The sister of detained writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah fears the Foreign Office is “setting up the Prime Minister to fail” on his Cop27 trip to Egypt because her brother may die there while on hunger strike during the conference.
Rishi Sunak told the family of the British-Egyptian activist in a letter that he will raise their plight with the Egyptian president – but would be updating the family after the climate summit is over, which they say could be too late.
Mr Abd El-Fattah has been imprisoned in Cairo since 2006 over his pro-democracy writing.
He has been on hunger strike in prison, eating only 100 daily calories for the past 200 days, and will stop drinking water as the summit begins to escalate his protest.
Mr Sunak wrote to his family on Saturday saying he was “totally committed” to resolving the case, which he described as “a priority for the British Government both as a human rights defender and as a British national”.
He described Cop27 as “another opportunity to raise your brother’s case with the Egyptian leadership” and said Middle East minister Lord Ahmad would update the family on negotiations after the summit – which finishes on November 18.
My brother just had his last glass of water in prison. Please keep his story alive, it's not over. He can be saved.This afternoon I'm flying to Sharm, I have a civil society pass. The Egyptian regime claims civic space exists in #COP27 , I'll be testing that.#FreeAlaa pic.twitter.com/e2FsfRGmft
— Sanaa (@sana2) November 6, 2022
Mr Abd El-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif, said she was worried her brother, who looked “very, very frail” with “sunken eyes” last time she saw him in August, would die before the end of Cop27.
She told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “It’s good that we have a commitment from the Prime Minister’s office, but what worried me is he said we would get confirmation after the conference.
“I feel like the Prime Minister needs to understand the urgency – after the conference it could be too late.
“I know it’s not the Prime Minister’s mistake, but the Foreign Office, the embassy, they have been working on this for a very long time, and I feel like they are setting up the Prime Minister to fail in this trip.”
“I’m worried that he could die while the conference is happening and while the Prime Minister is over there,” she added.
“We don’t have a way to know, so I would urge the Prime Minister and the British Government to be responsible for getting us proof of life.”
Ms Seif said she hoped the Prime Minister would not merely be paying “lip service” to their cause, adding that since Britain has a “very strong” relationship with Egypt, it should be “easy” to secure the release.
Speaking about her brother’s hunger strike, Ms Seif said: “He is putting his body on the line not because he wants to die but because he wants to live and he wants his life back, and he’s really tired of this.
“Alaa has a 10-year-old boy and he has spent the last nine years in prison. He hasn’t had time with his kid.”
Ms Seif said she will be travelling to Cop27 as a civil observer.
Shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband is also attending the summit, and he told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme he will be “raising the issue” with the Egyptian authorities while he is there.
In his last letter to his family, Mr Abd El-Fattah said he has chosen to begin his water strike on the eve of Cop27 “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”.
Former British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, described Mr Abd El-Fattah as “like a young Mandela”, and said Egypt was blocking visits from British Embassy officials.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Casson said: “Abd el-Fattah is not the typical prisoner languishing abroad.
“Like a young Mandela, the 40-year-old British-Egyptian writer has a global voice and moral stature forged by years of imprisonment.
“Today he will give up water, after 200 days of a hunger strike.
“His demand is for his basic right to a visit from British Embassy officials.
“In most cases visits happen in two days, but Egypt has blocked our access to Abd El-Fattah for a year.”
The Foreign Office said ministers are “deeply concerned” about the incarceration of Mr Abd El-Fattah and they are “working hard” to secure his release.
A spokesperson for the department said: “We are deeply concerned about the continued detention of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a British citizen and human rights defender.
“The Government is working hard to secure his release and continues to raise his case at the highest levels of the Egyptian Government.
“We recognise how difficult this is for both Alaa and his family.
“The Foreign Secretary has spoken to the family this week to assure them we are doing everything we can, and the Prime Minister intends to push for progress when he visits Egypt for Cop27.”