Egypt crushes climate action it champions abroad

A Fridays for Future protest at Festival Park during climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, in November last year. At this years COP27 talks in Egypt, which begin today, activists have faced hurdles getting accreditation, potentially limiting civil society representation at the summit, says the writer. Picture: Bloomberg

A Fridays for Future protest at Festival Park during climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, in November last year. At this years COP27 talks in Egypt, which begin today, activists have faced hurdles getting accreditation, potentially limiting civil society representation at the summit, says the writer. Picture: Bloomberg

Published Nov 6, 2022


By Laura Millan

The UN flagship climate summit is usually a lively affair. As well as drawing world leaders, scientists, and even executives, thousands of activists travel to cities hosting the COP talks staging colourful demonstrations to demand more urgent action and holding events to raise awareness of specific issues. Not this year.

Non-profit organisations and activists seeking to attend COP27 in Egypt’s remote seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh say they’ve faced unprecedented hurdles getting accreditation and finding accommodation, potentially limiting civil society representation, and even hindering the outcome.

The restrictions have prompted high-profile Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg, who has expressed solidarity with Egyptian political prisoners, to skip what she called the “greenwashing” conference. Climate campaigners from developing countries such as Pakistan, where global warming significantly exacerbated this year’s record floods, have faced particular difficulties getting funding to attend.

“The real voices and real struggle of people in Pakistan should be featured on stage,” said Pervez Ali, a 19-year-old Pakistani activist with Fridays for Future who, unlike many fellow campaigners, secured accreditation and funds to take part.

“The small number of activists is going to affect the results, and the fair and free process of COP – if you’re not allowing activists who are suffering the consequences of climate change to tell their stories, if you’re blocking them, you’re hiding that reality from the world.”

Egyptian officials say they are making efforts to ensure civil society groups can participate meaningfully, but the difficulties campaigners have endured offer a glimpse into the challenges local activists face in their home country on a daily basis.

Demonstrations are effectively banned in Egypt, and NGOs operate in a highly restrictive environment, their leaders often facing government pressure, trial, and even imprisonment. The crackdown on civil society has worsened since President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi seized power in 2013, reversing democratic gains made during the Arab Spring uprisings, violently crushing protests and rounding up political opponents. That has turned climate activism – like any activism in Egypt – into a perilous undertaking, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

Egypt ranks 168th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. Despite a series of pardons this year, thousands of political prisoners, including both Islamists and secular critics, continue to be held in its jails, often in poor conditions and without proper trial, Amnesty International said. They include about 21 journalists, making Egypt one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Among them is prominent Egyptian-British blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been on hunger strike since April.

Wael Aboulmagd, special representative for the Egyptian COP27 presidency, said organisers would ensure civil society organisations are able to participate in all activities except for the negotiating process, which is open only to country negotiators. “We’ve exerted every effort to ensure their presence,” he told reporters at a briefing in October. “We’re doing a lot to ensure meaningful participation.”

But the number of accreditations available to attend the conference is very limited, and the costs are particularly prohibitive for young campaigners from developing nations, according to the Fridays for Future movement, which estimates that attending COP27 would set each activist back around $7 000 (about R128 648).The group launched a crowdfunding effort to send 75 people from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as black and indigenous persons and people of colour to the conference. They have so far raised around $19 000 – not even enough to dispatch three people.

It’s not just young activists from poorer nations struggling to make it. The director of a Western research centre who had booked and paid for accommodation in a five-star hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh months in advance was suddenly notified the charge would be increased four-fold, attributing it to a government directive. Speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions, the person said their organisation had found alternative accommodation that, even if less convenient, would allow them to attend – though many of their contacts had effectively been priced out.

Egyptian authorities deny intervening to raise hotel prices for COP27. The government is subsidising “a few thousand rooms” in two- and three-star hotels and hostels, Aboulmagd said. Rooms will have “a very low cost to ensure there are no impediments stopping people from coming”, he said.

For Egyptian activists, the situation is more challenging than money. Sharm el-Sheikh is a resort town on the Sinai Peninsula, one almost exclusively dedicated to tourists and conferences. More than a 500km drive from the capital, it is otherwise surrounded by barren expanses of desert, making it easier for the government to secure, but harder for campaigners to get in. Over the past few weeks, people heading to Sharm el-Sheikh have been stopped at airports and road checkpoints, questioned and forced to turn back, said Amr Magdi, a senior HRW researcher, who, as an Egyptian living in Germany, has been advised not to travel home for COP27. Though security checks aren’t unusual in Sinai, where tourists have been killed in Islamist terrorist attacks, including a 2015 aeroplane bombing, climate activists say they’ve been targeted.

“Every Egyptian citizen should be able to participate, but there are a lot of restrictions,” he said, adding that those who make it will be closely watched by security services, hindering their freedom to speak openly. “We are concerned about surveillance during the summit – security services control everything and it’s extremely tight in Egypt.”

Initially, the number of state-approved NGOs in Egypt was so small that the government released one-time accreditations for about 25 organisations so they could attend COP27, Aboulmagd said.

NGOs in Egypt are tightly regulated and those invited by the government to attend are unlikely to be critical or outspoken, said HRW’s Magdi. While there’s a margin of tolerance for environmental work, big issues like water security, industrial pollution and harm from tourism, as well as agribusiness and large real estate developments, are off limits, according to HRW and veteran activists.

“This year’s climate talks could be undermined without effective and free participation by the civil society,” said Magdi, “which is what is likely to happen.”