Egypt’s human rights 'black hole' in the spotlight ahead of COP27

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Egypt’s human rights ‘black hole’ in the spotlight ahead of COP27 climate conference

When the world’s leaders — everyone from President Joe Biden to Britain’s newly installed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — converge in Egypt for the next global climate conference later this month, they will discuss the future of the planet, progress (or the lack thereof) on pledges made at the last of these annual gatherings, and no doubt they will struggle to find answers to an increasingly urgent crisis for humanity.

There’s one thing they almost certainly won’t see — actually, 60,000 people they won’t see: That’s the estimated figure for political prisoners held in what rights groups say are often horrific conditions in detention centers across the host country. So many, in fact, that over the past 11 years, Egypt has been forced to build at least 60 new detention centers as the country’s autocratic leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, locks up people who question his repressive regime.

As his government prepares to host the climate summit, activists have been highlighting the breadth of el-Sisi’s crackdown, which extends beyond political opponents to environmentalists — including some of the very people, rights experts and local activists told Grid, who should be at the table at the conference.

“Since el-Sisi came to power, what essentially has happened is that any independent voices not in line with the government’s talking points have either been forced out of operation or into exile,” Richard Pearshouse, the director of the environment and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, told Grid. “That includes environmental experts.”

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It adds up to “a miserable situation” for Egyptian civil society, Yasmin Omar, an Egyptian human rights lawyer, told Grid.

Now living in exile in the U.S., Omar speaks from firsthand experience. “Me and my husband had to leave Egypt five years ago after being targeted because of my work — he is a journalist, I am a lawyer,” she told Grid.

“The targeting wasn’t just threats. My husband spent a year in prison, and I was also threatened with prison.”

The crackdown that forced Omar to flee is part of a broader project to erase even the faintest traces of the Arab Spring revolution, which brought down Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s last dictator, in 2011, and brought with it great hopes for a freer, more open society. There was something of a honeymoon, a brief period of democracy that was extinguished in the 2013 coup that ultimately installed el-Sisi, then Egypt’s military chief, as the country’s all-powerful leader.

Ever since, el-Sisi has assiduously turned the screws on any hint of dissent.

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“No one is allowed to organize, no one is allowed to express their opinion freely,” Omar told Grid.

As Pearshouse, from Human Rights Watch, put it: “The extent of the crackdown on civil society in Egypt cannot be overstated.” The country, he said, is “in a human rights black hole.”

Now, as diplomats and world leaders prepare to fly to Egypt to discuss and debate ways in which to save the planet, another debate has been unfolding over a different question: Is such a “black hole” an appropriate venue for a critical global conference?

Good COP, bad COP?

Officially known as COP, or the Conference of the Parties, the annual gathering brings together 197 nations that agreed in the early 1990s to a U.N. environmental pact aimed at forging a global response to the climate crisis. Each year, leaders from all or most of those nations gather to craft plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The venues for these meetings tend to rotate between different world regions — although not always: Egypt will be followed next year by the United Arab Emirates, another country with a problematic human rights record. Among the meeting’s hosts over the years — including Germany, Japan, India, South Africa and, most recently, the United Kingdom — Egypt stands out, for all the wrong reasons.

Inside the country, the run-up to the conference has been tarred by reports of a fresh crackdown, despite the global spotlight on the country; in the past few days, scores of activists have been arrested, as the government looks to ensure that no protests take place on the sidelines of the meeting, which will be held in the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Attention on the country, and the conference, has also brought heightened concern about the fate of Egypt’s most high-profile political prisoner: the British Egyptian human rights blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who is six months into a hunger strike. A prominent figure in the uprising that toppled Mubarak, until recently he was allowing himself only 100 calories a day, in a protest aimed at pushing the Egyptian authorities to allow him to meet with British diplomats. His requests have been turned down. Now, on the eve of the COP meeting, he has repeated the request, begun refusing all food and said he will stop consuming even water come Sunday.

El-Fattah has spent most of the past decade in jail. Arrested in 2013, he was sentenced to five years in jail for organizing a protest; released briefly in 2019, he was imprisoned again amid anti-government protests that triggered a brutal government clampdown.

“Alaa is using the only tool available to him, his body, to fight for life. Right now he’s not living like a human being,” his sister Sanaa Seif told the BBC. “He’s very frail already. I worry about him dying.”

For environmental activists, do’s and don’ts

Egypt isn’t only the host of the latest global climate conference; it’s also a victim of some of the ravages of climate change. One recent report, for example, warned that as global temperatures rise, thousands of acres of the Nile River Delta, home to some 40 percent of the Egyptian population of just over 100 million people — could be underwater by the end of this century.


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And yet, any activism related to the environment must follow strict rules when it comes to what they can and cannot talk about. Egyptian environmental experts must stick to a limited list of topics that don’t clash with the el-Sisi government’s priorities.

“So for example, you can work on recycling, you can work on international climate finance,” Pearshouse explained — because those are relatively apolitical, but there are clear no-go areas. Three in particular, Pearshouse told Grid: anything involving environmental harm done by Egyptian private businesses; anything associated with the military, such as the country’s cement sector, which is closely associated with the Egyptian armed forces; and anything to do with environmental harm caused by big government infrastructure projects.

The mother of all such enterprises at the moment happens to be a significant pet project of the Egyptian leader’s: a plan to build a new administrative capital just outside Cairo. To service el-Sisi’s new capital, Cairo itself is undergoing a redesign, with new highways that will eliminate swathes of rare greenery in the city. In one historic Cairo district, local groups estimate that as many as 2,500 trees were cut down between 2019 and 2020, as authorities embarked on massive roadworks.

But there’s no allowance for protest or criticism when it comes to that.

The rights, and wrongs, of going

For some, this backdrop — from the plight of el-Fattah to the sheer volume of political prisoners, and in particular the crackdown on the environmental movement itself — has resulted in a straightforward conclusion: Delegates should boycott the conference.

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Among the proponents of this view: Greta Thunberg, the prominent Swedish climate activist. Announcing her decision to skip the meeting, she said the “the space for civil society this year is extremely limited.” Several lesser-known environmentalists are expected to followed suit.

But not everyone agrees.

For others, not only does tackling the climate challenge require the broadest possible participation; the global spotlight that accompanies such conferences is also a way of highlighting — and hopefully tackling — the rights abuses themselves.

That hope was expressed earlier this week by more than a dozen Nobel laureates, in an open letter addressed to world leaders who are set to fly to Egypt. Signed by the likes of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the letter highlighted el-Fattah’s case, with the group calling on COP delegates to “help those most vulnerable, not just to the rising seas, but those imprisoned and forgotten.”

“We ask you to use your plenary address to speak the names of the imprisoned, to call for their freedom, and to invite Egypt to turn a page and become a true partner in a different future: a future that respects human life and dignity,” they wrote.

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It was an example of the way the conference has focused attention on el-Sisi’s record before it even gets underway. To date, said Omar, the human rights lawyer, “it has been very, very hard to bring the attention of the world to the increasing crisis of human rights [in Egypt].”

For Omar, given her personal experience, the COP meeting is a “unique opportunity.” She said that while she herself cannot return to her country, she echoed the Nobel laureates and said she hopes that those going to the conference will pay attention to the dire rights situation beyond the Sharm el-Sheikh resort where the meetings are being held.

“Having the world’s eyes on Egypt is important for the human rights movement and for the civil society that has been suffering from a longtime crackdown that has jeopardized and threatened fundamental human rights,” she told Grid.

Pearshouse agrees. “Some people are deciding not to go. And by that I don’t just mean Greta — there’s a wide spectrum. But we [at Human Rights Watch] have decided not to boycott,” he told Grid.

“Our position is that it’s vital that there are robust conversations around these issues, particularly in authoritarian countries. When going, you can’t at the same time go softly, softly on human rights,” he added. “You need to lean into those conversations.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.