Sisi’s Egypt is making a big show of solar panels and biodegradable straws ahead of next month’s climate summit – but in reality the regime imprisons activists and bans research. The climate movement should not play along

No one knows what happened to the lost climate letter. All that is known is this: Alaa Abd El-Fattah, one of Egypt’s most high-profile political prisoners, wrote it while on a hunger strike in his Cairo prison cell last month. It was, he explained later, “about global warming because of the news from Pakistan”. He was concerned about the floods that displaced 33 million people, and what that cataclysm foretold about climate hardships and paltry state responses to come.

A visionary technologist and intellectual, Abd El-Fattah’s first name – along with the hashtag #FreeAlaa – have become synonymous with the 2011 pro-democracy revolution that turned Cairo’s Tahrir Square into a surging sea of young people that ended the three-decade rule of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak. Behind bars almost continuously for the past decade, Abd El-Fattah is able to send and receive letters once a week. Earlier this year, a collection of his prison writings was published as the widely celebrated book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.

Abd El-Fattah’s family and friends live for those weekly letters. Especially since 2 April, when he started a hunger strike, ingesting only water and salt at first, and then just 100 calories a day (the body needs closer to 2,000). Abd El-Fattah’s strike is a protest against his imprisonment for the crime of “spreading false news” – ostensibly because he shared a Facebook post about the torture of another prisoner. Everyone knows, however, that his imprisonment is intended to send a message to any future young revolutionaries who get democratic dreams in their heads. With his strike, Abd El-Fattah is attempting to pressure his jailers to grant important concessions, including access to the British consulate (Abd El-Fattah’s mother was born in England, so he was able to obtain British citizenship). His jailers have so far refused, and so he continues to waste away. “He has become a skeleton with a lucid mind,” his sister Mona Seif said recently.

The longer the hunger strike wears on, the more precious those weekly letters become. For his family, they are nothing less than proof of life. Yet on the week he wrote about climate breakdown, the letter never made it to Abd El-Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, a human rights defender and intellectual in her own right. Perhaps, he speculated in subsequent correspondence to her, his jailer had “spilled his coffee over the letter”. More likely, it was deemed to touch on forbidden “high politics” – even though Abd El-Fattah says he was careful not to so much as mention the Egyptian government, or even “the upcoming conference”.