Many of the tens of thousands of delegates attending the United Nations climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, go to these gatherings year after year on a kind of autopilot. They update their PowerPoint presentations, pack their organizational banners, and brush up their talking points. Next come the same warnings from the scientists and activists. The slightly tweaked technical solutions from the entrepreneurs. The same pledges and promises from the political leaders.
Every year, the expectations for what all of this can accomplish dip lower and lower, while cynicism about the traffic jam of private jets headed to the summit reaches new heights.
So far, however, this year’s summit, known as COP27, has been anything but routine. That is less because of its content than its location. It is taking place under the most repressive regime in the history of the modern Egyptian state, headed 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. Sisi’s regime is known for its barbarity under the best of circumstances but, like every dictatorship, Egypt’s rulers are on particularly high alert because of the Iranian uprising — fearing that, like the Arab Spring in 2011 which leapt across borders toppling regimes, this moment of spiraling living costs could prove equally volatile.
All of this has created a highly unusual and tense context for the summit, with several extraordinary elements.
The most prominent figure at the summit is not even there.
For one thing, the most prominent figure at the summit is not even there: Alaa Abd El Fattah, Egypt’s highest-profile political prisoner, whose first name became synonymous with the 2011 pro-democracy revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ended the three-decade rule of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Alaa’s words have been quoted in several speeches from the floor; his sister Sanaa Seif attended the summit’s first week and was surrounded by a press gaggle everywhere she went; and young delegates have been seen wearing #FreeAlaa T-shirts. On November 10, many delegates wore white, the color worn by Egypt’s prison inmates, and raised banners that said, “No climate justice without human rights. We have not yet been defeated” — an invocation of Alaa Abd El Fattah’s book, published earlier this year, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.” This has prompted the regime to respond with highly orchestrated, heavy-handed counter-demonstrations of its own.
The intense focus on Alaa’s case is taking place because the writer and technologist, behind bars for most of the past decade, chose to intensify his hunger strike to include a water strike, timed with the first day of the summit. In doing so, he was attempting to force the regime to choose between two options: free him and let him emigrate to the U.K. (he is a dual citizen), or let him die in the middle of the highest profile international event to take place in Egypt under Sisi’s rule. (It is worth recalling that the uprising that is still raging in Iran was sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.)
Sisi appears to have tried a third option: On November 10, Alaa’s sister Mona Seif posted on Twitter that “we have just been informed by the prison officers ‘Medical intervention was taken with @alaa with the knowledge of judicial entities.’” This was interpreted to mean some kind of forced feeding, which is (yet another) violation of his rights, as Human Rights Watch has said. On Monday, November 14, Alaa’s mother finally received, outside the prison gates, a handwritten note from Alaa confirming that he is alive, has received medical attention, and has just started drinking water. The letter was dated two days earlier.
All the while, Egypt’s public prosecutor’s office has sent out a barrage of contradictory claims, absurdly boasting of Alaa’s good health, and stating that his family has been permitted to visit him as recently as November 7. In fact, since he intensified his hunger strike, Egyptian authorities have steadily refused to allow anyone to see Alaa and assess the state of his health for themselves: not his family, not his lawyer, not the British consulate. The regime continues to ignore and deny his status and rights as a British national.
The cloud of deflection and misinformation surrounding Alaa’s status points to the other way that this climate summit is different from the dozens that have come before: It is nearly impossible to get reliable information about the host country, about what is happening in the jails, in the streets, or with its many polluting extraction projects.
That’s because Egypt is a police state with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners behind bars and a media system tightly controlled by the regime. Because Egyptian civil society faces such extreme repression, most of the regime’s critics are not able to get into Sharm el-Sheikh, and many Egyptians who are there have been vetted by the regime. The critics who do manage to speak out are in extreme danger, and rights groups warn of a severe crackdown once the international attention recedes.
The Sisi regime is watching closely: The official COP27 mobile app, downloaded on thousands of phones, is being described by security experts as a “cyber weapon” with extraordinary surveillance capabilities; Sharm el-Sheikh’s 800 taxis were outfitted with video and audio surveillance, and people’s phones in major cities have been searched at random. There have been so many incidents of Egyptian security spying on delegates inside the summit, including by filming and photographing their electronic devices, that the German government reportedly lodged an official complaint. “We expect all participants in the U.N. climate conference to be able to work and negotiate under safe conditions,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This is not just true for the German but for all delegations, as well as representatives of civil society and the media.”
These tight controls mean that the summit is effectively taking place inside an informational bubble, one that the Sisi regime, with help from public relations company Hill+Knowlton, is attempting to paint green.
In an attempt to pierce that bubble, we teamed up a group of trusted journalists, lawyers, activists and scholars on the ground in Egypt to try to gather information that the regime has been trying to suppress.
Using personal and professional networks, this team has been collecting many testimonies and stories, about everything from Egypt’s new fossil fuel projects to arrests and surveillance of locals, to the continued human rights crisis in the regime’s jails. Most sources needed to be anonymous to avoid arrest, but we have been able to check claims for accuracy. Here is some of what we have found so far.
Since assuming office, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his regime have severely limited space for dissent. State repression increases markedly every year around the anniversary of the 2011 January 25 Revolution, but we have received reports that ahead of and during COP27, crackdowns have intensified across the country and in some areas amount to a full lockdown. From random police searches in major cities to arrests and the closure of schools and transportation, Egypt’s citizens are experiencing one of the harshest crackdowns in recent memory.
The following testimonial shared with us represents one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of stops that are occurring daily in the country:
A few days ago I was heading home after sending a msg to a friend that I’ll be joining a meeting in 15 mins. I hopped on an Uber scooter, and right after that a policeman in civilian clothing stopped us, he immediately took my phone and ID card. There were 4 men of different ages being picked up from the same spot. When I asked what the problem was, he asked me if I had ever joined a protest. They then took us into a police patrol vehicle, but wouldn’t tell us where they were taking us. The car moved around the neighborhood, going to different checkpoints, and at each checkpoint a new person would join us. After this tour ended, they drove us to an ad hoc national security checkpoint in downtown in the entrance of a random residential building. They kept us there, we were around 14 men of different ages. … Not knowing why we were there or how long we would stay, we were left without any info about when we would be going home or whether they would take us to a police station. I had deactivated my Facebook account for a while now because of these police stops that happens regularly. I was worried they could see what I had shared or worse see what my FB friends are sharing and go after them. After three and a half hours they called my name, gave me my phone and ID card back but told me that I should delete my posts on my Facebook. After I arrived home safely, I found that they managed to reactivate my Facebook account.
These kinds of accounts are difficult if not impossible to report on because, after a decade of repression, journalists fear reprisal. An Egyptian journalist shared with us:
I’ve been hearing imaginary doorbell ringing at the dead of night, thinking policemen in uniformed clothing are outside my apartment. I’ve considered leaving Cairo for the week even because of the reports of random and targeted arrests of people just like me, all because of the security frenzy brought by COP27 and an anonymous call for protests at the end of the week that I’m not even planning to join.
These fears are well-founded. In the past two weeks a number of Egyptian journalists have been detained, including Manal Agrama, Mohamed Mostafa Moussa, Amr Shnin, Mahmoud Saad Diab, and Ahmed Fayez. Fayez was reportedly detained for reporting in Arabic that Alaa had been subjected to a forced medical intervention.
We have also received reports from activists who fear continued crackdowns after international attention leaves Egypt:
I’m afraid that after the climate conference they will come for the rest of us. A few [activists] haven’t left Egypt and aren’t imprisoned, it won’t be about how active we are now or if we are of any importance, it’s simply that we are the only ones left to detain.
Even activists who have managed to leave are fearful of surveillance and repression abroad. An Egyptian living in Berlin shared:
In order for us Egyptians to protest in Berlin, we have to use tricks to hide our identity, fearing the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin which follows activists and reports them. We fear being arrested among arriving back to Egypt. Sometimes it feels like in order to participate in any political action concerning Egypt we just say goodbye to going back home. We left Egypt but the fear continues.
At COP27, international and domestic advocates have repeatedly raised the point that there can be no climate justice without an open civic space and respect for basic human rights. Since the beginning of the summit, we have heard from prisoner’s rights advocacy organizations about the atrocities of Egypt’s carceral institutions. Two new prisons, the Badr Prison Complex and Wadi Al-Natroun, have been touted by the regime as symbols of Egypt’s humane system, but the few reports that have made it out of these prisons tell the opposite story.
The #TillTheLastPrisoner campaign documented “at least 47 deaths in detention since the beginning of the year. These deaths speak to deteriorating conditions in places of detention despite calls for reform and progress.” One of these deaths occurred a few days before the COP27 opening. According to the campaign, “Alaa AlSalmi (47 years) died in detention in Badr 3 prison today. AlSalmi was serving a life sentence in case 610/2014 upon his arrest in 2014.” He was the second prisoner to die in less than a month inside the new Badr 3 prison facility. It is reported that he died after an extended hunger strike protesting the lack of basic rights including family visitation.
Before international delegates arrived to Sharm el-Sheikh, Human Rights Watch warned that “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.” These hot-button issues for the state have not been widely discussed at COP27. However, environmental and human rights researchers have shared cases with us where Egypt’s military and security forces have displaced communities and wreaked environmental havoc.
In Sinai, where COP27 is being held, security forces have for the past decade destroyed the communities and environments. According to Mohannad Sabry, a journalist, researcher, and author of “Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare”:
Egypt’s decade long war on terror in North Sinai has bulldozed tens of thousands of green acres, hundreds of thousands of productive trees, comprising a local agricultural wealth built over decades by the local Bedouin community. This destruction of the agricultural wealth continues to this day across the region of North Sinai. Egypt’s war on terror has displaced close to 120,000 people from their villages and towns in North Sinai, the entire historic city of Rafah has been demolished, and as COP27 takes place in Sharm El-Sheikh, the military authorities evacuated dozens of families who returned to their destroyed homes in the villages of North Sinai in an attempt to rebuild their lives.
Underlining the intersections of militarism and climate justice, they add, “The impact of Egypt’s last decade of war on terror in North Sinai on women and children remains a blacked out catastrophe. The lives, well-being and education of thousands of children, and the health and safety of thousands of women, is currently in ruin after mass waves of forced evacuation and displacement without any containment plans by the state authorities. The environmental impact of a decade of military operations across the region, and the destruction of thousands of acres of green spaces, will extend for years if not decades to come, unless immediate plans of damage assessment and containment are launched.”
On Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, a researcher reports:
Since El-Sisi came to power he took special interest in the lakes in Northern Egypt. He considered the lakes a source of revenue and a resource of various elements and fish farming for export. Numerous projects were undertaken: deepening and trenching, enormous fish farming facilities. These projects were executed without any consideration of environmental servicing of the lakes. The Egyptian military’s full control over fishing and fisheries in North Sinai’s lakes and Mediterranean shores does not only strip the local communities of pursuing a source of living, but also hinders all kinds of environmental research, study, work and preservation efforts. This crisis has been evolving for over a decade and will continue into the future, with multiplying impacts extending into the future.
These testimonials provide a brief snapshot of the realities being covered up in a country where research and journalism are heavily criminalized, and where even posting about these topics can land a person in prison under the same charges as Alaa: spreading false news.
The clearest messages to emerge from this extraordinary summit is that political rights and climate progress are inextricably linked.
At the end of its first week, and with one more to go, the clearest messages to emerge from this extraordinary summit is that political rights and climate progress are inextricably linked. A future in which safety from the worst climate impacts is possible requires groups and individuals who are free enough to imagine that future and fight for it. Those who are most impacted must be empowered to lead the way. That can only happen if basic freedoms — to speak, to dissent, to protest, to strike — are defended, in Egypt and around the world.
Working with the Egypt Unsilenced Collective, we will continue to share these reports for the duration of COP27. You can follow the latest on Twitter at @NaomiAKlein.