News | Participation / Civil Rights - North Africa - Socio-ecological Transformation - COP27 COP27: A Political Gift for El-Sisi’s Torture Regime

“Green” investments in Egypt do little for climate action, but legitimize the rule of a reactionary military dictatorship


Britain's Shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy (Labour) stands with Mona (left) and Sanaa Seif, sisters of blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a British-Egyptian activist imprisoned and on hunger strike in Egypt, at a camp-in, outside the Foreign Office, London, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.
Britain's Shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy (Labour) stands with Mona (left) and Sanaa Seif, sisters of blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a British-Egyptian activist imprisoned and on hunger strike in Egypt, at a camp-in, outside the Foreign Office, London, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Victoria Jones

Let’s not kid ourselves. The COP27 climate conference and previous UN summits are not spaces in which the Global South and Global North work together towards an energy transition and climate justice or how to finance both fairly.

The agenda of the conference and its non-binding resolutions are determined by powerful governments and multinational corporations with little interest in real, sustainable change. The production of electric cars or bans on plastic bags are generally framed as milestones, but they do not challenge the consumption-oriented modes of production any more than the expansion of solar and wind power by multinationals or the import of green hydrogen from countries like Egypt, which is being pushed forward in a colonial fashion.

In a remarkable essay for the Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr, Omar Robert Hamilton explains that a decentralized and global energy transition could have the potential to “explode the colonial border of the nation-state and empower community-sized initiatives”. But this “egalitarian potential” will not be top of the agenda at the COP27. On the contrary, he writes, “here, the energy transition becomes an opportunity for greenwashing and profiteering as countries and companies queue up to sign energy installation deals with a dictatorship that has a surplus of power and of political prisoners”.

Sofian Philip Naceur is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office and works as a freelance journalist.

In recent years, the COP summits have nevertheless become major annual events that focus the world’s attention on the impacts of global warming and climate change. That attention now has the potential to build political bridges, as COP27, which is set to take place in the heavily guarded resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, has opened up a dialogue between the climate and human rights movements, much to the chagrin of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime.

The path there has been tedious, conflict-laden and rocky, and the disputes have neither been harmonious nor are they over. But never before has a state hosting the COP been so vehemently condemned for its human rights abuses as Egypt is today.

A Conflict Long Overdue

“With all eyes on Egypt, COP27 is a chance to voice the Egyptian government’s disrespect for human rights and increasing restrictions on civil society”, said Yasmin Omar of the NGO Committee for Justice (CFJ) in a statement by the Egyptian COP27 Human Rights Coalition (of which the CFJ is a member), whose stated goal is also to build cross-movements solidarity with the international human rights and environmental movement.

Egyptian human rights groups and activists have been waiting for such vocal and consistent solidarity for some time ― not only because considerable parts of the climate movement act in a deliberately apolitical manner and are dependent on government funds or even willingly co-opted by multinational companies for PR purposes, but also for security reasons. Ultimately, environmental NGOs operating in Egypt know very well that they risk retaliation from the state should they speak openly about human rights issues in the country.

Parts of the climate movement have nevertheless responded to the heavy criticism of their hesitant stance and are now adopting clearer positions around the human rights crimes committed by Egypt’s military regime. Both the Climate Action Network, an alliance of hundreds of civil society groups from 130 countries, as well as climate activist Greta Thunberg and countless others have either for the first time or once again publicly declared their solidarity with political prisoners in Egypt, called for the release of all arbitrarily detained people across the country, and signed a petition of the COP27 Human Rights Coalition, which draws attention to the significant restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly as well as press freedom around the conference and calls for an end of reprisals against Egypt’s civil society.

“Greenwashing a Police State”

Holding COP27 in Egypt’s police state has created a “moral crisis” for the climate movement, journalist Naomi Klein wrote in a sharply worded opinion piece in early October. Shortly before, Sanaa Seif, the sister of British–Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been imprisoned in Egypt since 2019 and is now on hunger strike for more than 200 days, accused the climate movement of hypocrisy. “Mitigating climate change and fighting for human rights are interlinked struggles, they shouldn’t be separated”, Seif said on Twitter, trenchantly pointing out that el-Sisi’s regime is “propped up by companies such as BP and ENI”. Seif is currently camping outside Britain’s Foreign Office in London to raise awareness of her brother’s plight and pressure the UK government to act on his behalf.

The case of Abdel Fattah, who has been behind bars almost continuously since 2014 on flimsy, politically motivated charges, is widely regarded as symptomatic of the el-Sisi dictatorship’s repressive measures against opposition figures. The attention he has attracted since his hunger strike began in April has been a public relations nightmare for the regime, as the inhumane conditions of his detention expose the grotesque attempts to whitewash Egypt’s human rights record and portray PR stunts as “reforms”. The summit “is going well beyond greenwashing a polluting state; it’s greenwashing a police state”, Naomi Klein writes.

Both the “National Dialogue”, an informal forum for talks between the regime and parts of the opposition launched in April, and the release of political prisoners are intended to give the impression that the regime is willing to compromise. In reality, el-Sisi considers the fizzling dialogue to be non-binding, whereas the number of people arrested on political grounds in recent months significantly exceeds the number of those set free since the release campaign began. Although prominent activists, journalists, and opposition figures have been released recently, the hollowness of the move is evident in light of the estimated 65,000 political prisoners currently behind bars in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s incarceration facilities are being cheerfully “reformed”. Old prisons are being shut down and inmates transferred to supposedly progressive “rehabilitation centres”. The “progress” in el-Sisi’s new dungeons? In addition to the well-known use of torture and intimidation tactics, detainees are now subjected to constant video surveillance in cells that in some cases remain illuminated 24 hours per day. At the recently established Badr prison near Cairo, prisoners continue to die due to medical neglect, while inmates stage hunger strikes to protest prison conditions or bans on family visits. At the same time, the rampant police violence, torture, and arbitrary arrests continue nationwide.

No Pre-COP Relief in Sight

A statement from the UN Human Rights Council consequently denounced a “climate of fear for Egyptian civil society organizations to engage visibly at the COP27”, countering claims by top politicians such as Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shouky that authorities would allow free speech in a designated area in Sharm el-Sheikh. According to the human rights group Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the authorities’ recent “superficial measures” are little more than political window-dressing. A new wave of reprisals is expected after COP, the CIHRS warns, referring to threats made to recently released detainees that they will be re-arrested after the conference.

The NGO Reporter Without Borders (RSF) is likewise not deceived by the regime’s PR stunts. “Here and there, a journalist will be released from prison, but we think it is extremely unlikely that anything will fundamentally change regarding the massive state reprisals against the media”, RSF Germany’s public relations officer Christopher Resch told the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, calling unambiguously on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock not to remain silent about the el-Sisi regime’s “appalling human rights record during their visit to Sharm el-Sheikh”. He went on to explain that Egypt resembles a kind of open-air prison for media workers, with 21 journalists currently behind bars.

Meanwhile, the regime is responding to any hint of public opposition with the usual nervousness. Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service, the regime’s notorious political police, already arrested a 51-year-old man in September and forcefully disappeared him for two weeks after he allegedly joined a Facebook group calling for protests around COP27.

The heavy security precautions in Sinai itself are aimed at preventing any unwanted action by Egyptian activists and ensuring tight control over the event as well as the participants flocking into the peninsula from the around. The city of Sharm el-Sheikh, consisting almost exclusively of hotels and vacation resorts, resembles an armoured fortress for foreign tourists and wealthy Egyptians, literally fenced off by a concrete wall.

In anticipation of COP27, security checks of people traveling on the two roads leading to Sharm el-Sheikh were extensively expanded and stores in nearby towns closed down. According to reports, the surveillance measures in Sharm el-Sheikh even include bugged taxis.

Green Hype as a Cash Cow

With the awarding of COP27 to Egypt, the el-Sisi regime began a systematic campaign to label its industry, economy, public transport, and various urban development projects as “green”, also in an attempt to attract urgently needed foreign investment to its struggling economy. In recent years, it has flooded TV screens and social media with propaganda portraying Egypt as a pioneer in green policies and an advocate for a just energy transition.

Public transport projects backed by loans and guarantees from European states, such as the Cairo Monorail or the high-speed train network currently being built by the German firm Siemens, are portrayed as milestones — but given the high fares, they are likely to serve as feel-good projects for Egypt’s wealthy elite, as the projects will by no means effectively shift passenger and cargo traffic to rail.

Government announcements to plant 100 million trees are also misleading as, in recent years, tens of thousands of trees were cut down in Egyptian cities to pave the way for expanding roads or better surveil public spaces with cameras.

The unprecedented boom in housing, town, and infrastructure projects across the country is also repeatedly labelled as “green” by the government and private real estate companies, ignoring the environmental and social damage caused by these projects. The predominantly military-controlled cement industry is one of Egypt’s biggest polluters, and is laying the foundation for the construction frenzy. Sharm el-Sheikh ― which is almost exclusively accessible by plane ― is dubbed a “green city”, as are the gated communities of Mostakbal near Cairo and New Alamein on the Mediterranean coast, both built in the middle of the desert. The latter has already visibly increased coastal erosion in the region, further exacerbating environmental damage caused by sea level rise.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian COP presidency announced Coca-Cola, branded by Greenpeace as the world’s biggest plastic polluter, as the main sponsor of COP27 and, with an utter lack of irony, hired a PR agency to manage COP27’s public relations that has a “shameful track record of spreading disinformation” and is even accused of having worked on greenwashing campaigns for notorious energy multinationals such as ExxonMobil, Shell or Saudi Aramco, according to openDemocracy.

Although Egypt continues to adhere to its ambitious goal of converting 42 percent of its total electricity production to renewables by 2035, the country is on track to miss this year’s goal of 20 percent by a wide margin, according to a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Instead, the regime is turning the country into a major exporter of fossil fuels — with massive support from European countries. Egypt has turned into a net energy exporter since the development of the giant Zohr offshore fossil gas field in the Mediterranean by ENI and BP — a development further fuelled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Egypt has done its utmost to depict itself as a green innovator in the runup to COP27. Yet, el-Sisi and his regime do so not only due to the prestigious event itself and the political repercussions of hosting such a conference, but also as a result of tangible economic interests.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have plunged Egypt’s economy into a severe currency and balance of payments crisis that has fuelled capital flight from the country. To counter this trend, the regime urgently needs investments, loans, and deposits from abroad, and one means to attract them as quickly as possible is, given the attention devoted to the climate crisis, to present itself as a green pioneer. But regardless of the reasons behind the Egyptian government’s greenwashing campaign, its disastrous human rights record and its superficial attempts to make its economic policies appear “green” are turning the COP27 into an outright mockery of climate justice and human rights.