contributors – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 25 Apr 2023 03:37:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Department of History, University of Michigan, Delays Grade Posting until May 12th in Support of Striking Grads Tue, 25 Apr 2023 04:04:52 +0000 Monday, April 24, 2023

To the University President, Provost, and Administration:

We are deeply troubled by reports that the administration intends to punish faculty, staff, and department chairs who refuse to assign grades for work that they have not personally assessed. We find these actions to be an infringement on faculty autonomy, and we reject the threats and warnings of the administration as unethical and antithetical to our mission as educators. We reiterate SACUA’s statement that “assessment of student work is the prerogative of the instructor, and demands thoughtful and holistic evaluation of student performances.”

Photo by Ardalan on Unsplash

In light of the administration’s pressure to implicate faculty in breaking GEO’s strike and to perform uncompensated labor, History department faculty have made a collective decision to withhold our grades as a form of protest until May 12th. On that day, we will collectively reconsider our stance. We urge the administration to cease its threats to faculty and to present an equitable offer to GEO in collective bargaining immediately.

Members of the History Department

Ecospirituality: Spiritual connection with Nature transcends Politics, Religion Wed, 19 Apr 2023 04:02:40 +0000 University of British Columbia News

Have you ever felt awestruck by a towering evergreen, waves crashing against rocks, or the vastness of a desert canyon?

You’re not alone. Across time and cultures, humans have felt a spiritual connection with nature.

New UBC research gives this connection a name—ecospirituality—and reveals it could help reduce polarization on environmental issues that threaten the planet.

Measuring ecospirituality

The researchers from UBC and Oxford Brookes University developed the world’s first questionnaire to measure ecospirituality.

They asked participants to indicate their level of agreement with eight statements, such as “I feel intense wonder toward nature,” or “There is a spiritual connection between human beings and the natural environment.”

A survey of more than 6,000 people in Canada, the U.S. and Singapore showed that ecospirituality doesn’t depend on political or religious orientation. Even atheists, who usually score low on spirituality measures, scored above the midpoint for ecospirituality.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash.

Conservatives were approximately as ecospiritual as liberals. The researchers say this deserves further investigation, because ecospiritual people were also found to have more concern for the environment. Ecospirituality could be a pathway to better care for the environment regardless of one’s politics.

How can ecospirituality reduce division?

Matthew Billet

“If you have family or friends with different political views about environmental issues, try finding common ground by talking about the ways in which nature is sacred, awe-inspiring, and a place for spiritual refuge,” suggested the study’s first author Matthew Billet, who is pursuing a doctorate in social psychology at UBC.

Whether it be at the personal or policy level, this research shows the potential for shared ecospiritual beliefs and experiences to smooth difficult conversations between people of different religious and political orientations.

Journalists may request an interview with a member of the research team by emailing Erik Rolfsen at

How Israel’s Protests actually Assist Israeli State Propaganda Thu, 13 Apr 2023 04:02:55 +0000

( Counterpunch) – Benjamin Netanyahu, in collaboration with Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and a cohort of other fascists, has been executing a judicial coup which guts so-called Israeli democratic institutions and threatens liberal reforms.

Many Israelis are infuriated. They’ve always viewed Israel as either part of Europe or the United States’ 51st state. “The only democracy in the Middle East”, a “villa in the jungle” with its fancy boutiques, exquisite espresso bars, glitzy shopping malls, wild/sexy nightlife and world-class wineries and restaurants. Most liberal Zionists see themselves closer to “civilized” white Christian Europeans rather than their “primitive” Brown Muslim Arab neighbors.

Liberal Zionism promotes the notion of a left-to-right spectrum within Israel. Yet the differences between the extremes are merely tactical and cosmetic, maintaining an illusion of a humane society with a healthy democratic discourse. “Left-wing” and “Liberal” Zionist parties engage in civil liberties for members of the privileged class yet dare not address the nature of Zionism, whose adherents have terrorized Indigenous Palestinians for over seven decades.

For liberal Zionists, without LGBTQ rights and buses on Saturday, Israel would simply become another Middle Eastern theocracy in which women are rendered inferior and prayer is mandatory in schools. In contrast, they see themselves as trailblazing feminists who believe women should have every right men have, like the right to enlist into military combat units and kill Palestinians. And what about Palestinians, you ask? It’s complicated, they respond.

Photo by Latrach Med Jamil on Unsplash

The “Pogrom” and B’Tselem

As with every fledgling Israeli regime, the current government seeks to market itself to the Israeli public, distracting from its own corruptions and inadequacies by massacring Palestinians and stealing their resources. However, in contrast to recent administrations, Netanyahu and his cabal now unapologetically incite vigilante and mass civilian settler violence in addition to advocating for military incursions, mass arrests, bombings of innocent civilians, sieges and assassinations.

On the night of February 26-27, supposedly in response to the shooting of two Israeli settlers, hundreds of settlers rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara, near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, killing, torching and wounding.

Israeli liberal society was outraged. Hagai El-Ad, Executive Director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Human Rights Organization said in response:

“As a Jewish person, we know what a pogrom is. Because Jews have been on the receiving end of pogroms for too many years. Now, after what happened here on Sunday night, there are hundreds of Jewish settlers that know what a pogrom is not from the side of suffering under it but from the side that has committed that atrocity.”

By comparing the events in Huwara to a “pogrom”, a word closely linked to massacres of Jewish people in Russia or eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, El-Ad continues B’Tselem’s unfortunate framing of Zionism as a Jewish project enforcing “Jewish supremacy”, rather than the correct identification of genocidal western settler colonialism and white supremacy.

It is common practice for Zionist propagandists to promote the anti-Semitic fallacy that Israel is a Jewish state which represents Judaism and thus all Jews. Spearheaded by Netanyahu in 2018, Israel’s The Nation State of the Jewish People law enshrines this canard as an addition to Israel’s Basic Laws, which operate as a stand-in for a non-existent Constitution, pursuant to Israel having never declared its borders thus enabling continuous theft of Palestinian land. The fallacy serves as the cornerstone of Zionist propaganda (aka Hasbara), galvanizing support for Israel’s settler colonialism and attack of anti-colonial resistance.

Clearly, Zionists would much rather engage with accusations of carrying out a “pogrom” than a “white supremacist settler rampage”, ironically despite the obvious white supremacist nature of the former. Deploying its police, military and settler brownshirts, Israel has always been engaged in settler violence aimed at expansionism and resource acquisition. In fact, Zionism is a racist and settler colonialist movement, which opportunistically coopts aspects of Judaism in an attempt to justify its criminal practices against the Palestinian people. Zionism is based on a distinctly secular outlook, which embraces aggression and expansion as an acceptable response to trauma and denounces the traditional Jewish pacifist approach of viewing hardship as divine punishment for sins. Zionist strategists manipulate the past traumas Jews have endured to gain support for aggressive criminal policies that disenfranchise and evict Palestinians.

Unfortunately, El-Ad’s comments are in line with this Zionist tradition. However, the framing of Zionism as “white”, not “Jewish” enables and strengthens the formation of coalitions between all those opposed to settler colonialism and white supremacy and hinders Zionist attempts at sabotage by hurling cynical accusations of “anti-Semitism”.

The Israeli Flag and Zionist Propaganda

The ultimate propaganda goal of any nationalistic apparatus is to fuse the perception of “self” with that of “nation” into a cohesive identity that is loyal to the ruling class. Indeed, one symbol has reemerged in nearly every image and video from these liberal Zionist protests throughout Israel and the West Bank – the Israeli flag. These protests have become a nationalistic chest-beating contest in which protesters compete with Israeli police, and politicians – Netanyahu and his fascistic brethren – over loyalty to Israel and Zionism. Hence, it’s clear these protests are no real threat to the apartheid regime. Yet, they could pose a threat to Netanyahu’s solidification of the Nation-State law within the Basic Laws as he seeks to extinguish the power of courts to change or remove it, along with protecting him from corruption charges.

Meanwhile, millions of Indigenous Palestinians in Israel, the Occupied Territories and diaspora are excluded from this reactionary discourse. For them, the Israeli flag represents their catastrophe and can never symbolize justice.

Indeed, Zionist propagandists have recognized the immense propaganda potential in these protests. They can claim Zionism is indisputable within Israel, and is fundamentally liberal, even democratic, as it supposedly allows a range of opinions and tolerates opposition.

Not only have these protests failed to threaten the Israeli regime, Netanyahu and his government have unapologetically and confidently deployed police tactics against protesters normally reserved for Palestinians and occasionally ultra-orthodox Jews. These tactics, including flash grenades and skunk water are small potatoes for Palestinians who are murdered every day by Israeli occupation forces, including women, children, elderly folk and members of the press.

Further, amidst worldwide condemnations, including within Israel’s political spectrum, some Israeli politicians have maintained their emboldened inflammatory rhetoric. Betzalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister with sweeping civilian powers in the West Bank said the town of Huwara “should be erased”, yet not by civilians, but by the military.

Alternative Protest

The horrific oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people will not cease as a result of actions by the Israeli/Zionist public unless Palestinian demands for justice are supported first and foremost. As with the 2011 social justice protests, these recent demonstrations reflect discontent from a class of Israeli society afraid to lose certain privileges. Inevitably, Palestinians will continue to suffer apartheid and genocide until the international community intervenes.

By contrast, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has wisely adopted a strict anti-Zionist, anti-racist platform grounded in human rights. Built on clear understanding of oppressive systems, intersectional resistance and the path to liberation, BDS incorporates lessons of past anti-colonial movements, dismantling fictitious, divisive political narratives of white supremacy, imperialism, racism and patriarchy. The recognition that various oppressed peoples have common enemies serves to reinforce solidarity and cooperation between them, enhancing the growth and success of principled grassroots movements worldwide.

Yoav Litvin is a Doctor of Psychology/ Behavioral Neuroscience. For more info, please visit  

Mirrored with the author’s permission from Counterpunch.

Adam Lenhart: “Two Scenes from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (Concert) Mon, 10 Apr 2023 04:08:33 +0000 Adam Lenhart Music: “Two Scenes from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám – University of Michigan 2023 CoLab Concert Performance”

Two Scenes from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (2022) ~ Trio for Bb Clarinet, Violin & Piano Performed by Alan Sun, Alex Vershinin and Emma Fu Video and Audio by Nelson Walker

“The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a Persian poetry collection first put together in 1460 in Shiraz. It consists of quatrains, four-line poems, with a set of unconventional themes. The poetry is irreligious and questions the afterlife and God’s providence. It shows keen awareness of the shortness of life and the finality of death. It advises therefore that every fleeting moment of every day should be savored, with wine, lovers and song. The combination of a serious philosophy of life and a carefree attitude has made the poetry popular for centuries. In 1859, Edward FitzGerald brought out a loose English translation that took the world by storm. It became the most beloved and widely known poem in the English language for decades until its popularity finally faded in the late twentieth century. Although they were attributed to the great mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam (d. 1131), the poems were by many anonymous hands, and he was just a frame author, akin to Scheherezade in the Arabian Nights.” – Dr. Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan

About the Composition of Adam Lenhart: “Two Scenes from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” explores and embodies two of the main themes that carry throughout the quatrains of the poem collection. In FitzGerald’s translation, the quatrains follow a day to night cycle. The two movements reflect this by starting off with an abrupt “wake up” section and ending the piece with a nocturne. The first movement, “Wine”, celebrates the camaraderie, joy and chaos that comes through the physical joy of being with friends. The clarinet, violin and piano interact in a conversational way, talking, laughing, and insulting one another in their own independent lines.

The second movement is entitled “Intimacy” and explores the emotional joy of connecting with one another. The movement is set in a waltz style dance and draws influence from Chopin, Liszt and other romantic era composers. This is juxtaposed by youthful and energetic phrases so that the piece embodies all forms of love: young love, years of marriage and even friendship. Each movement has a sense of urgency and density which is present in the rubá’iyát as well, expressing to the reader that our time on Earth is so short and to make the most of each day.

Purchase this score at:… Watch the score follower video at:    • Two Scenes from T…   Movement I, “Wine”: 0:00 Movement II, “Intimacy”: 3:52


For the Cole translation:

For the earliest collection of verse attributed to Omar Khayyam see
my The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation from the Persian

Order from

Bloomsbury (IB Tauris)

or Schuler Books in Ann Arbor.

or Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

or Barnes and Noble.

or Amazon

“’To read Juan Cole’s deft, plain-spoken translation of the Rubáiyát
is to find companionship, to rejoin a thousand-year human
conversation about how to endure, enjoy, and find a fleeting beauty
in everlastingly dire times. The lucid, cogent and mind-opening
Epilogue is a kind of grace, a gift freely given, from one of our
most astonishing and generous intellects.’”
– Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Moonglow (2017)

“’Omar Khayyam is a Persian treasure and Juan Cole’s new
translation brings him anew to Western audiences who
for centuries have been both delighted and educated by this
medieval sage! Reading The Rubáiyát is a thrill – you feel the
echoes of the 12th century seamlessly into our 21st, as this is
a holy book of wisdom and magic. In another perilous era for
Iranians, it’s wonderful to see this enchanting volume make
its way through the world yet again!’”
– Porochista Khakpour, novelist, essayist and author of Brown Album (2020)

How to Create Positive Change: Danielle Moodie and Wajahat Ali at Progress Network (Video) Wed, 05 Apr 2023 04:02:55 +0000 The Progress Network |

    How does change actually occur? And what are the best tactics for bringing large coalitions together? Hosts of Democracy-ish, Danielle Moodie and Wajahat Ali, discuss the balance between angry revolution and individual hope, and what ultimately gets people on board with a movement. Plus, we take a look at the World Happiness Report and the college enrollment drop.

The Progress Network: “How to Create Positive Change with Danielle Moodie & Wajahat Ali | What Could Go Right?”

Open Letter to Sec’y Blinken: James Cavallaro Should not be Disqualified on Inter-American Human Rights for Criticizing Israeli Apartheid Fri, 24 Feb 2023 05:02:24 +0000 Open Letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the withdrawal of Professor James Cavallaro’s nomination for commissioner to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States

Secretary of State Antony Blinken

2201 C St NW

Washington, DC 20520


RE: U.S. State Department withdrawal of leading human rights expert’s candidacy to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Dear Secretary Blinken:

We the undersigned groups and individuals are deeply concerned and dismayed by the U.S. State Department’s withdrawal of Professor James Cavallaro’s nomination for commissioner to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”) of the Organization of American States (“OAS”).

On February 10th, the State Department nominated Cavallaro because he is, in the State Department’s own words, “a leading scholar and practitioner of international law with deep expertise in the region as well as the Inter-American human rights system.” Cavallaro served on the Commission for the 2014-2017 term, including as Commission President from 2016-2017.

Cavallaro’s recent nomination was welcomed by many in the human rights community in the United States and throughout the OAS region. Four days later, the State Department withdrew its nomination. The Associated Press reported that Cavallaro’s statements about the Israeli government and criticisms of the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups led to the withdrawal of his nomination. The State Department noted that Cavallaro’s statements “clearly do not reflect U.S. policy” and “are not a reflection of what we believe.” Cavallaro reports that State Department officials informed him that the basis for the withdrawal of his nomination was his posts on Twitter about Israel and Palestine.

It is alarming that the State Department has reversed its decision and disqualified one of the most distinguished, independent human rights experts on the Americas from joining the region’s human rights oversight body based at least in part on his well-grounded analyses of international human rights issues.

The State Department should reinstate Cavallaro’s nomination for the following reasons:

Cavallaro is one of the most distinguished human rights advocates in the Americas.

Following Cavallaro’s leadership of the human rights programs at both Harvard and Stanford Law Schools, the State Department nominated him to the Commission in 2013. He served both as Commissioner (2014-2017) and President (2016-2017), as well as Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty. In these roles, his numerous achievements and contributions have had lasting consequences for victims’ access to justice and the protection of human rights in the OAS region.

Commissioners on the Inter-American Commission are independent human rights experts, not spokespeople for their country’s foreign policies.

The effectiveness of the Inter-American Commission rests on the independence of its Commissioners from their governments. This is reflected in the Inter-American Commission’s Rules and Procedures, which prohibit commissioners from participating in discussions and voting on matters that concern the country of which they are a national.

Cavallaro’s criticism of the Israeli government is consistent with the findings of prominent human rights organizations.

Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations, advocates, and scholars have all published reports concluding that the Israeli government’s repression of Palestinians amounts to apartheid.

Withdrawing the candidacy of a distinguished human rights advocate for their criticism of human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine or any other context sets a dangerous precedent that impacts human rights advocacy across the globe.

Human rights practitioners and scholars should not fear professional reprisal for expressing their views about human rights violations, especially those carried out by U.S. allies. This undermines free expression, academic freedom, and the work of all human rights advocates, particularly those who do not have the same kind of platform as Cavallaro.

The State Department’s move is harmful to the global human rights movement and undermines the credibility of the United States in advocating for human rights in other parts of the world.


Human Rights Watch


Center for Constitutional Rights

American Friends Service Committee

International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School

Additional Signatories:


Jewish Voice for Peace Action

Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN)

Freedom Forward

Front Line Defenders

Palestine Legal

Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA)

International Human Rights Clinic, Boston University School of Law

ReThinking Foreign Policy

Institute for Policy Studies, New Internationalism Project

Andean Information Network

Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine

Jewish Voice for Peace Boston

National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter

Haitian Bridge Alliance

International Human Rights Clinic, Santa Clara Law

Just Foreign Policy

Center for Justice and Accountability

Sons And Daughters of Africa, Inc

Tackling Torture at the Top

National Lawyers Guild International Committee

Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East

Project South

Asheville Homeless Network


Human Rights First

Promoting Enduring Peace

Disability Rights International

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology

Justiça Global – Brasil

Gregório Andrade Advogados Associados

Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law

Classi Edizioni

Comité de Acción Jurídica (CAJ)

Water Protector Legal Collective

Iniciativa Direito a Memória e Justiça Racial

Instituto Silvia Lane

USA Palestine Mental Health Network

Sovrastrutture Paris

J – Punto Einaudi Napoli

Centro Estratégico en Justicia y Derecho para las Américas (CENEJYD)

Rede de comunidades e Movimento contra violência

Universidade Católica de Pernambuco

Asociación de Detenidos Desaparecidos y Mártires por la Liberación Nacional ASOFAMD

Lowenstein Human Rights Project, Yale Law School

Defending Rights & Dissent

Harvard Law School Advocates for Human Rights

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFK Human Rights)

Brooklyn For Peace

Instituto Braços – Centro de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos em Sergipe

Freedom Imaginaries

Colectiva Acción Directa Autogestiva

Foro Cultural Karuzo

Milynali Red

Familias desaparecidos Orizaba – Cordoba

Silvia Elida Ortiz Solís

Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos “Todos los Derechos para Todas y Todos” (Red TDT)

Voces unidas por la vida y la dignidad humana

Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)

Organización del pueblo kichwa Saraguro SA KIAT

Técnicas Rudas


Comissão de Direito Internacional da OAB/RJ

ACAT-Brasil e da FENADV-Federaçao Nacional dos Advogados e Advogadas

Agenda Nacional Pelo Desencarceramento

Rede Nacional de Mães e Familiares de Vítimas do Terrorismo do Estado

Movimento Candelária Nunca Mais

Frente Estadual Pelo desencarceramento do Rio de janeiro

Coletivo de mães e familiares de pessoas privada de liberdade Rondônia

Movimento Mães de Acari

Frente Estadual Pelo desencarceramento do Rio Grande do norte

Amafavv Espírito Santo

Movimento de Mães Amar RJ.

Laboratório de Gestão de Políticas Penais da Universidade de Brasília – Brasil

Chief Executive Officer, Ancient Song Doula Services, Brooklyn, NY


Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee

Council on American-Islamic Relations

Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation

MENA Rights Group

Serviço Ecumênico de Militância nas Prisões (SEMPRI)

BIPOCanalysis Collective

MPower Change

Middle East Crisis Committee (MECC)


Individuals (title and affiliation listed for identification purposes only):

Former Candidates & Commissioners, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; former & current United Nations Mandate Holders

David Kaye, UC Irvine School of Law, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression (2014-2020) . . .

See full list of signatories here.


Bonus IC Video: Democracy Now! “Silencing Critics of Israel: Biden Pulls Nomination of Human Rights Lawyer For Decrying Apartheid”

Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South Sun, 12 Feb 2023 05:04:08 +0000 A new manifesto critiques the “clean energy” transitions of the Global North and offers an alternative vision from the Global South. ]]> Israel Must not Include Fascist Parties in its New Government: L.A. Jews for Peace Tue, 29 Nov 2022 05:02:56 +0000 LA Jews for Peace Policy Statement
Los Angeles, CA. November 28, 2022 Contact:

Israel must not include Fascist Parties
in its New Government

LA Jews for Peace look on in horror as Benjamin Netanyahu is forming a majority Israeli government that will include the Religious Zionist Party.

The Religious Zionist Party is led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir who both have been previously either convicted[1] or jailed for engaging[2] in terrorist activities. The Religionist Zionist Party is openly “Kahanist” in its views that in the U.S. are equivalent to the KKK, and is widely considered fascist.

Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir seem to be in line for senior military- and security-related portfolios in the new cabinet.

An Israeli government cannot include that party and still be considered democratic. Even the LA Times[3] is concerned.

The prospects of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in the Israeli government has already emboldened terrorist settlers who attack Palestinian and peace activist property and land, and the Israeli army that has been beating Breaking the Silence activists in Hebron citing “authority” of the new government (that is not yet even formed).

With the Religious Zionist Party in the government, Israel will accelerate along its path to dismantle Israeli democracy and transform Israel into a theocratic state like Iran and Pakistan.

It seems that there is only one party that can halt Israel’s rush to madness — the United States that supports Israel diplomatically, militarily, and financially.

LA Jews for Peace calls on President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and all members of Congress to demand that Netanyahu reject fascist parties in his government.



[3] LA Times, November 28, 2022, p.1.

What to Expect from COP27 in Egypt’s Police State: Medea Benjamin Interviews Sharif Abdel Kouddous Fri, 04 Nov 2022 04:04:42 +0000 Medea Benjamin interviews Sharif Abdel Kouddous | –

(Code Pink) – The global climate meeting called COP27 (the 27th Conference of Parties) will be held in the remote Egyptian desert resort of Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt from November 6-18. Given the extremely repressive nature of the Egyptian government, this gathering will likely be different from others, where there have been large, raucous protests led by civil society groups.

So as tens of thousands of delegates – from world leaders to climate activists and journalists – descend on Sharm el-Sheik from all over the world, we asked Egyptian Journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous to give us his thoughts about the state of Egypt today, including the situation of political prisoners, and how he expects the Egyptian government will act with the eyes of the world upon it.

MB: For those who don’t know or have forgotten, can you give us a quick overview of the nature of the present government in Egypt today?

The 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak, an uprising that was part of what has been called the Arab Spring, was very inspiring and had reverberations around the world, from the Occupy Movement in the United States to the Indignados in Spain. But that revolution was crushed in a very brutal way in 2013 by the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi–who later became president.

Right now, Egypt is ruled by a very tight and closed clique of military and intelligence officers, a circle that is completely opaque. Its decision-making process does not allow for any political participation and it does not brook any kind of dissent or opposition. It seems that the government’s answer to any problems with its citizens is to put them in prison.

There are literally tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt right now. We don’t know the exact number because there are no official statistics and this forces lawyers and the very harassed human rights groups to try to painstakingly tabulate the thousands of people who are trapped behind bars.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen Egypt build several new prisons. Just last year Sisi oversaw the opening of the Wadi al-Natrun prison complex. It’s not called a prison complex, it’s called a “rehabilitation center.” This is one of seven or eight new prisons that Sisi himself has dubbed “American-style prisons.”

These prison complexes include within them the courts and judicial buildings, so it makes a conveyor belt from the courthouse to the prison more efficient.

MB: What is the status of this massive group of political prisoners?

The majority of political prisoners in Egypt are held in what is called “pre-trial detention.” Under Egypt’s penal code, you can be held in prison for two years without ever being convicted of a crime. Nearly everyone held in pre-trial detention faces two identical charges: one is spreading false information and the other is belonging to a terrorist organization or an outlawed organization.

The prison conditions are very dire. If you get sick, you are in big trouble. There have been a lot of deaths from medical negligence, with prisoners dying in custody. Torture and other forms of abuse by security forces is widespread.

We’ve also seen the number of death sentences and executions skyrocket. Under the former President Mubarak, in his final decade in office, there was a de facto moratorium on executions. There were death sentences handed down but people were not being put to death. Now Egypt ranks third in the world in the number of executions.

MB: What about other freedoms, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of the press?

Basically, the regime sees its citizens as a nuisance or a threat. All forms of protest or public assembly are banned.

Alleged violations carry very stiff prison sentences. We’ve seen mass arrests sweeps happen whenever there’s any kind of public demonstration and we’ve also seen an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, with human rights organizations and economic justice organizations being forced to scale back their operations or basically operate underground.The people who work for them are subject to intimidation and harassment and travel bans and arrests.

We’ve also seen a massive crackdown on press freedom, a nearly complete takeover of the media landscape. Under Mubarak’s government, there was at least some opposition press, including some opposition newspapers and TV stations. But now the government very tightly controls the press through censorship and also through acquisition. The General Intelligence Services, which is the intelligence apparatus of the military, has become the largest media owner of the country. They own newspapers and TV channels. Independent media, such as the one I work for called Mada Masr, operate on the margins in a very, very hostile environment.

Egypt is the third largest jailer of journalists in the world and imprisons more journalists on charges of spreading false news than any other country in the world.

MB: Can you talk about the case of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is probably Egypt’s most famous political prisoner?

Alaa has been behind bars for much of the last decade. He is in prison ostensibly for the crime of “spreading false news,” but he is really in prison for these ideas, for being an icon and a symbol of the 2011 revolution. For the regime, imprisoning him was a way to set an example for everyone else. That’s why there has been so much campaigning to get him out.

He has been in prison under very, very difficult conditions. For two years he wasn’t allowed out of his cell and didn’t even have a mattress to sleep on. He was completely deprived of everything, including books or reading materials of any kind. For the first time, he started expressing suicidal thoughts.

But on April 2 he decided to go on a hunger strike as an act of resistance against his imprisonment. He has been on a hunger strike for seven months now. He started with just water and salt, which is a kind of hunger strike that Egyptians learned from Palestinians. Then in May, he decided to go on a Gandhi-style strike and ingest 100 calories a day–which is a spoonful of honey in some tea. An average adult needs 2,000 calories a day, so it’s very meager.

But he just sent a letter to his family saying that he was going back to a full hunger strike and on November 6, on the eve of the COP meeting, he’s going to stop drinking water. This is extremely serious because the body cannot last without water for more than a few days.

So he is calling on all of us on the outside to organize, because either he will die in prison or he will be released. What he is doing is incredibly brave. He is using his body, the only thing he has agency over, to organize and to push us on the outside to do more.

MB: How do these repressed civil society leaders view the fact that Egypt is playing host to COP27?

It was very disheartening for a lot of people in Egypt who work for human rights and justice and democracy when Egypt was granted the right to host the conference. But Egyptian civil society has not called on the international community to boycott the COP meeting; they have called for the plight of political prisoners and the lack of human rights to be linked to the climate discussions and not ignored.

They want a spotlight to be placed on the thousands of political prisoners like Alaa, like Abdel Moneim Aboul Foitouh, a former presidential candidate, like Mohamed Oxygen, a blogger, like Marwa Arafa, who is an activist from Alexandria.

Unfortunately, hosting this meeting has given the government a great opportunity to remake its image. It has allowed the government to try to position itself as the voice for the Global South and the negotiator trying to unlock billions of dollars a year in climate financing from the Global North.

Of course the issue of climate reparations to the Global South is very important. It needs to be discussed and taken seriously. But how can you give climate reparations to a country like Egypt when you know the money will mostly be spent on bolstering this repressive, polluting state? As Naomi Klein said in her great article Greenwashing a Police State, the summit is going beyond greenwashing a polluting state to greenwashing a police state.

MB: So what do you think we can expect to see in Sharm el-Sheikh? Will the usual protests that happen at every COP, both inside and outside the official halls, be allowed?

I think what we are going to see in Sharm el-Sheik is a carefully managed theater. We all know the problems with the UN Climate Summits. There are a lot of negotiations and climate diplomacy, but rarely do they amount to anything concrete and binding. But they do serve as an important place for networking and convergence for different groups in the climate justice movement, an opportunity for them to come together to organize. It has also been a time for these groups to show their opposition to the inaction by those in power, with creative, vigorous protests both inside and outside the conference.

This will not be the case this year. Sharm El-Sheikh is a resort in Sinai that literally has a wall around it. It can and will be very tightly controlled. From what we understand, there is a special space that has been designated for protests that has been built out near a highway, far away from the conference center and any signs of life. So how effective will it be to hold protests there?

This is why people like Greta Thunberg are not going. Many activists have problems with the structure of the COP itself but it is even worse in Egypt where the ability to use it as a convergence space for dissent will be effectively shut down.

But more importantly, the members of Egyptian civil society, including the allies and environmental groups that are critical of the government, will not be allowed to attend. In a departure from UN rules, those groups that manage to participate will have been vetted and approved by the government and will have to be very careful about how they operate. Other Egyptians who should be there are unfortunately in prison or are subject to various forms of repression and harassment.

MB: Should foreigners also worry about the Egyptian government surveilling them?

The entire conference will be very highly surveilled. The government created this app that you can download to use as a guide for the conference. But to do that, you have to put in your full name, phone number, email address, passport number and nationality, and you have to enable location tracking. Amnesty International technology specialists have reviewed the app and flagged all these concerns about surveillance and how the app can use the camera and microphone and location data and bluetooth.

MB: What environmental issues related to Egypt will the government allow to be discussed, and what will be off limits?

Environmental issues that will be allowed are issues such as trash collection, recycling, renewable energy and climate finance, which is a big issue for Egypt and for the Global South.

Environmental issues that implicate the government and military will not be tolerated. Take the issue of coal–something the environmental community is very critical of. That will be off limits because coal imports, much of it coming from the United States, have risen over the past several years, driven by the strong demand from the cement sector. Egypt’s largest importer of coal is also the largest cement producer, and that’s the El-Arish Cement Company that was built in 2016 by none other than the Egyptian military.

We’ve seen massive amounts of cement poured into Egypt’s natural environment over the past several years. The government has built nearly 1,000 bridges and tunnels, destroying acres and acres of green space and cutting down thousands of trees. They have gone on a crazy construction spree, building a slew of new neighborhoods and cities, including a new administrative capital in the desert just outside of Cairo. But no criticism of these projects has been or will be tolerated.

Then there is dirty energy production. Egypt, Africa’s second largest gas producer, is scaling up its oil and gas production and exports, which will mean further profits for the military and intelligence sectors involved in this. These projects that are harmful to the environment but profitable for the military will be off the agenda.

The Egyptian military is entrenched in every part of the Egyptian state. Military owned enterprises produce everything from fertilizers to baby food to cement. They operate hotels; they are the largest owner of land in Egypt. So any kind of industrial pollution or environmental harm from areas such as construction, tourism, development and agribusiness will not be tolerated at COP.

MB: We have heard that the crackdown on Egyptians in anticipation of this global gathering has already begun. Is that true?

Yes, we’ve already seen an intensified crackdown and a massive arrest sweep in the run-up to the climate summit. There are arbitrary stop and searches, and random security checkpoints. They open your facebook and whatsapp and they look through it. If they find content that they find problematic, they arrest you.

Hundreds of people have been arrested, by some counts 500-600. They have been arrested from their homes, off the streets, from their workplaces.

And these searches and arrests are not restricted just to Egyptians. The other day there was an Indian climate activist, Ajit Rajagopal, was arrested shortly after setting off on an 8-day walk from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh as part of a global campaign to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

He was detained in Cairo, questioned for hours and held overnight. He called an Egyptian lawyer friend, who came to the police station to help him. They detained the lawyer as well, and held him overnight.

MB: There have been calls for protests on November 11, or 11/11. Do you think people in Egypt will come out on the streets?

It is unclear where these protest calls started but I think it was started by people outside Egypt. I would be surprised if people come out on the streets given the level of repression we’ve been seeing these days but you never know.

The security apparatus was very surprised in September 2019 when a former military contractor turned whistleblower exposed videos showing army corruption. These videos went viral. The whistleblower called for protests but he was outside Egypt in self-imposed exile in Spain.

There were some protests, not very big but significant. And what was the government response? Massive arrests, the most massive sweep since Sisi came to power with over 4,000 people detained. They arrested all kinds of people–everyone who had been arrested before and a lot of other people. With that kind of repression, it’s hard to say if mobilizing people to go to the streets is the right thing to do.

The government is also particularly paranoid because the economic situation is so bad. The Egyptian currency has lost 30 percent of its value since the beginning of the year, precipitated by a variety of factors, including the war in Ukraine, since Egypt was getting so much of its wheat from Ukraine. Inflation is out of control. People are getting poorer and poorer. So that, combined with these calls for protests, have prompted the preemptive crackdown.

So I don’t know if people will defy the government and go out into the streets. But I gave up trying to predict anything in Egypt a long time ago. You just never know what is going to happen.