In another world, Egyptian human rights activist and software developer Alaa Abd el-Fattah might have been attending the COP27 climate summit in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the shore of the Red Sea, which continues through next week—coinciding with el-Fattah’s 41st birthday. Instead, Egyptian security forces have imprisoned him multiple times over the past decade, following his role in the 2011 uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. He has been on a hunger strike for about six months, and he began refusing water on Sunday.
El-Fattah is now one of many people unable to raise their voices during the United Nations’ annual gathering of climate negotiators. While thousands of protesters swarmed the COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, and other high-profile international meetings have become the sites of activism and demonstrations, the Egyptian government has put prohibitive restrictions on would-be protesters.
Speaking out can be dangerous in Egypt, where human rights groups consider President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government to be an authoritarian regime that has presided over rampant human rights abuses, including mass arrests, the killing of protesters by security forces, and the use of military trials against civilians. His reign began in 2014 following a military coup that ousted the democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Mohamed Morsi. El-Sisi’s administration has a long history of stifling protests and has limited demonstrations during this climate summit, too. It has threatened protesters with fines and imprisonment, and protesters must register for permission just to hold a rally in a cordoned-off spot in the desert, separate from the conference.
“You can protest in only one area that is far from the COP, and you can protest only from 10 to 5, and you must inform the authorities 36 hours in advance. It has to be climate-related,” says Hussein Baoumi, a researcher for Amnesty International Egypt and Libya.
“The Egyptians there will face reprisals given the history of mass surveillance,” he says of the protesters. “After the cameras leave, they will be arrested.”
Still, there have been attempts at raising human rights issues at the conference. Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, called for COP27 attendees to wear white on Thursday in solidarity with political prisoners in Egypt and to call for their release. Activists and human rights advocates have promoted the action on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #FreeThemAll.
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And on Tuesday evening, at a packed and boisterous COP27 side event organized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International at the German Climate Pavilion, el-Fattah’s sister Sanaa Seif—an activist previously imprisoned for protesting a law that bans unauthorized demonstrations—gave a moving speech, quoting her brother. “We need to reclaim the arena of local action, not as a space to hoard miserable gains, but as a space to discuss a better future for everyone,” Seif said. “Hope here is a necessary action. Our rosy dreams will probably not come to pass, but if we leave ourselves to our nightmares, we will be killed by fear before the floods arrive.”
But an altercation that followed the event exemplified the resistance human rights activists face: According to a Washington Post report, Egyptian lawmaker Amr Darwish stood up and yelled at Seif. “You are here summoning foreign countries to pressure Egypt.” He continued berating her until UN security escorted him out, the paper reported.
Activist organizations in Egypt have to deal with limited funding, harassment, and onerous conditions for organizing peaceful demonstrations and press conferences. Some fear for their lives and are essentially forced into exile. A small gathering of a group of people is enough to draw the suspicion of security forces, says Ubrei-Joe Maimoni Mariere, a Nigerian environmental activist of the Friends of the Earth Africa, a nonprofit group. “Egypt is not the best place to hold a COP, because of the repressive nature of the Egyptian government. Activists are careful not to break the laws of the land,” he says. Instead of being sited at a beautiful resort, he argues, such a meeting would be better held in a place where many people live with the effects of climate change, like polluted water and heat waves.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak with el-Sisi, and reportedly will press him on human rights issues in the country. Egypt has been a close ally of the US since the 1980s, and is one of the top recipients of military aid from the United States, Russia, France, and Italy. At Tuesday’s event, Seif essentially called for reducing that aid. “Those weapons will be used against us. You really have to reimagine your foreign policy to Egypt, because it is creating a problem here,” she said.
Bahgat, the Egyptian human rights advocate, points out that the situation for activists has worsened significantly since the coup that brought el-Sisi—a former general—to power. Ten years ago, after the Arab Spring culminated in the fall of then-president Mubarak, he says, people felt empowered. His organization aided a community in western Egypt who, after being displaced by a nuclear power plant, organized a sit-in, demanding to be returned to their lands or fairly compensated. Eventually, after that protest and a press conference, the government created a compensation scheme. “I’m telling you this story because every aspect of it is impossible to imagine today,” he says.
“The general clampdown that Human Rights Watch has witnessed is also impacting environmental groups, some very directly and others in more nuanced and subtle ways, in the sense that some of these groups and activists self-censor and do not engage in certain actions and discussions that could get them in trouble,” says Katharina Rall, an environmental researcher for the group. The unwelcome environment for demonstrators was already evident before the COP27 summit began, Rall says, when an Indian activist, Ajit Rajagopal, began an eight-day march from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh, but was arrested by Egyptian security forces on November 6. He was released the following day, but the message was clear.
The next UN climate summit, COP28, will be held in the United Arab Emirates in November 2023. That government is also well documented as a repressive regime. But already a key message has emerged from COP27, Bahgat says: “There is no climate justice without human rights.”
Additional reporting by Gregory Barber.