The Egyptian military dictatorship hosting this year's COP poses a political challenge for all participants. But upon close inspection, reference points for demanding human rights emerge.
In the coming days, people from all over the world will be looking to Egypt, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place from November 6 to 18. Up to 30,000 participants are expected at the "Conference of Parties" (COP). In view of the escalating global climate crisis, they face a mammoth task.
In the spotlight of international attention, the Egyptian government and its President al-Sisi have launched a large-scale charm offensive. In the run-up to the COP, it announced a "national dialogue," issued a "national human rights strategy" and proclaimed the "Year of Civil Society". Yet all of this has been done precisely in order not to talk about human rights violations in Egypt.
The "national dialogue" is supposed to provide an opportunity for social exchange and reconciliation. In view of the country's recent history of violence and continuing polarization, this would be much needed. In particular, the Rabaa massacre in the wake of the military coup, in which up to 1,000 supporters of elected President Mohamed Mursi were killed by security forces, leaves deep wounds. But the dialogue does not address that: The regime controls what is discussed – and with whom. The selection of topics and participants is non-transparent and exclusive. There is no fair participation of the opposition, and its concerns – above all the release of political prisoners and respect for the rule of law – are ignored. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies concludes that "the National Dialogue neither aims to genuinely start a process of reform nor address the human rights crisis".
In addition to the "dialogue," the Egyptian government also introduced a "national human rights strategy" to demonstrate its good intentions. However – and this is the fundamental flaw of the strategy – it blames Egyptians who demand their rights, not the authorities, for the human rights crisis, insinuating their arrest was a necessary reaction. As a consequence, the "generation revolution" of 2011 has become a "generation jail". In the past years, 35 new prisons have been built, the “amenities” of which are even praised in a music video produced by the authorities. Yet, enforced disappearances are endemic, prison conditions can be lethal, and torture and death sentences are the order of the day. Of more than 60,000 political prisoners, less than one percent were released last year. In the same period, ten times as many people were imprisoned, oftentimes without any judicial proceedings at all. Even those who are released can be immediately re-arrested, prevented from leaving the country, or have their assets frozen. In doing so, the government invokes laws to give a semblance of the rule of law while complete impunity for military rule is enforced. Amnesty International therefore assessed that the human rights crisis in the country continues to worsen one year after the publication of the strategy.
Finally, President al-Sisi proclaimed 2022 the "Year of Civil Society". However, only those who court the government and honor the authority of the state as well as its interests are deemed to be part of this society. All others have effectively been declared enemies of the state and criminalized with repressive laws: The anti-protest law of 2013 restricts the right to assemble; anti-terror laws from 2015 curtail freedom of expression and information by branding the "dissemination of false information" and any criticism as terror, which is why over 700 news sites are closed and people are imprisoned for social media posts; and the NGO law from 2019 subjects civil society organizations to state control. Human Rights Watch recently outlined what this means for environmental groups in Egypt, documenting systematic restrictions on registration, fund-raising, research and advocacy. This is why, despite the official flattery, the governmental vision of civil society is exclusive: Not part of it is anyone who criticizes the ecological consequences of the construction of a new administrative capital, examines the economic profit that such mega-projects have for the military, tries to prevent the felling of the last trees in Cairo as well as the forced eviction of the iconic Nile houseboats, or doubts that the eviction of the inhabitants of an entire island serves the "modernization" of the country.
International relations – and pitfalls
All these measures happen against the backdrop of Egypt's escalating national debt. As the government is dependent on international support, funds and loans, it is trying to present itself as a reliable partner. To this end, it employs the services of a notorious PR agency, which is supposed to appease the international public with advertising measures, while critical voices at home and abroad continue to be suppressed. Thus, the "stability" – as a bulwark of which the Egyptian government is trying to stylize itself – is false and not at all sustainable.
Nevertheless, many Western governments are relying on Egypt to control "illegal migration," to mediate in the Middle East conflict, or to supply liquefied natural gas during the war in Ukraine. Germany, too, rewards the "good cooperation" with Egypt with arms exports that amounted to over 4.3 billion euros in 2021 alone. Companies such as Siemens receive record orders, which the previous German government even supported with state guarantees. On the one hand, this is said to serve "German interests," which makes it difficult at times to argue against the cooperation. On the other hand, it not only equips the Egyptian military, but also enhances its violent rule. Foreign direct investment promotes repression and hinders democratization if its desired profit is tied to the "stability" of the Egyptian regime. Moreover, the cooperation measures emphasize economic concerns at the expense of socio-political and ecological rights, which in turn plays into the hands of the Egyptian government.
COP27 therefore requires a rethinking of how to negotiate with despots without being instrumentalized by them and abandoning democratic principles. What channels are still open and promising for this? In Egypt, civil society, free reporting and public debate are suppressed. Therefore, support and pressure from abroad are needed. But then, the German government's "soft diplomacy" seems futile as long as it does not hold the Egyptian leadership directly and also publicly accountable for its human rights violations. The Petersberg Climate Dialogue in July, for example, which would have given the German government an exclusive opportunity to do so, was a disappointment in this regard. This is why pressure from abroad can only work if it is flanked and fueled by civil society engagement, in this case the German and international climate movement.
COP in context
COP27 is taking place amidst a climate and human rights crisis, which makes the discussion about necessary and possible environmental policy measures ever more heated. The Egyptian government itself speaks of the "COP of implementation" to stress that it wants to realize its commitments of previous years. In particular, it is eying the billions needed to respond to environmental damage and associated losses. From the perspective of the "Global South," which the Egyptian COP presidency claims to represent, this is both understandable and compelling. The nations of the South have contributed far less to climate change than the industrialized countries of the North, while bearing the brunt of its impact.
However – and this is the crucial problem – the affected people themselves are neither allowed nor wanted at this COP, nor are those who stand up for them and their rights. As such, even UN observers deplore a "climate of fear" in which the access of civil society actors to the COP is restricted. This encompasses many factors: Sharm el-Sheikh, where COP27 takes place, is a secluded desert resort on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where the Egyptian military has been committing war crimes against its own population for years as part of "anti-terrorism measures." The centrally set hotel prices are so high that many groups simply cannot afford to participate.
What is more, bureaucratic hurdles make access difficult. For example, to participate in the COP, Egyptian organizations first had to apply to the Egyptian government, which in turn made a preselection and forwarded it to the UNFCCC. But this procedure broke with standard UN rules and made the Secretariat an accomplice of the Egyptian government, which selected only pro-government organizations and none of the remaining human rights organizations. Similarly scandalous is the announcement that "protests" are to take place only in a designated zone outside the negotiating rooms and carefully removed from conference participants. Those who nevertheless call for demonstrations can be arrested. And the official COP27 app extends surveillance to virtual spaces. It provides directions through the conference center, which belongs to the Egyptian General Intelligence Service that is expanding its role in the state apparatus and said to be pulling the strings behind the COP.
All those who nevertheless participate in the COP therefore are confronted with a moral and political challenge: A moral challenge to represent the people who cannot participate, and a political challenge to change the conditions that underlie this exclusion. Applied to the ambitions of the Egyptian government with regard to environmental policies, this implies a tangible human rights mandate: how can a system of reparations for environmental damage be put in place that actually benefits affected people without strengthening authoritarian regimes like the one in Egypt, through which such payments inevitably pass? The urgency of this question also arises from the terms and conditions of the multi-billion dollar loans that Egypt has received from the International Monetary Fund since 2016. These loans, which the German government strongly advocated, usually come with harsh fiscal and social policy conditions. For example, they call for the cutting of subsidies, a move that always hits poorer people the hardest. At the same time, the corrupt government system, the opaque role of the military and the dire human rights situation are generally disregarded. Critics therefore demand that no funds be given to Egypt without addressing governance issues and military rule – and this also includes any climate finance the Egyptian government hopes to receive from the COP.
No climate justice without human rights
In light of these circumstances, Egyptian human rights defenders and organizations debated extensively how to approach and deal with the COP. Despite – or perhaps because of – the harsh restrictions, they did not call for a boycott. Rather, they hope to use the international attention on Egypt to shine a spotlight on the human rights situation on the ground. For many involved, this is vital to their survival, such as for the family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. The prominent democracy activist has been on hunger strike for almost seven months, putting his body on the line against political oppression and to fight for his release – but so far in vain. His fate therefore marks the ultimate yardstick for the legitimacy of the COP: Unless proper pressure is put on the Egyptian government to save Alaa and change its course, as a resolution from the European Parliament now demands, it may soon be too late for him. Come November 6, the first day of the COP, he will also renounce water, as his family recently conveyed.
A coalition of Egyptian human rights organizations has therefore addressed international partners and especially the climate movement, which may not be familiar with the situation in Egypt in detail, but still have room for maneuver to take a position in support of their Egyptian colleagues. The coalition raises awareness of human rights violations on the ground and develops proposals to address them in the course of the COP. To this end, the coalition emphasizes two concerns: "no climate justice without open civic space" and "free them all".
These are the decisive clues for the upcoming climate negotiations for anyone who is serious about human rights in Egypt – and not the initiatives of the Egyptian government with its hollow mechanisms that also undermine important functions of the climate debates. To state this difference clearly is critical to avoid falling for the Egyptian government's empty pronouncements and to identify a basis of appeal in the interaction with an autocratic regime.
Against this, ignoring the crimes of the Egyptian government – relativizing them or preferring not to comment on them so as not to lose one's place at the negotiating table – harbors a two-pronged danger of greenwashing: The uncritical participation at COP27 can both conceal a lack of environmental ambitions and gloss over human rights violations. This would be a disastrous signal for the upcoming negotiations because there can be no climate justice without human rights. Military rule in Egypt would then inevitably be normalized with a lot of "blah, blah, blah," as Greta Thunberg aptly put it.