Have you ever heard of Alaa Abd El-Fattah? Journalists were asked this question by protestors at the preview of Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt, which opens today at the British Museum.
The 40-year-old British-Egyptian writer, the nephew of former British museum trustee, Ahdaf Soueif, would have attended the opening of the exhibition himself, if he weren’t imprisoned in Tora, Egypt. El-Fattah was charged in a Cairo court of “spreading fake news” in December 2019. He has been on hunger strike since 2 April.
Throughout the press view on Tuesday, protestors could be heard reading passages from You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, an anthology of El-Fattah’s assorted writing—some of which have been smuggled from his jail cell.
The protest took place at the same time as the publication of an open letter by the protest group Culture Unstained, co-signed by 86 cultural figures—including actors Steve Coogan, Mark Rylance, musicians Roger Waters and Brian Eno, fashion designer Bella Freud and artists David Calder and Es Devlin. The letter is addressed to George Osborne, Hartwig Fischer and other trustees of the British Museum, and notes that, on 25 August, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson “expressed his hope for swift and positive progress on the issue” of El-Fattah’s imprisonment in a call with President Sisi. “The fact that the British Museum will open a new Egypt exhibition without acknowledging that this major diplomatic issue is happening could put a British citizen’s life at further risk,” the letter reads.
BP sponsors the show and has a long-term partnership with the museum. Culture Unstained claims BP is “now extracting close to one billion cubic feet per day of gas from its West Nile Delta gas fields”, making it Egypt’s largest producer of fossil fuels. Egypt will host next month’s COP27 climate summit.
A spokesperson for the museum said: “The British Museum respects other people’s right to express their views and allows peaceful protest onsite at the museum as long as there is no risk to the collection, staff or visitors.”