No one knows what happened to the lost climate letter. All that is known is this: Alaa Abd El Fattah, arguably Egypt’s highest profile political prisoner, wrote it while on a hunger strike in his Cairo prison cell last month. It was, he explained later, “about global warming because of the news from Pakistan.” He was concerned about the epic floods that displaced 33 million people at their peak, and what that cataclysm foretold about climate hardships and paltry state responses to come.
A visionary technologist and searching intellectual, Abd El Fattah’s first name — along with the hashtag #FreeAlaa — have become synonymous with the 2011 pro-democracy revolution that turned Cairo’s Tahrir Square into a surging sea of young people that ended the three-decade rule of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak. Behind bars almost continuously for the past decade, Alaa is able to send and receive letters once a week. Earlier this year, a collection of his poetic and prophetic prison writings was published as the widely celebrated book, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.”
Alaa’s family and friends live for those weekly letters. Especially since April 2, when he started a hunger strike, ingesting only water and salt at first, and then just 100 calories a day (the body needs closer to 2,000). Alaa’s strike is a protest against his outrageous imprisonment for the crime of “spreading false news” — ostensibly because he shared a Facebook post about the torture of another prisoner. Everyone knows, however, that he is imprisoned to send a message to any future young revolutionaries who get democratic dreams in their heads. With his strike, Alaa is attempting to pressure his jailers to grant important concessions, including access to the British consulate. Alaa’s mother was born in England, so he was able to get British citizenship at the end of last year. His jailers have so far refused, and so Alaa continues to waste away. “He has become a skeleton with a lucid mind,” his sister Mona Seif said recently.
The longer the hunger strike wears on, the more precious those weekly letters become. For his family, they are nothing less than proof of life. Yet on the week he wrote about climate breakdown, the letter never made it to Alaa’s mother, a human rights defender and intellectual in her own right, Laila Soueif. Perhaps, he speculated in a subsequent correspondence to her, his jailer had “spilled his coffee over the letter.” More likely, it was deemed to touch on forbidden “high politics” — even though Alaa says he was careful not to so much as mention the Egyptian government, or even “the upcoming conference.”
That last bit is important. It’s a reference to the fact that in less than one month, beginning on November 6, Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh will play host to this year’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP27, just as other cities like Glasgow, Paris, and Durban have done in the past. Tens of thousands of delegates — world leaders, ministers, envoys, appointed bureaucrats, as well as climate activists, NGO observers, and journalists — will descend on the beach resort city, their chests bedecked in lanyards and color-coded badges.
Which is why that lost letter is significant. There is something unbearably moving about the thought of Alaa — despite the decade of indignities he and his family have suffered — sitting in his cell thinking about our warming world. There he is, slowly starving, yet still worrying about floods in Pakistan and extremism in India and crashing currency in the U.K. and Lula’s presidential candidacy in Brazil, all of which get a mention in his recent letters, shared with me by his family.
There is also, frankly, something shaming about it, something that might give pause to everyone headed to Sharm el-Sheikh. Because while Alaa thinks about the world, it’s not at all clear that the world that is about to arrive in Egypt for the climate summit is thinking much about Alaa. Or about the estimated 60,000 other political prisoners behind bars in Egypt where barbaric forms of torture reportedly take place on an “assembly line.” Or about the Egyptian human rights and environmental activists, as well as critical journalists and academics, who have been harassed, spied on, and barred from travel as part of what Human Rights Watch calls Egypt’s “general atmosphere of fear” and “relentless crackdown on civil society.”
The Egyptian regime is eager to celebrate its official climate “youth leaders,” holding them up as symbols of hope in the battle against warming (many double-talking governments like to use young people as climate props). But it’s hard not to think of the courageous youth leaders of the Arab Spring, many of them now prematurely aged by over a decade of state violence and harassment, systems that are lavishly bankrolled by military aid from Western powers, particularly the U.S. It’s almost as if those activists have just been substituted out for newer, less troublesome models.
“I’m the ghost of spring past,” Alaa wrote about himself in 2019.
That ghost will haunt the coming summit, sending a chill through its every high-minded word. The silent question it poses is stark: If international solidarity is too weak to save Alaa — an iconic symbol of a generation’s liberatory dreams — what hope do we have of saving a habitable home?
Mohammed Rafi Arefin, assistant professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, who has researched urban environmental politics in Egypt, points out that “every United Nations climate summit presents a complex calculus of costs and benefits.” On the negative side, there is the carbon spewed into the atmosphere as delegates travel there; the price of two weeks of hotels (steep for grassroots organizations); as well as the public relations bonanza enjoyed by the host government, which invariably positions itself as an eco-champion, never mind evidence to the contrary. We saw this when coal-addled Poland played host in 2018, and we saw it when France did the same in 2015, despite TotalEnergies’ oil rigs around the world.
Those are the negatives of the annual climate summit tradition. On the positive side of the ledger, there is the fact that for two weeks in November every year, the climate crisis makes global news, often providing media platforms for powerful voices on the front lines of climate disruption, from the Brazilian Amazon to Tuvalu. Another plus is the international networking and solidarity that takes place when local organizers in the host country stage counter-summits and “toxic tours” to reveal the reality behind their government’s green posturing. And of course there are the deals that get negotiated and funds that are pledged to the poorest and worst impacted. But these are nonbinding, and as Greta Thunberg so memorably put it, much of what has been pledged and announced has amounted to little more than “Blah, blah, blah.”
With the upcoming climate summit in Egypt, Arefin tells me, “The usual calculus has changed. The balance has tipped.” There are the perennial negatives (the carbon, the cost). But in addition, the host government — who will get the chance to preen green before the world — is not your standard double-talking liberal democracy. “It is,” he says, “the most repressive regime in the history of the modern Egyptian state.” Led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup in 2013 (and has held on to it through sham elections ever since), the regime is, according to human rights organizations, one of the most brutal and repressive in the world.
Of course, you’d never know it from the way Egypt is marketing itself ahead of the summit. A promotional video on the COP27 official website welcomes delegates to the “green city” of Sharm el-Sheik and shows young actors — including men with scruffy beards and necklaces clearly meant to look like environmental activists — enjoying nonplastic straws and biodegradable takeout containers as they take selfies on the beach, enjoy outdoor showers, learn how to scuba dive, and drive electric vehicles to the desert to ride camels.
This summit is going well beyond greenwashing a polluting state; it’s greenwashing a police state.
Watching the video, it struck me that Sisi has decided to use the summit to stage a new kind of reality show, one in which actors “play” activists who look remarkably like the actual activists who are suffering under torture in his rapidly expanding archipelago of prisons. So add that to the negative side of the ledger: This summit is going well beyond greenwashing a polluting state; it’s greenwashing a police state. And with fascism on the march from Italy to Brazil, that is no small matter.
Another factor that sits firmly on the negative side of the ledger: Unlike previous climate summits held in, say, South Africa or Scotland or Denmark or Japan, the Egyptian communities and organizations most impacted by environmental pollution and rising temperatures will be nowhere to be found in Sharm el-Sheikh. There will be no toxic tours, or lively counter-summits, where locals get to school international delegates about the truth behind their government’s PR facade. That’s because organizing events like this would land Egyptians in prison for spreading “false news” or for violating the protest ban — that is, if they aren’t already there.
International delegates can’t even read up much on current pollution and environmental despoliation in Egypt ahead of the summit in academic or NGO reports because of a draconian 2019 law that requires researchers to get government permission before releasing information considered “political.” (It’s not just prisoners who are gagged: The whole country is, and hundreds of websites are blocked, including the indispensable and perennially harassed Mada Masr.) Human Rights Watch reports that groups have been forced to rein in and scale back their research under these new constraints, and “one prominent Egyptian environmental group disbanded its research unit because it became impossible to work in the field.” Tellingly, not a single one of the environmentalists who spoke to Human Rights Watch about the censorship and repression was willing to use their real name because reprisals are so severe.
Arefin, who conducted extensive research on waste and flooding in Egyptian cities before this latest round of censorious laws, told me that he and other critical academics and journalists “are no longer able to do that work. There is a blockage of basic critical knowledge production. Egypt’s environmental harms now happen in the dark.” And those who break the rules and try to turn on the lights end up in dark cells — or worse.
Alaa’s sister Mona Seif, who has spent years lobbying for her brother’s release and for the release of other political prisoners, wrote recently on Twitter, “The reality most of those participating in #Cop27 are choosing to ignore, is … in countries like #Egypt your true allies, the ones who actually give a damn about the planet’s future are those languishing in prisons.”
So add that to the negative side as well: Unlike every other climate summit in recent memory, this one will have no authentic local partners. There will be some Egyptians at the summit claiming to represent “civil society.” And some of them do. The trouble is, however well-intentioned, they too are bit players in Sisi’s beachside green reality show; in a departure of usual U.N. rules, almost all have been vetted and approved by the government. That same Human Rights Watch report, published last month, explains that these groups have been invited to speak only on “welcome” topics.
What, for the regime, is welcome? “Trash collection, recycling, renewable energy, food security, and climate finance” — especially if that climate finance will line the pockets of Sisi’s regime, perhaps allowing it to put some solar panels on the 27 new prisons it has built since seizing power.
What topics are unwelcome? “The most sensitive environmental issues are those that point out the government’s failure to protect people’s rights against damage caused by corporate interests, including issues relating to water security, industrial pollution, and environmental harm from real estate, tourism development, and agribusiness,” according to the Human Rights Watch report. Also unwelcome: “the environmental impact of Egypt’s vast and opaque military business activity, such as destructive forms of quarrying, water bottling plants, and some cement factories are particularly sensitive, as are ‘national’ infrastructure projects such as a new administrative capital, many of which are associated with the president’s office or the military.” And definitely don’t talk about Coca-Cola’s plastic pollution and excessive water use — because Coke is one of the summit’s proud official sponsors.
The bottom line? If you want to pick up litter, recycle old Coke bottles, or tout “green hydrogen,” you can probably get a badge to come to Sharm el-Sheikh representing the most civil form of “civil society.” But if you want to talk about the health and climate impacts of Egypt’s coal-powered cement plants, or the paving over of some of the last green spaces in Cairo, you are more likely to get a visit from the secret police — or from the dystopian Social Solidarity Ministry. Oh, and if, as an Egyptian, you say something scathing about COP27 itself, or question Sisi’s credibility to speak on behalf of Africa’s poor and climate-vulnerable populations given the deepening hunger and desperation of his own people, despite all that North American and European aid, well, you had better hope you are outside of the country already.
So far, hosting the summit has proved nothing short of a bonanza for Sisi, a man Donald Trump reportedly referred to as “my favorite dictator.” There is the boon to coastal tourism, which crashed in recent years, and the regime is clearly hoping its videos of outdoor showers and camel rides will inspire more. But that’s just the beginning of the green gold rush. Late last month, British International Investment, which is backed by the U.K. government, giddily announced that it was “investing $100 million to support local start-ups” in Egypt. It is also the majority owner in Globeleq, which ahead of COP27 has announced a huge, $11 billion deal to build out green hydrogen production in Egypt. At the same time, the U.K.’s Development Finance Institution stressed its “commitment to strengthen its partnership with Egypt and increase climate finance to support the country’s green growth.”
This is the same government that appears to have barely lifted a finger to secure the release of Alaa, despite his British citizenship and his hunger strike. Unfortunately for him, Alaa’s fate was for months in the hands of one Liz Truss, who before becoming Britain’s spectacularly callous and inept prime minister, was its spectacularly callous and inept foreign secretary. She could have used some of those billions in investment and development aid to leverage the release of her fellow citizen but clearly had other concerns.
Germany’s moral failures are equally dismal. When Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock became the country’s first female foreign minister last December, she announced a new “values-based foreign policy” — one that would prioritize human rights and climate concerns. Germany is one of Egypt’s major donors and trading partners, so, like the U.K., it certainly has a card to play. But instead of pressure on human rights, Baerbock has provided Sisi with priceless propaganda opportunities, including co-hosting the “Petersberg Climate Dialogue” with him, where the ruthless dictator was able to rebrand himself a green leader.
And now that Germany’s reliance on Russian gas has both imploded and exploded, Egypt is eagerly positioning itself to provide replacement gas and hydrogen. Meanwhile, German giant Siemens Mobility has announced a “historic” multibillion-dollar contract to build electrified high-speed trains across Egypt.
The international injections of green cash are flowing just in time for Sisi’s troubled regime. Thanks to the tsunami of global crises (inflation, pandemic, food shortages, increased fuel prices, drought, debt) on top and its systemic mismanagement and corruption, Egypt is on the knife-edge of defaulting on its foreign debt — a volatile situation that could well destabilize Sisi’s iron rule, much as the last financial crisis created the conditions that unseated Mubarak. In this context, the climate summit is not merely a PR opportunity; it is also a green lifeline.
Though reluctant to give up on the process, most serious climate activists readily concede that these summits produce little by way of science-based climate action. Year after year since they began, emissions keep going up. What, then, is the point of supporting this year’s summit when the one thing it is set to absolutely accomplish is the further entrenchment and enrichment of a regime that, by any ethical standard, deserves pariah status?
As Arefin asks, “At what point do we say ‘enough’?”
For months, Egyptians in exile in Europe and the United States have been pleading with large green NGOs to put the carnage in their country’s prisons onto the agenda of the negotiations leading up to the summit. Yet it was never prioritized.
They were told that this is “Africa’s COP” (COP is U.N.-acronym-speak for “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). That despite all the prior failures, this COP, the 27th so far, would finally get serious about “implementation” and “loss and damage” — more U.N.-speak for the hope that the wealthy, high-polluting countries will finally pay up what they owe to poor nations that, like Pakistan, have contributed next to nothing by way of carbon emissions yet are bearing the bulk of the soaring costs.
The clear implication has been that the summit is too serious and too important to be sidetracked by the supposedly small matter of the host country’s shocking human rights record. The terrorized lives, brutalized bodies and silenced truths have been treated, for the most part, as embarrassing collateral damage, an unfortunate price that needs paying in order to make climate progress.
The clear implication has been that the summit is too serious and too important to be sidetracked by the supposedly small matter of the host country’s shocking human rights record.
But is COP27 really going to champion climate justice? Is it going to bring green energy and clean transit and food sovereignty to the poor? Will the summit truly confront climate debt and reparations, as many are claiming? If only. The Egyptian people, like people throughout Africa, are historically low emitters who are nonetheless severely impacted by warming. Justice therefore demands that they should receive climate reparations from richer high emitters. The problem is that if those climate debts are paid without confronting the international financial and military networks that prop up brutal rulers like Sisi, the money will never reach the people. Instead it will go to secure more weapons, build more prisons, and finance more industrial boondoggles that displace and further immiserate those Egyptians most in need.
The case for climate reparations is obvious, writes Egyptian journalist, filmmaker, and novelist Omar Robert Hamilton, in a magisterial essay. “The harder question is how to design a system of reparations that does not entrench authoritarian state powers? This should be at the core of COP negotiations between Southern and Northern countries — only the ones doing the negotiating for the South tend to be authoritarian state powers whose short-term interests are even more graspingly fragile than those of oil executives.”
In short, despite the talk in climate circles of this being the “implementation” COP, the one focused on #JustandAmbitious policies, Egypt’s summit will likely achieve as little by way of real climate action as all the others before. But that does not mean it won’t achieve anything. Because when it comes to propping up a true torture regime, showering it with cash and image-cleansing photo ops, COP27 is already a lavish gift to a cop state.
The sacrifice zone mentality at the heart of the climate crisis is the idea that some places and some people can be unseen, discounted, and written off.
Alaa Abd El Fattah has long been a symbol of Egypt’s violently extinguished revolution. But as the summit approaches, he is becoming symbolic of something else too: the sacrifice zone mentality at the heart of the climate crisis. This is the idea that some places and some people can be unseen, discounted, and written off — all in the name of “progress” for supposedly more important goals. We’ve seen the mentality at work when front-line communities are poisoned to extract and refine fossil fuels. We’ve seen it when those same communities are sacrificed again in the name of getting a climate bill passed that does not protect them. And now we are seeing it in the context of an international climate summit, with the rights of the people living in the host country sacrificed and unseen in the name of the mirage of “real progress” in the negotiations.
If last year’s summit in Glasgow was about “blah, blah, blah,” this one’s meaning, even before it starts, is distinctly more ominous. This summit is about blood, blood, blood. The blood of the roughly 1,000 protesters massacred by Egyptian forces to secure power for its current ruler. The blood of those who continue to be assassinated. The blood of those beaten in the streets and tortured in prisons, frequently to death. The blood of people like Alaa.
There may still be time to change that sinister script, for the summit to become a searchlight that illuminates the many connections between surging authoritarianism and climate chaos around the world. Like the way fascist leaders such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni stoke fear of refugees, including those fleeing climate breakdown, to fuel their rise, and how the European Union showers brutal leaders like Sisi with cash so that he continues to prevent Africans from reaching their shores. There is still time to use the extreme conditions under which the summit will take place to make the case that climate justice — whether inside countries or between them — is impossible without political freedoms. There is still power and leverage to be organized and exercised.
“Unlike me, you have not yet been defeated.” Alaa wrote those words in 2017. He had been invited to deliver a speech to RightsCon, the annual confab about human rights in the digital age sponsored by all the big tech companies. The conference was taking place in the United States, but because Alaa was behind bars in the notorious Tora Prison (it had been four years at that point), he sent a letter instead. It’s a brilliant text, about the imperative to protect the internet as a space of creativity, experimentation, and freedom. And it is also a challenge to those who are not (yet) behind bars, who have control over far more than their daily intake of calories, and who have the freedom to do things like travel to conferences to talk about justice and democracy and human rights. In the chasm between that freedom and Alaa’s captivity lies responsibility. A responsibility not just to be free but also to act free, to use freedom to its full transformational potential. Before it’s too late.
As tens of thousands of relatively free COP27 delegates prepare to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh, checking the average November temperatures (highs of 28 degrees Celsius, 82 degrees Fahrenheit), packing appropriately (light shirts, sandals, a bathing suit — because you never know), Alaa’s words about the responsibilities that come with being undefeated take on a burning new urgency. Given the guarantee that any Egyptians attending the summit cannot act with any freedom, how will the foreigners who are free to attend deploy their freedom? Their state of being not yet defeated?
How will the foreigners who are free to attend deploy their freedom?
Will they behave as if Egypt is merely a backdrop, not an actual country where people just like them have fought and died for the same freedoms they have, and against the same economic interests that are destabilizing our planetary and political climates? Or will they find ways to bring some of the gruesome truths of Egypt’s prisons into the green glitz of the conference center? Will they risk arrest, knowing that Egyptian security forces will treat them with kid gloves, not wanting their brutality-as-usual to tarnish the reality show? Will they search out the few remaining civil society organizations in Cairo — such as those who came together under copcivicspace.net — and see how they can help?
Alaa would be the first to say that what’s needed is neither pity nor charity. Rather, as a committed internationalist who stood in solidarity with many struggles, from Chiapas to Palestine, he called for comrades in a battle that has fronts in every nation. “We reach out to you,” he wrote in that RightsCon letter from prison, “not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the power of solidarity.”
Anti-democratic and fascistic forces are surging around the world. In country after country, freedoms are suddenly precarious or slipping away. And all of this is connected. Political tides move in waves across borders, for better and for worse — which is precisely why international solidarity can never be sacrificed in the name of expediency for some greater goal of “progress.” Egypt’s revolution was inspired by Tunisia’s, and in turn, “the spirit of Tahrir” spread around the world. It helped inspire other youth-led movements in Europe and North America, including Occupy Wall Street, which in turn helped birth new anti-capitalist and eco-socialist politics. In fact, you can draw a pretty straight line from Tahrir to Occupy, to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election to Congress and her championing of the Green New Deal.
But the other side inspires its allies too. As Alaa told RightsCon after Donald Trump was elected, people in the United States need to “fix your own democracy” because “a setback for human rights in a place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile.”
The slogan of the groups in Egypt attempting to strengthen these connections is “No climate justice without open civic space.” Another way of saying the same thing is: Where human rights are under attack, so too is the natural world. After all, the communities and organizations facing the most severe state repression and violence around the world — whether they live in the Philippines or Canada or Brazil or the United States — are overwhelmingly made up of Indigenous peoples trying to protect their territories from polluting extractive projects, many of which are also driving the climate crisis. Defending human rights, wherever we live, is therefore inextricable from defending a livable planet.
Moreover, the extent to which some governments are finally introducing meaningful climate legislation is also bound up with the political freedoms that are not yet eroded. The U.S. Senate and the Biden administration have been dragged kicking and screaming into passing the Inflation Reduction Act — flawed as it is — and into sinking (at least for now), Sen. Joe Manchin’s poisonous side deal on oil and gas permitting. This didn’t happen because they suddenly saw the climate light. It happened as a direct result of public pressure, investigative journalism, civil disobedience, sit-ins in legislative offices, lawsuits, and every other tool available in the nonviolent arsenal. And, ultimately, lawmakers got it together to pass the act because they feared what would happen when they faced voters in November if they came to them empty-handed. If U.S. politicians did not have to fear the public, because the public had a greater fear of them, none of this would have happened at all.
One thing is certain: We will not win the kind of change that the climate crisis demands without the freedom to demonstrate, sit in, shame political leaders, and tell the truth in public. If demonstrations are banned and inconvenient facts are criminalized as “false news,” as they systematically are in Sisi’s Egypt, then it’s game over. All of this should be obvious to everyone who is part of the climate movement, whatever age they are and whatever part of the movement they belong to. Without the strikes, the protests, the sit-ins, and the investigative research, we would be in far worse shape than we are. And any one of those activities are enough to land an Egyptian activist or journalist in a dark cell next to Alaa’s.
When news came that the next U.N. climate summit would be taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egyptian activists, inside the country and in exile, could have called on the climate movement to boycott. They chose not to, for a variety of reasons. But they did ask for solidarity. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, for instance, called on the international community to use the summit “to shed more light on the crimes being committed in Egypt and urge the Egyptian authorities to change course.” There were high hopes that North American and European activists would push their governments to make their attendance and participation conditional on Egypt meeting basic human rights requirements. Including, at minimum, a broad amnesty for prisoners of conscience in jail for “crimes” like organizing a demo, or posting an unflattering statement about the regime, or receiving a foreign grant.
That kind of solidarity could have happened. Some of it could still happen. But, so far, with less than a month before the summit starts, the response from the global climate movement has been muted. Many groups have added their names to petitions; a handful of articles about on the human rights situation during the summit have appeared (including a very strong one about Alaa by Bill McKibben in the New Yorker); and climate activists in Germany, many of them Egyptian exiles, have held small protests with signs saying “No Cop27 Until Alaa is Free” and “No Greenwashing Egypt’s Prisons.” But we have seen nothing like the kind of the international pressure that would worry a regime as brazen as the one currently ruling Egypt.
When the ethics of allowing Sisi to host the global climate summit have come up, concern has mainly focused on its impact on international visitors. Will they be free to wave signs and stage protests outside the official conference venue, without being treated as Egyptians are? Will LGBTQ+ activists be safe? These are fair concerns. But it’s a bit like having an international feminist conference in Saudi Arabia and then complaining that visiting women aren’t free to wear shorts or rent cars — with barely a mention of the women who live under far worse conditions year-round. That, obviously, would be a profound failure of solidarity. But so is the fact that many delegates to the summit became irate when the hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh refused to honor cheaper hotel bookings and arbitrarily jacked up prices — but have so far expressed none of that same indignation over locked-up political prisoners.
Or consider that all of the major U.S. and European foundations will be in Sharm el-Sheikh, meeting with groups that they fund and others that they might consider funding — inside a country where taking any of that money to tell the truth about environmental despoliation in Egypt can cost you your life. As Human Rights Watch reports, “In 2014, President el-Sisi amended, by decree, the penal code to punish with life in prison or death sentence anyone requesting, receiving, or assisting the transfer of funds, whether from foreign sources or local organizations, with the aim of doing work that harms a ‘national interest’ or the country’s independence or undermining public security or safety.” The death sentence for getting a grant.
Nothing would serve Sisi more than to turn Sharm el-Sheik into a kind of nonprofit petting zoo, because then Egypt would look like something it most emphatically is not: a free and democratic society.
This is all a bit baffling. Why invite funders and green groups to Egypt when the regime has such obvious hostility toward the very concept of civil society? The truth — uncomfortable for all who will be in attendance — is that nothing would serve Sisi more than to turn Sharm el-Sheik into a kind of nonprofit petting zoo, where international climate activists and funders can spend two weeks shouting about north-south injustice and marching around in circles before the cameras, with a few state-approved local groups thrown in for authenticity’s sake. Why? Because then Egypt would look like something it most emphatically is not: a free and democratic society. A nice place to spend your next vacation. Or to sink some foreign investment. A good source for your natural gas. Or to entrust with a new International Monetary Fund loan.
By all accounts, the Egyptian government is frantically building a bubble in Sharm el-Sheikh where it will impersonate something that looks sort of like a democracy. The question civil society groups should be asking is not: “Will we be safe in the bubble?” It’s: “Why hold a summit in a country that needs to build a bubble in the first place?”
In all the plans for next month’s Coca-Cola-sponsored climate summit, the most Orwellian detail in surely the announcement that this will be the first such gathering to have a “Children and Youth Pavilion” inside the official venue: a dedicated, 250 meter space that “will provide a convening place of talks, education, creativity, policy briefings, rest and relaxation, bringing together the voices of young people across the world.” This will allow youth to — get this — “speak truth to power.”
I have no doubt that many young people in that pavilion will deliver powerful speeches, as they did in Glasgow and at climate summits before. Young people have become true climate leaders, and they have injected desperately needed urgency and moral clarity into many official climate spaces. That same moral clarity is needed now.
One decade ago, Egyptians who were as young and younger than the climate strikers headed for COP27 didn’t have a state-sanctioned pavilion. They had a revolution. They flooded Tahrir Square demanding a different kind of country, one without the ever-present shadow of fear, one where teenagers didn’t disappear into police dungeons and reappear dead, their faces swollen and bloodied. That revolution overthrew a dictator who had ruled since before they were born. But then their dreams were crushed by political betrayals and violence. In one of his recent letters, Alaa wrote of how painful it is to share his cell with teenagers who were arrested when they were children. “They were underage when they were put in prison and are fighting to get out before they reach legal adulthood.”
One of the teens who helped take over the square in 2011 was Alaa’s extraordinary younger sister Sanaa Seif (he has two sisters, Mona and Sanaa). Just 17 at the time, Sanaa co-founded a revolutionary newspaper, Al Gornal, that published tens of thousands of copies and became a kind of voice of Tahrir. She also was an editor and camera person on the Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary film “The Square.” She has herself been imprisoned multiple times for speaking out against human rights abuses and for demanding her brother’s release. In an interview, she told me that she has a message for the young activists headed for that pavilion: “We tried. We did speak truth to power.” Now many are “spending so much of our twenties in prison. When you go, remember that you can be the voice of other young people… Please, let’s maintain that heritage. Please do actually speak truth power. It will have impact. Egyptian P.R.’s eyes are on you.”
But as the climate summit draws near, and Alaa’s hunger strike wears on, Sanaa is losing patience with the large green groups that have so far been silent. “Honestly I’m fed up with the hypocrisy of the climate movement,” she wrote on Twitter last week. “Outcries have been pouring from Egypt for months warning that this #COP27 will go far beyond greenwashing, that the ramifications on us will be horrible. Yet most are choosing to ignore the human rights situation.”
This, she pointed out, is why climate activism is often seen as an elite exercise, disconnected from people with urgent daily concerns — like getting their families members out of jail. “You’re guaranteeing that #ClimateAction remains an alien notion exclusive to the few who have the luxury to think beyond today,” she wrote. And besides, “mitigating climate change and fighting for human rights are interlinked struggles, they shouldn’t be separated. Especially since we’re dealing with a regime that is propped up by companies like BP and Eni. And really, how hard is it to raise both issues? #FreeThemAll #FreeAlaa.”
It isn’t hard — but it does take courage. With the lights flickering in so many democracies around the world, the message activists should bring to the climate summit, whether they travel to Egypt or engage from afar, is simple: Unless political freedoms are defended, there will be no meaningful climate action. Not in Egypt, nor anywhere else. These issues are intertwined, as are our fates.
The hour is late, but there is still just enough time to get this right. Human Rights Watch argues that the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, which sets the rules for these summits, should “develop human rights criteria that countries hosting future COPs must commit to meeting as part of the host agreement.” That’s too late for this summit, but it’s not too late for all of those who are concerned about climate justice to show solidarity with the revolutionaries who inspired millions around the world a decade ago when they toppled a tyrant. There might even be time to scare Sisi enough with the prospect of a green-hued PR nightmare by the Red Sea that he could decide to open the doors of some of his dungeons before all those cameras arrive. Because, as Alaa reminds us from the desperation of his cell, we have not yet been defeated.
On October 6, The Intercept hosted a live panel discussion on “Egypt’s Carceral Climate Summit” featuring many of the people quoted in this article, including: Sanaa and Mona Seif, sisters of political prisoner Alaa Abd El Fattah; celebrated Egyptian writers, journalists, and activists Omar Robert Hamilton and Sharif Abdel Kouddous; and author and founder of 350.org and Third Act Bill McKibben. The panel was co-moderated by Naomi Klein and Mohammed Rafi Arefin, assistant professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia. The event was co-produced with UBC’s Centre for Climate Justice. Watch here.