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COP27 sheds light on Egypt's abysmal human rights record

October 27, 2022
topics: Human Rights
by: Marc Español
located in: Egypt
tags: climate justice, COP27, Egypt, freedom of speech, human rights

Activists and NGOs are redoubling efforts to call attention to the dire human rights conditions under which the next UN climate summit will be held, stressing that there can be no climate justice without political freedoms.

Starting 6 November, thousands of people from across the world will begin to descend on the Egyptian seaside city of Sharm El Sheikh to attend the UN climate change conference (COP27). Among them will be political leaders, experts, representatives of large business and non-governmental organisations, activists and journalists who will gather to discuss global climate action for two weeks at the most important climate forum of the year.

Yet, some prominent voices will be absent: Neither software developer Alaa Abdelfattah, Egypt’s highest profile activist, nor Hoda Abdel Moneim, a former member of the National Council for Human Rights, will be able to attend, as both are still languishing in prison on political grounds; nor will political activist Sherif Al Rouby or freelance translator Marwa Arafa, who are also held behind bars along with thousands of other fellow citizens; nor will many Egyptians who remain in exile, no matter how great their concern is about environmental issues.

As COP27 draws near, activists and human rights organisations are redoubling their efforts to bring to the world’s attention the dire human rights conditions under which the climate summit will be held. Adamant that these are interconnected struggles, they are stressing that there can be no climate justice without political freedoms, open civic space and respect for human rights.

"We found that this is a unique moment to connect both narratives and to prove that there won’t be a successful environmental mobilisation without further guarantees that protect fundamental human rights," Yasmin Omar, UN and regional mechanisms manager at the Committee for Justice, one of the most vocal organisations on the matter, told FairPlanet.

For nearly a decade now, Egyptian authorities have carried out relentless crackdowns on civil society, imposed draconian restrictions and systematically muted critical voices - according to investigaations by human rights organisations. Along the way, they have curtailed the ability of Egyptian environmental groups – which are still largely in their infancy – to carry out their work, while not directly outlawing or expelling them.

One of the latest to sound alarm bells was a group of UN experts who expressed concern about restrictions on Egypt’s civil society ahead of COP27. The experts have called on Cairo to ensure the security and full participation of all segments of civil society at the climate summit after a wave of restrictions on participation raised fears of reprisals; a wave, they noted, that follows years of sustained crackdowns using security as a pretext to undermine their legitimate right to participate in public affairs.

"Rhetorically, a lot of countries have nodded to the fact that there is a connection between respect for human rights and climate policies that we all need," Richard Pearshouse, director of the environment and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, told FairPlanet. "What COP27 being hosted in Egypt is bringing into light is what that actually means in practice."

"There won’t be a successful environmental mobilisation without further guarantees that protect fundamental human rights."

interConnected struggles

Egyptian and international activists and human rights groups have provided numerous reasons as to why climate justice and political freedoms should be addressed simultaneously. One of them, largely practical, is that without an open public space that allows for everything from a free press to popular organisation and social mobilisation it will not be possible to push for the research, analysis, progress and radical changes needed to tackle the climate crisis.

The examples offered to counter the rhetoric that attempts to set aside the internal situation in Egypt for a purported greater global interest are also manifold. One is that Egyptians have shown great commitment and capacity for social organisation and mobilisation around environmental issues in the past.

In 2013, as the government - with significant industry backing, began to consider overturning the ban on coal imports in order to cope with energy shortages, the Egyptians Against Coal movement emerged.

The movement was highly active on social media, organised meetings with vulnerable local communities, industry and government representatives, held public workshops and filed a lawsuit.

For some, this was "the biggest, most public cabinet-level political battle in Egypt" in the months following the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013 at the hands of the army. In the end, the movement failed. But today it would be unthinkable for it to even appear, and examples like this are plentiful.

Mona Seif, an Egyptian activist and Abdelfattah’s sister, recently wrote that the reality that most of those participating in COP27 are choosing to ignore is that in countries like Egypt the "true allies, the ones who actually give a damn about the planet’s future, are those languishing in prisons."

"Restrictions on civil society in general and independent environmental voices is a clear impediment to the climate policies that countries and the world needs," Pearshouse of Human Rights Watch said. "Egypt, as the host country, has [led a] crackdown on independent environmental voices and as a consequence of that it’s incredibly difficult to have conversations around Egypt’s expansion of fossil fuels inside the country, for example," he noted.

Another concern that connects the two crises relates to this year's conference main theme, or at least one that Cairo hopes to put on the table: The climate debt and reparations from the global north to the global south.

Here, even if some kind of agreement is reached, many worry that no matter how legitimate and urgent these funds are, as long as regimes like Egypt’s remain in place it will not be possible to collectively debate on and monitor their allocation, which may well undermine any prospect for climate justice.

"Many repressive regimes have fossil fuel industries deeply embedded in their economies and their own sources of power," Pearshouse noted. "If your hope is that a repressive regime, such as Egypt’s, is somehow going to see the light and come around the need for climate policies, I think they are being profoundly naïve," he added.

Calls for solidarity

In an attempt to take advantage of the global attention directed at Egypt and emphasise the connection between climate justice and political freedoms, a group of 13 prominent Egyptian human rights organisations, some of which are operating in exile, came together to form the Egyptian Human Rights Coalition on COP27

One of the group’s actions has been to launch a petition, which garnered nearly 1,000 signatures as of this reporting and includes both short and long-term demands. Among the former is a call for Cairo to ensure that civil society groups, activists and all communities can meaningfully participate in COP27, and to guarantee space for them.

International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House have made similar demands both on their own and collectively. 

Some of these groups have also extended the call to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN body overseeing the summit, and to those countries attending the conference, seeing as there is little hope for a change of course from Cairo.

One of the main concerns in this regard is that, as noted by the group of UN experts, there has been a lack of information and transparent accreditation criteria for Egyptian NGOs which has left several independent groups out of COP27, and a coordinated increase in hotel room rates in Sharm that threatens to exclude those who cannot afford the high costs. 

They also warned of undue restrictions to freedom of assembly outside the COP27 venue, which will make it impossible to repeat the large demonstrations and the counter-climate summit organised last year in Glasgow in parallel to COP26, as well as unjustified delays in the provision of visas to those travelling from abroad.

"We are demanding that the powers attending COP27 mind the abysmal situation of human rights," Omar from the Committee for Justice said. "There won’t be a successful and meaningful participation in COP27 if civil society is under threat."

Ian Fry, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, told FairPlanet that he had met with the Egyptian ambassador to the UN in July to convey his concerns, and that he had done the same with the Egyptian government through established procedures. Fry also met in June with the senior legal officer to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC, but fell short of announcing any breakthrough.

In a statement to FairPlanet, a UNFCCC spokesperson limited himself to saying that their venues will become extraterritorial space for the duration of the summit, which means that the UN will be responsible for their management, and that they will maintain "the same high standard in the facilitation of conference registration and NGO demonstrations."

The spokesperson, however, avoided clarifying whether there had been efforts to extend these provisions outside their venues, and stated that, in any case, the "COPs are not open to the public."

Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein join the outcry

The petition launched by the coalition of Egyptian human rights organisations also aims to transcend the climate summit and includes a call to immediately and unconditionally release all the country’s political prisoners, to put an end to the crackdown on peaceful dissent and to guarantee access to independent information and open civic space.

Although it initially struggled to gain momentum, the petition has started to pick up in recent days and has already been endorsed by world-renowned figures such as writer and activist Naomi Klein and environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

The petition has also been signed by the Climate Action Network (CAN), a global network of over 1,300 environmental organisations, and Greenpeace UK has shown its support for Abdelfattah.

The Egyptian Human Rights Coalition on COP27 has also succeeded in getting the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to adopt its petition as a resolution on 18 October. The European Parliament, on its part, adopted a resolution two days later, in which it reiterated its call for the release of all persons held in arbitrary detention in Egypt and urged Cairo to use the momentum from COP27 to improve the country's human rights situation.

The campaigners now hope to gather even more support and apply further pressure on the Egyptian authorities as the key summit draws near.

"Once COP ends, the world eyes will turn away from Egypt and we might be left alone," Omar said. "And we don’t want to live with the legacy that the world let us down."

Image by Omar Elsharawy.

Article written by:
ciff.jpg.256x256_q100_crop-smart
Marc Español
Author
Egypt
Starting 6 November, thousands of people from across the world will begin to descend on the Egyptian seaside city of Sharm El Sheikh to attend the UN climate change conference (COP27).
"Rhetorically, a lot of countries have nodded to the fact that there is a connection between respect for human rights and climate policies that we all need."
The campaigners now hope to gather even more support and raise pressure on the Egyptian authorities as the key summit draws near.
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