The largest international environmental conference, COP27, is set to kick off on November 6 in Sharm El Shiekh, Egypt. Thousands of environmentalists, politicians, scientists, and stakeholders from all over the world will converge on Egypt to attend the summit, though, notably, few Egyptians will be in attendance as the government is barring local civil society workers and activists from attending.
Azza Soliman, director of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), is one of the activists barred from this year’s event. She and her team presented at last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow, UK, and were preparing to discuss the effects of climate change on Egyptian women during the upcoming proceedings. She told the news outlet Equal Times:
“They just said no, nothing more. They didn’t even provide a justification for their refusal. Just ‘no.’ This is how the state is treating NGOs prior to COP27.”
She and her team are among the hundreds of Egyptian NGO workers, activists, and environmentalists who are not permitted to attend the COP27 conference. Yet even for those who weren’t barred directly, environmental observers say the government is imposing obstacles, such as opaque attendance requirements and unclear visa processes, that are preventing domestic and international activists from attending.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Egyptian officials have imposed “arbitrary funding, research, and registration obstacles that have debilitated local environmental groups, forcing some activists into exile.”
Some activists believe the restrictions are part of Egypt’s broader greenwashing strategy to improve its international reputation around human rights and environmental issues while taking no concrete steps toward sustainable environmental or social practices. For instance, in the following video, taken just days before the start of the conference, a citizen shares footage of a prominent community park in Cairo that is being bulldozed as part of a development project.
Ahead of #COP27, Egypt is bulldozing one of the most beautiful, tree-lined, Nile-side streets in a residential neighborhood to make way for a parking lot +floating restaurant. Here is a video of the area: this is what residents woke up to a few days ago — this barricade 1/4 pic.twitter.com/vAXe06tmSQ
— Yasmine El Rashidi (@yasminerashidi) October 29, 2022
Activists say the government wishes to silence those who might use the event shed light on Egypt’s own failings, including the over 60,000 civil society workers, political prisoners, and journalists currently sitting in Egyptian prisons.
“The Egyptian authorities are sending a clear message to Egyptian NGOs that what happens in Egypt must be kept hidden from the rest of the world. NGOs from all over the world can go there, but Egyptian NGOs are not welcome,” said Soliman.
The government has also been cracking down on freedom of expression ahead of the event. In 2021, Egypt launched its National Human Rights Strategy (NHRS), a plan to improve the human rights situation in the country. But according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and other watchdog groups, the government is largely using this plan to gloss over its abuse and has actually been cracking down more harshly on activists and civil freedoms in the last year, resorting to abuse, arrest, torture, forced disappearances, and killing those who criticize or challenge the regime.
Environmental activists have not been excluded from this crackdown. On November 1, officials detained Indian activist Ajit Rajagopal as he marched from Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh to raise awareness about the climate crisis. Rajagopal was reportedly detained for over 24 hours and denied food and water for the entire period. Some social media users noted how the incident highlights the swift decline of free expression in Egypt in recent years.
This type of awareness raising used to be celebrated in Egypt, covered by media. The Indian activist would’ve made the talk shows a few years ago, environment minister would’ve received him for a photo. Not in today’s carceral Egypt. Ajit was arrested on day 1 of his march #COP27 pic.twitter.com/kzh5EHiRkl
— hossam bahgat حسام بهجت (@hossambahgat) October 31, 2022
There are also reports that Sharm El Sheikh has been highly militarized ahead of the proceedings, supposedly in an effort to “secure” the conference. One resident told The Middle East Eye (MEE), “The amount of police and military in the city these days gives the impression that we are in a war zone.”
According to MEE, shop owners have been advised to close their businesses until the conference ends, citizens are being forcibly removed from Sharm El Sheikh, and pedestrians have reported increased spot-checks, where plain-clothes police search people on the street and go through their cell phones. One resident, Aya, was stopped and harassed by police, telling MEE:
Escaping trauma, I have left Cairo in order not to witness such scenes of arrests and illegal harassment by the police. But it seems South Sinai will be militarised till the conference ends. This conference is just a big show of what the authorities want the foreigners to see: Egyptians living happily. But the reality is different.
Online activists have been calling for an anti-government public protest on November 11 to coincide with COP27. Police have already arrested at least 70 individuals in connection with the plan.
Civil society pushes back
Egyptian civil society organizations have not taken the ban and crackdown lightly. Thirty-six NGOs issued a joint statement calling on the government to end the crackdown on civil society organizations and peaceful protests ahead of COP27. The Association for Free Thought and Expression (AFTE) in Egypt also released a statement calling for a free and open civil society and demanding Egypt release its political prisoners.
International groups have joined in to pressure the government, as a body of UN experts released a statement on October 7 calling on Egypt to loosen attendance restrictions on local NGO workers and activists ahead of the summit. The statement noted that the regime’s crackdown has chilled civil society efforts and stopped many from engaging at COP27:
Arrests and detention, NGO asset freezes and dissolutions and travel restrictions against human rights defenders have created a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society organisations to engage visibly at the COP27.
In the statement, they also raised concerns that the Egyptian government might sabotage both local and international NGO workers by failing to release attendance information and accreditation criteria, artificially raising hotel room rates, restricting protests and assembly outside the COP27 venue, or delaying visas for activists traveling from abroad.
Over a dozen international Nobel Laureates have also joined the call with their own public statement.
So far, the Egyptian government doesn’t seem to be budging or acknowledging the demands.
Many international climate activists and politicians are in a bind as they try to weigh Egypt’s human rights abuses with the urgent need to accomplish climate goals during the summit.
In an interview with the Guardian, Richard Pearshouse, environmental director at Human Rights Watch, warned against overlooking Egypt’s human rights abuses in favor of environmental action.
“It will be a fundamental mistake if diplomats go to COP27 thinking they need to go softly on human rights in order to make progress in the climate talks. We will not get the urgent climate action needed without civil society pressure, the situation in Egypt shows us that.”
Numerous environmental groups have also come under fire for their tacit stance on Egypt’s abuses — particularly Greenpeace international. According to reporting from the Guardian, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations in the COP27 coalition opposed a proposal by Egyptian human rights activists demanding the release of political prisoners.
On the other hand, some climate activists such as Greta Thumburg have decided to skip COP27, calling it a way for powerful people to “get attention, using many different forms of greenwashing.”
Observers on social media have not been silent on the matter as they note some of the more authoritarian policies at this year’s COP27 event.
COP 27 – EGYPT
🌍Protestors to be pinned in caged areas – protesting is illegal in Egypt
🌍transport fitted with facial recognition & surveillance cameras
🌍COP27 App mandatory, with location tracking.
🌍All delegates extensively searched.
Sounds very erm…. new world order. pic.twitter.com/XFThDKaQl7
— Bernie's Tweets (@BernieSpofforth) November 1, 2022
With COP27 set to begin in just a matter of days, it remains unclear how politicians, activists, and attendees will navigate the complicated political landscape created by their host.