In Sharm el-Sheikh, Repression Rages

people walking outside in the blue zone of COP27
Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Repression Rages

The 27th United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) opened this Sunday in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on the shores of the Red Sea. The luxurious seaside resort, very popular with Russian tourists, has been transformed for the occasion: colorful electric cars, brand new electric buses and bike paths have appeared along the boulevards, decorated with signs in the colors of the COP.

But this festive setting struggles to hide a tense climate, marked by an extraordinary security system. For months, Egypt has been preparing for a summit under high surveillance: hundreds of cameras have been installed in cabs, a security cordon has been set up to filter entries into the city, and the profile of employees in the tourism industry has been meticulously checked. Recognizable by the badge pinned to the lapel of their jacket, hundreds of agents from the internal security services are buzzing around the city, in major hotels, public transport and on the roofs of some buildings. Some of them are even inviting themselves into the buses rented by groups of activists and journalists — including the author of these lines — to escort them.

"This COP is likely to be the most monitored and controlled in history," says Hussein Baoumi, a researcher on Egypt and Libya for the NGO Amnesty International. Like him, human rights associations and activists have been warning for months about the repression of the Egyptian authorities, who intend to avoid any slippage in a country where demonstrations have long been banned and civil society muzzled.

A city under high surveillance

The province of South Sinai, where Sharm el-Sheikh is located, is now under reinforced security control. Egyptian authorities have closed dozens of stores and increased checks on the many employees of the tourism industry — a special permit is now required to work in the area. Many local workers were expelled and replaced by day laborers from all over Egypt. A few days before the summit, employees were instructed not to leave their homes after work hours for the duration of the event.

"The authorities justify all these measures by the imperative of security," explains Hussein Baoumi. But for many human rights defenders, the security argument is fallacious. "The Egyptian authorities mainly want to make sure that COP27 participants do not come into contact with normal Egyptians (sic), who would not have been checked by the security services," said Mona Seif, sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah — a political prisoner currently on hunger strike — in a live Twitter broadcast on November 2.

hotel overlooking the sea
Sharm el-Sheikh is a seaside resort known mainly for its luxury hotels / Credit: Lyse Mauvais.

The choice of Sharm el-Sheikh to host the summit is not insignificant either. The authorities like to host international conferences here because it is a remote area from where most Egyptians reside," says Mai El-Sadany, who heads the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP). It is easier to impose strict security rules there. Located on the southern tip of the desert Sinai Peninsula, hundreds of kilometers from Cairo, the city is mostly made up of luxury hotels and residences for employees in the tourism sector.

A whiff of dictatorship

"Since 2013, the Egyptian authorities have severely curtailed freedom of expression and assembly. They have arrested thousands of people — not only political activists but also researchers, artists and writers," adds Mai El-Sadany. Most human rights NGOs consider Egypt to be one of the worst dictatorships in the world. After the "Arab Spring" that led to the removal of Mubarak in 2010, the country fell back under the control of the army in 2013 after the coup that brought the current president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, to power.

Since then, more than 60,000 political prisoners have languished in Egyptian jails. Press freedom, already reduced before 2011, is now non-existent: hundreds of media outlets and websites are banned or blocked, including that of Reporters Without Borders — which describes Egypt as "one of the largest prisons for journalists in the world".

And environmental activists are not spared. "It is important to understand that all these laws that aim to restrict the functioning of civil society organizations also affect the environmental sphere, complicate the work of researchers who try to collect data, and limit the ability of environmental activists to criticize the government," says Mai El-Sadany.

At the COP, talking to Egyptian climate activists can be complicated. Many refuse to talk about the human rights situation in the country for fear of being perceived as critical of the government: "I can't talk to you. You know the situation here," one activist apologizes. Another laments, "Since 2013, it's gotten worse and worse every year.

Abuse overshadows

It is in this poisonous climate, dominated by suspicion of non-governmental actors, that the conference was organized. "The government did not accredit a single independent rights organization for the COP," says Hussein Baoumi. According to him, the few local organizations that will be able to attend the COP have been handpicked to give the illusion that Egyptian civil society would be represented.

In the weeks leading up to the launch of the summit, calls for demonstrations on November 11 multiplied on social networks, sending the Egyptian security apparatus into a tizzy. In major cities across the country, hundreds of people were arrested "preventively" by plainclothes police deployed in the streets to check passersby's cell phones and social networks.

Like those who aspire to demonstrate on November 11, many activists hope to take advantage of the eyes of the world on Sharm el-Sheikh to assert their rights. The most emblematic of them is undoubtedly Alaa Abdel Fattah, a political prisoner on partial hunger strike since April, which became total on November 2. On November 6, the opening day of the COP, he also stopped drinking water.

people walking toward a door
Sanaa Seif, Alaa Abdel-Fattah's sister, leaving the event on "Climate justice and human rights at COP27 and beyond" held on November 8 in the German pavilion on the sidelines of the COP / Credit: Gehad Hamdy for DPA Picture-Alliance via AFP.

"Alaa is in critical condition. We think he will be hospitalized in a day or two and probably dead by the end of the month, if nothing changes," his sister Mona Seif said on November 2. Denouncing the "greenwashing" of human rights violations in Egypt, several associations and activists finally chose to boycott COP27, like the Swedish Greta Thunberg.

Authorized demonstrations from 10 am to 5 pm in a separate area of the COP

For a large part of civil society, it was important to organize the COP on the African continent, as close as possible to the populations most affected by the effects of climate change. The COP28, which will take place in Dubai, was also intended to bring political decision-makers closer to the front line of climate change and to increase the pressure on negotiators.

But in reality, this long-awaited "African COP" may turn out to be even more inaccessible and disconnected than previous ones. By choosing the luxurious Sharm el-Sheikh and then the outrageous Dubai to host these climate summits, the member countries have made it financially inaccessible to local NGOs, activists and journalists. In Sharm el-Sheikh, the price of some hotel rooms increased tenfold during the COP.

Finally, the choice of the host country raises many fears about the inclusiveness of this COP, and about the capacity of activists to exert pressure on political decision-makers during the negotiations. Under international pressure, the COP presidency agreed to set up a dedicated area for demonstrations, which opens this Wednesday. But this initiative reveals a deep discrepancy between the expectations of environmental activists and those of the organizers: it is a zone isolated from the center of the COP, with controlled access. Demonstrations will only be allowed between 10 am and 5 pm, and only if they are planned at least 36 hours in advance.

Outside this ultra-aseptic space, it will be difficult, even dangerous, to take to the streets. Unauthorized demonstrations will be systematically and brutally repressed. Hussein Baoumi reminds us of the risks incurred by the Egyptian participants: "The main fear for the Egyptians on the spot today is: "What will happen to those who criticized the authorities, once the cameras are gone?"

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in French by Vert on 9 November 2022 and has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The first visitors flock to the entrance of the COP27, which takes place in a gigantic conference center / Credit: Lyse Mauvais.

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories