Egypt’s NGOs and activists are not welcome at COP27

Egypt's NGOs and activists are not welcome at COP27

In this photo taken in Cairo’s Heliopolis neighbourhood in January 2020, century-old trees are being cut down to make way for new roads.

(Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP)

“Your request has been denied”: this was the extent of the reply that Azza Soliman, director of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), received to her request to participate in the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), which will take place in Egypt in a few days’ time. For months, Soliman and her team of seven lawyers and activists had been preparing to participate in the conference, which they hoped would provide a platform to speak out about the effects of climate change on Egyptian women, especially in the country’s poorest urban neighbourhoods and rural areas.

Soliman, whose NGO participated in a videoconference at the COP26 in Glasgow, never imagined that the Egyptian authorities would be so bold as to prevent them from attending the international event, which addresses climate change and “no other subjects deemed sensitive for the Egyptian regime”. But their hopes were dashed. “They just said no, nothing more. They didn’t even provide a justification for their refusal. Just ‘no’. This is how the state is treating NGOs prior to COP27,” Soliman tells Equal Times.

Starting on 6 November, all eyes will be on the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Hundreds of heads of state, ministers, officials, NGO representatives and activists from all over the world will meet to discuss climate change and what can be done about it.

By organising the event, Egyptian authorities hope to present the country and the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a positive light. One of their (unacknowledged) methods for doing so is to prevent independent NGOs and activists – who might speak out about the human rights situation in the country, including the regime’s environmental policies – from accessing the resort during the conference.

“The Egyptian authorities are sending a clear message to Egyptian NGOs that what happens in Egypt must be kept hidden from the rest of the world. NGOs from all over the world can go there but Egyptian NGOs are not welcome,” says Soliman.

In a statement issued on 7 October, the UN Committee of Experts called on Egypt to lift all restrictions on NGOs and independent activists before COP27 and for Egyptian authorities to ensure the safety and full participation of all areas of civil society at the convention.

According to the UN experts: “Arrests and detention, NGO asset freezes and dissolutions and travel restrictions against human rights defenders have created a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society organisations to engage visibly at the COP27.”

Despite these warnings, the Egyptian authorities show no signs of reversing course. “We have not received an invitation to attend COP27. We didn’t apply because we knew we would be refused, as were other NGOs in Egypt,” Malek Adly, director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) tells Equal Times.

Founded in 2009, the ECESR works on environmental justice, defending workers and residents who are victims of the government’s actions and pollution caused by factories, such as those manufacturing pesticides and cement. After Egypt was chosen to host the conference, the ECESR launched a campaign and a series of investigations into climate change in Egypt and the government practices that are exacerbating the problem.

Despite their expertise on climate change, ECESR members will be forced to follow COP27 from afar. “Every NGO and activist working on environmental issues should be free to attend as they have been at every previous COP,” says Adly.

Disappointment before COP27

Last year, Egypt launched a National Human Rights Strategy to improve its human rights record. While this announcement was welcomed by civil society, which believed that the state would release political prisoners and open up civic space, nothing has changed since then. On the contrary, the situation is getting worse.

In a report published on 21 September, Amnesty International writes that a year after the launch of this strategy, Egyptian authorities “have continued to stifle freedoms and commit crimes under international law in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference”. NGOs accuse the Egyptian regime of arbitrary detention without trial for tens of thousands of opponents and civilians, as well as enforced disappearances for some opponents who later reappear in court facing a list of false charges.

While Egypt has released dozens of political prisoners in recent months, the number pales in comparison to those who are still being detained in the country. Amnesty International and other NGOs estimate the number of political prisoners in Egypt at 60,000.

On 26 September, 12 Egyptian NGOs issued a joint statement calling on Egyptian authorities to open up civic space and release prisoners in arbitrary detention: “We emphasise that effective climate action is not possible without open civic space. As host of COP27, Egypt risks compromising the success of the summit if it does not urgently address ongoing arbitrary restrictions on civil society.”

On 14 October, Egyptian authorities banned activist and human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Massry from travelling to Italy to participate in the Aurora Prize ceremony, for which she was nominated. “Many were hoping that this international event would open the public space, but the arrests have not stopped. Every day civilians are arrested by state security,” says Soliman.

NGOs and local dissidents were hoping that Western countries would boycott this edition of the COP if Egypt failed to make serious progress on human rights.

In an interview with the Guardian, Richard Pearshouse, director of environment at Human Rights Watch, warned international leaders against making any concessions on human rights in Egypt: “It will be a fundamental mistake if diplomats go to Cop27 thinking they need to go softly on human rights in order to make progress in the climate talks. We will not get the urgent climate action needed without civil society pressure, the situation in Egypt shows us that.”

A ban on protests and environmental hypocrisy

Will demonstrations be allowed at COP27? In a country where public gatherings of more than ten people and displays of political messaging are forbidden, Egyptian activists and NGOs are unlikely to take the risk.

“There’s a law against demonstrations in Egypt and several people are still in jail for daring to hold up a sign in the street,” says an independent environmental activist who requested anonymity. “In my opinion, only Egyptians chosen by the security apparatus will demonstrate. They will chant pro-regime slogans to make the government look good,” he adds.

In addition to its human rights record, the Egyptian government is also trying to hide its poor environmental record from international participants at COP27. In a video promoting the city of Sharm el-Sheikh ahead of COP27, Egypt’s COP27 presidency shows young people walking freely around the city. They drink from recycled cups, which are then reused to produce compost for the city’s gardens. The video seems to imply that, when it comes to the environment, Egypt takes every detail seriously. The reality on the ground, however, bears little resemblance to this portrayal.

“Egypt has no credibility when it comes to the environment. The current regime is making the whole country uglier. It cuts down trees and destroys gardens to build cement buildings,” says Soliman.

Since 2014, environmental activists have accused the Egyptian regime of committing a veritable ‘tree massacre’ in the streets of Cairo and other cities to make way for urban development projects, cafés and restaurants that are more profitable for the state. This has caused significant controversy in Cairo, a city with some of the worst air pollution in the world.

Residents of the city of Alexandria and environmental activists are up in arms over the destruction of Antoniadis Gardens, one of the oldest parks in the Mediterranean city. Since September 2022, bulldozers have been ripping through trees and historic buildings in the park to make way for restaurants and cafes.

On 29 September Egypt also signed a contract with Coca-Cola to become a sponsor of COP27, a decision which has caused much controversy. According to a report by the international movement Break Free From Plastic, the Coca-Cola company isthe world’s worst corporate plastic polluter for the fourth year in a row.

“We don’t expect much from COP27. As long as all the local experts and activists are excluded, the summit will only serve as a propaganda tool for the Egyptian regime without having any impact on the climate,” says the independent activist.

This article has been translated from French.