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Activist counts on publicity to get her brother released from an Egyptian prison

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A leading voice of Egypt's revolt against autocracy in 2011 may die behind bars in the midst of a U.N.-sponsored climate summit in the Egyptian beach resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. For more than 200 days, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a British Egyptian citizen imprisoned over his activism, has been on hunger strike. And on Sunday, he stopped drinking water just before the start of COP27. His family says, if he isn't released, he will die. We spoke to his sister, Sanaa Seif, who's in Sharm el-Sheikh trying to increase pressure on Egyptian authorities to release her brother. I asked her if traveling to Egypt could mean she was putting herself in danger.

SANAA SEIF: Firstly, I'm desperate. I'm losing my brother, so I'm not sure if I care any more about my safety. But also, I'm counting on the publicity because we have managed to make Alaa's case such high profile. So I imagine they will be calculating the political price of whether to arrest me or not. But I'm hoping we can save Alaa. Anyway, we've been living in crazy oppression for so long.

FADEL: You're at the conference, and the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is also in Egypt. And he wrote you a letter before his departure. What did he say, and what do you want the British government to do?

SEIF: I was glad that we got a response. And so it means that it's a priority. I'm just worried it could be too late. This should have been resolved before the prime minister ever setting foot in Egypt. I'm waiting to see what will happen. He's already here, and we haven't heard any progress. I'm really glad that he understands the urgency. I hope he actually raises it firmly. And the Egyptian authorities will know the difference - if the prime minister is just paying lip service or if he cares and if this is important for him.

FADEL: When was the last time you physically saw your brother?

SEIF: The last time I saw him was in August - 16 of August. He looked very scary to me. I - he looked frail. His eyes looked sunken. I can't even understand how he's still alive from when I saw him. He's endured so much. But when I wrote him a letter, I told him genuinely that I was scared when I saw him. That was a month ago. He told me, I feel better than I look. I feel stronger than I look. And I'm - I have it in me to continue this fight. And I trust him.

FADEL: You've said a few times, I just hope it's not too late. And your brother stopped drinking water on Sunday. He's on no calories, and now he's not drinking water. How much time is there?

SEIF: I don't know. He's been - now it's over 24 hours with Alaa stopping water. I think we're talking hours. We're talking days. I don't know. I'm really worried. And this was also one of the requests we've made to the British authorities. So OK, you're working on release, but we need you to get us daily proof of life. We don't have daily access to Alaa as a family. My mum is, right now, outside the prison gates, trying to get any information or a letter written by him so that we know that he's alive.

FADEL: There has been a lot of criticism that COP27 is happening at all in a country where activists are imprisoned for years, like your brother. Do you think this should be happening in Egypt?

SEIF: Well, I think it was a big mistake, of course, because host countries should have some standards towards COP because there needs to be civic space for this conference to function, even, because, you know, the thing about these conferences is that you have the activists outside pressuring the politicians, and so the politicians feel the heat. Right now, in this space, for instance, the activists are so isolated from the officials, and I hope the U.N. understands - realizes that it was a mistake because, so far, they're acting as if, like, this is a conference happening in Sweden. They're acting oblivious.

But I am really, really relieved and heartwarmed by the amount of solidarity we've seen. Many are now raising the human rights situation - not government so far, publicly - but a lot of the activists coming from the Global South, Global North have used this space to address the human rights situation and to kind of be our voice on our behalf because Egyptians can't easily access this space. I had to do a lot of roundabouts to get my accreditation.

FADEL: You said that you're hoping you can save Alaa - that you're desperate to save your brother. And, of course, I understand that. And Alaa is not alone. He's not the only one who is in this situation. Last week, another Egyptian political prisoner named Alaa al-Salami died in detention, also on hunger strike. Can you just talk about that larger context of the numbers of people that are in the same situation as your brother?

SEIF: The estimation is - by human rights groups is 60,000 political prisoners. It's definitely a lot. I don't even think that the Egyptian authorities themselves, if they decided to make a good estimate - like, give a number of the number of political prisoners they have, they would be able to. It's become so hectic on the ground. It's really - when we say it's become a police state, we're not exaggerating.

But we have seen, because of the conference, a shift in tone - not in actions - in tone. So that's why we urge everybody to keep pressing because a shift in tone means that the authorities - the Egyptian regime - realizes it has to do some face-lifting - some aesthetic improvements for the world to kind of accept it.

FADEL: So you think the pressure might be working?

SEIF: Yes, the pressure is working. The real challenge is that it takes a lot to convince Western governments to actually press, and the silence really needs to be broken. The silence has now been broken by the international community, by activists, by media, but it has not been broken by politicians, and it needs to be broken.

FADEL: Sanaa Seif, speaking to us from Egypt, where she's advocating for her brother, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, imprisoned in Egypt, on hunger strike. And he's now given up water. Thank you so much for your time.

SEIF: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Just after I spoke with Sanaa Seif, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Sunak's office says he expressed deep concern about Alaa Abd el-Fattah's case. NPR reached out to the Egyptian embassy and U.N. organizers of the summit about Abd el-Fattah's case and the general concern over the Egyptian government's human rights record. We have not heard back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.