SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — The world leaders, government negotiators, climate scientists and other dignitaries are unlikely to see his name anywhere in Sharm el Sheikh, the beach resort city hosting the COP27 summit. But Alaa Abd El Fattah, Egypt’s most prominent revolutionary voice and its most famous political prisoner, is making his absence felt.
Mr. Abd El Fattah, an activist and software developer who has been imprisoned for most of the last nine years for his condemnations of Egypt’s authoritarian government, went on hunger strike in April, hoping to pressure officials into releasing him. For nearly seven months, he has consumed only milk, honey and tea. In late October, his family said he had stopped eating altogether.
On Sunday, he began refusing water, perhaps bringing himself closer to death just as the United Nations climate conference began.
“I’ve taken a decision to escalate at a time I see as fitting for my struggle for my freedom and the freedom of” other Egyptian prisoners of conscience, Mr. Abd El Fattah’s family members said he had written in his latest letter to them, which they received last week. He called his fellow prisoners “victims of a regime that’s unable to handle its crises except with oppression, unable to reproduce itself except through incarceration.”
The spotlight of COP27 offered Mr. Abd El Fattah’s supporters an opportunity. The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, mindful of its international image, was releasing dozens of other well-known political prisoners as the summit approached. Sensing a chance, Mr. Abd El Fattah’s family enlisted Nobel laureates, celebrities and prominent climate activists to call for his release and put pressure on senior politicians in Britain, where he holds dual citizenship, to raise the issue with the Egyptian government.
But it has all been for next to naught: Egyptian officials have denied that Mr. Abd El Fattah is on hunger strike, or, until recently, that they held any political prisoners at all.
Earlier this year, the Egyptian authorities transferred him to another prison and improved his detention conditions, lifting the strict ban on books, newspapers, hot water, bedding and outdoor exercise that had in part prompted his hunger strike. Still, they continued prohibiting visits from British consular officers.
Political chaos in Britain, which has had three prime ministers since September, has not helped. Britain’s new leader, Rishi Sunak, wrote in a letter on Saturday to Sanaa Seif, one of Mr. Abd El Fattah’s sisters, that he would “continue to stress to President Sisi the importance that we attach to the swift resolution of Alaa’s case, and an end to his unacceptable treatment.”
Britain’s former prime minister, Boris Johnson, called again on Monday for Mr. Abd El Fattah to be freed. “It is my strong belief that he should be released and have consular access,” Mr Johnson said at an event hosted by The New York Times on the sidelines of COP27.
But Ms. Seif and her family have said that bringing up Mr. Abd El Fattah’s case at COP27 may be too late.
Born to a family of dissidents, Mr. Abd El Fattah came to widespread prominence during Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising, when he participated in and regularly wrote about the mass antigovernment protests under the Twitter handle @Alaa. His revolutionary activities made him a hero to many young Egyptians and a target for the authorities: He was arrested in 2006, 2011 and 2013 over various protests, critical articles and social media posts. His most recent detention came in September 2019.
He was held for two years without trial before being tried and swiftly convicted in December 2021 for posting on Facebook about rights violations in prison.
Max Bearak contributed reporting.