sara Elbanna

Alaa Abd el-Fattah, one of Egypt’s most prominent activist-bloggers, has been jailed by the last three of the country’s regimes. Alaa was first imprisoned in 2006 for protesting in support of an independent judiciary. He was released after 45 days, but later incarcerated in 2011 on charges of inciting violence against the military during the Maspero demonstrations. He was imprisoned again in 2013, accused of protesting without a permit, and in 2015 he received a five-year sentence for allegedly organising and participating in a political protest. Following his release and probation in 2019, he was arrested once more and was accused of organising demonstrations and spreading fake news. As of this past April, Alaa has protested his inhumane detention through a hunger strike, something which, on 31 October 2022, he claimed he would intensify. Alaa cut out all calories and water on 6 November, the first day of COP27.

Like many others, Alaa's incarceration was due to his leftist voice opposing the Egyptian government’s violation of the economic and social rights of the poor, and as a proponent of the right to free speech and civil justice. Silencing his voice and those like him allows the government to eschew accountability and maintains a coercive social order. The movement #FreeAlaa, coordinated by his mother and two sisters, has called for Alaa’s release through the support of the British government (Alaa and his family are dual British and Egyptian citizens). Their campaign has captured the attention of international organisations and Western media who have vocalised their support for Alaa and his freedom, all calling upon the UK to act.

Hosted in Egypt, COP27 saw discussions of climate adaptation and environmental justice against the backdrop of these humanitarian protests. As host, Egypt positioned itself as Africa’s climate leader, and the conference will allow it to secure further funds to support Africa’s adaptation efforts. As global leaders travelled to Egypt, #FreeAlaa aligned with other movements calling for the release of Egyptian political prisoners under the hashtag #FreeThemAll. The interrelation between human rights and environmental justice were synonymised under one banner.

Despite this, Egyptian civil society, facing severe government suppression, has been forced to separate environmental progress from the language of human rights. By prioritising conservation, organising cleaning efforts, and banning single-use plastics, certain environmental organisations in Egypt distance themselves from politics, pursuing sustainability within a limited scope. In doing so, little significant change is being made to dismantle the institutions that harm both our environment and impoverished communities. Those who attempt to condemn the government for capitalist policies that prioritise profit over the environment risk imprisonment or exile. COP27 presented an opportunity for human rights organisations, both in Egypt and abroad, to call out the government’s fictitious narrative of African empowerment in light of its human rights violations and greenwashing practices. COP Civic Space, a coalition of independent human rights organisations, has coordinated advocacy around core civic space demands in order to tie the climate movement to Egyptian human rights. The coalition crucially depends upon media buzz surrounding events like COP, as well as its global leader attendees, to bring awareness to those currently imprisoned in Egypt, underscoring the notion that climate justice cannot occur without open civic space.

In response to this movement, Western media and human rights organisations have questioned whether Egypt should have been disqualified from hosting the conference. Often referencing Alaa’s imprisonment, they argued against authoritarianism and its role in inhibiting a sustainable future. Western media organisations often contend that authoritarian regimes create a civic environment hostile to environmental progress through the suppression of protest, associating authoritarian regimes with fossil-fuel production and deforestation. We are told that authoritarianism, in contrast to democracy, stands in the way of a viable future. Though this view isn’t false, it conveniently forgets oppressive and environmentally damaging systems which are also intrinsic to democratic countries.

During the past few months, the UK has implemented anti-protest practices which target climate activists within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Liz Truss also aired plans to lift the ban on fracking in England, engaging in fatally destructive actions in an attempt to resolve the energy crisis, even though renewables offer a more sustainable and economic approach. At last year’s COP26 the largest group of representatives were from the fossil fuel industry, preventing any significant reduction in fossil fuel subsidies. Clearly this reflects that the interest in shutting down discussions about sustainability are shared by democratic and authoritarian regimes. Indeed, shortly after the Arab Spring, Alaa was asked by his Western audiences what they could do to help; he responded, ‘Fix your own democracy.’

These arguments have been made time and time again – Nancy Fraser’s Cannibal Capitalism is one such example. Fraser argues that the voracious appetite for capital has cannibalised every domain of life, including the environment and politics. Private corporate power especially thrives off of public power, as political agendas are defined by markets and the demand for privatisation. Alaa recognizes this in his three-part essay on Uber and the intersections of technology and labour, initially published in 2018 and appearing in his recently translated collection, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. In this collection, Alaa discusses the Egyptian government’s choice to facilitate Uber’s expansion by subsidising fuel consumption, building new neighbourhoods without public transportation, and incentivising the purchase of private cars over private sector investment in public transport. This, he notes, reflects a value system based on the luxury of exclusive, gated communities, one antithetical to environmental change. Alaa argues that the demands of Uber and other Californian corporations not only take precedence over the rights of taxi drivers, but also over the interests of local companies, which grapple with Egyptian bureaucracy and security limitations while foreign companies are welcomed into presidential circles.

Many of the essays in Alaa’s collection speak of the political accumulation of power and wealth in an environmental context. He details both a pending future and a lived reality where inequality persists and schisms, perhaps originally rooted in material conditions, are exacerbated by cultural, ideological and sectarian struggles. Any objection to capital accumulation, argues Alaa, is dismissed by economists who argue that the market cannot account for the aftermath of production and offer solutions limited within the parameters of the very same market. COP, trade systems, and carbon taxes are marketed as remedies to the environmental crisis, yet, conveniently, they also have the potential to be extremely profitable for industries like Big Tech. Alaa points out that capitalism is so deeply entrenched in our collective understanding that any escape from it seems as fantastical as the argument that we should just move to Mars. Such solutions displace responsibility, occupying a non-existent apolitical space that exists simultaneously outside of capitalism (ignoring the conditions that enabled our present climate crisis) and within it (entrenched within Silicon Valley narratives of ‘decentralised’ technological innovation and ‘disruptive’ technologies). The real task is not to raise awareness of climate change, but to imagine alternative forms of life outside the boundaries of capitalism. As Alaa argues, these systems of social inequalities, entrenched within and reproductive of capitalism, are human inventions that do not require magic or miracles to change but rather a focus on collectivity, as Fraser refers to it, a ‘counter-hegemonic bloc.’

This bloc is created by identifying the major facets that connect both environmental and non-environmental crises, and their relationship to a single social system. Identifying how struggles over labour, care and disenfranchisement entwine with those of nature recentralises climate change back to one common project. Alaa advocates a common understanding of the recent past and a common analysis of priorities as a means of making change. In his 2019 essay, ‘The weight of the world: on framing the fight against climate change,’ Alaa depicts a future where governments use the environmental crisis to consolidate their position through financial accretion and investment, amongst narratives that fall along geopolitical conflicts and solutions that align with capital interests. With Cairo having channelled its organisational efforts into climate finance and investment opportunities, the financial undertone of this year’s COP hearkens back to Alaa’s warnings three years ago.

Fraser presciently argues in her book that discussions around moralised civility, bipartisanship, and real versus fake news fail to address the structural issues within our society. Discussions surrounding the recent COP that are concerned purely with Egypt’s authoritarianism fail to recognize the deep-rooted contradictions within its ideology project. Once we recognize this, we can truly begin to guide a process of social transformation that is not designed for the benefit of capital, but rather to benefit those who often find themselves exploited by it.

Though connection and common understanding must presage social change, whilst imprisoned, Alaa’s ability to connect with others is jeopardised. In prison, Alaa missed both the birth of his son and the death of his father. In his writing, the outside world breaches the prison walls. In a letter, he is plagued with thoughts about the floods in Pakistan, the complaints of fishermen in Egypt about the destruction of fisheries by multinational corporations, and to the people of Burrulus whose plight may offer the reminder that water is a basic human right. Through letters to his family and conversations with other inmates through the walls of their prison cells and censored readings, Alaa reaches for a life beyond his cell. In his writing, Alaa speaks both metaphorically and literally to his son, worried for the future he will inherit. This future is characterised by a struggle against securitization, segregation, surveillance, and environmental destruction. Alaa’s experiences in Egypt are reflective of a greater struggle, not only singularly focused on authoritarianism or confined to Egypt, but one that is interconnected to the labour, environmental, gender, racial struggles that are emerging across the world.

The call to listen and engage with people is present throughout all of Alaa’s writings, from when he was occupied with the process of writing an Egyptian constitution following the 2011 revolution and the transition into democracy, to his propositions for achieving unity around Egypt’s future in 2022. Now his family, and those within the #FreeThemAll movement, call upon us to listen to Alaa and those imprisoned, to treat them as more than symbols, and to imagine alternative, environmentally and financially sustainable systems of government. This year’s COP was an opportunity for African voices to be heard; yet the select voices that are given a platform are drowned out by the interests of capital. Although Alaa gave up water on the day global leaders gather to discuss impending droughts, he reminds us that we have yet to be defeated. He calls upon us to listen and to organise ourselves around the possibility of a post-capitalist future through global consciousness of shared struggle.

SARA ELBANNA earned an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Mansfield College in 2022. She has recently found herself crying a lot at random art, and doesn’t want that to stop.

Art by Agnes Halladay


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