The 27th session of the UN on Climate change Conference of the Parties (COP 27) will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, November 06-18, 2022. As the world grieves the calamitous climate/human devastation in Pakistan, the worst destruction of the Amazonian forests in decades, the denial of responsibility of many corporations who control food, lands, and resources, through “carbon hustling”, the UN veneer of green diplomacy cannot hide the immoral disconnect unfolding before our eyes. Holding the COP27 Summit in Egypt’s Police State Creates a Moral Crisis for the Climate Movement. This article calls to solidarity with those working in “the most repressive regime in the history of the modern Egyptian state”.
Mohammed Rafi Arefin, assistant professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, who has researched urban environmental politics in Egypt, points out that “every United Nations climate summit presents a complex calculus of costs and benefits.” On the negative side, there is the carbon spewed into the atmosphere as delegates travel there; the price of two weeks of hotels (steep for grassroots organizations); as well as the public relations bonanza enjoyed by the host government, which invariably positions itself as an eco-champion, never mind evidence to the contrary. We saw this when coal-addled Poland played host in 2018, and we saw it when France did the same in 2015, despite Total Energies’ oilrigs around the world.
Those are the negatives of the annual climate summit tradition. On the positive side of the ledger, there is the fact that for two weeks in November every year, the climate crisis makes global news, often providing media platforms for powerful voices on the front lines of climate disruption, from the Brazilian Amazon to Tuvalu. Another plus is the international networking and solidarity that takes place when local organizers in the host country stage counter-summits and “toxic tours” to reveal the reality behind their government’s green posturing. Of course there are also the deals that get negotiated and funds that are pledged to the poorest and worst impacted. These are nonbinding, and as Greta Thunberg put it, much of what has been pledged and announced has amounted to little more than “Blah, blah, blah.”
With the upcoming climate summit in Egypt, Arefin tells me, “The usual calculus has changed. The balance has tipped.” There are the perennial negatives (the carbon, the cost), but in addition, the host government - who will get the chance to preen green before the world - is not your standard double-talking liberal democracy. “It is,” he says, “the most repressive regime in the history of the modern Egyptian state.” Led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup in 2013 (and has held on to it through sham elections ever since), the regime is, according to human rights organizations, one of the most brutal and repressive in the world.
Of course, you’d never know it from the way Egypt is marketing itself ahead of the summit. A promotional video on the COP27 official website welcomes delegates to the “green city” of Sharm el-Sheik. It shows young actors - including men with scruffy beards and necklaces clearly meant to look like environmental activists - enjoying non-plastic straws and biodegradable takeout containers as they take selfies on the beach, enjoy outdoor showers, learn how to scuba dive, and drive electric vehicles to the desert to ride camels.
This summit is going well beyond greenwashing a polluting state...
Watching the video, it struck me that Sisi has decided to use the summit to stage a new kind of reality show, one in which actors “play” activists who look remarkably like the actual activists who are suffering under torture in his rapidly expanding archipelago of prisons. So add that to the negative side of the ledger: This summit is going well beyond greenwashing a polluting state; it’s greenwashing a police state.
Another factor that sits firmly on the negative side of the ledger: Unlike previous climate summits held in, say, South Africa or Scotland or Denmark or Japan, the Egyptian communities and organizations most impacted by environmental pollution and rising temperatures will be nowhere to be found in Sharm el-Sheikh. There will be no toxic tours, or lively counter-summits, where locals get to school international delegates about the truth behind their government’s PR facade. That’s because organizing events like this would land Egyptians in prison for spreading “false news” or for violating the protest ban - that is, if they aren’t already there.
International delegates can’t even read up much on current pollution and environmental despoliation in Egypt ahead of the summit in academic or NGO reports because of a draconian 2019 law that requires researchers to get government permission before releasing information considered “political.” It’s not just prisoners who are gagged: The whole country is, and hundreds of websites are blocked, including the indispensable and perennially harassed Mada Masr.
Human Rights Watch reports that groups have been forced to rein in and scale back their research under these new constraints, and “one prominent Egyptian environmental group disbanded its research unit because it became impossible to work in the field.” Tellingly, not a single one of the environmentalists who spoke to Human Rights Watch (HRW) about the censorship and repression was willing to use their real name because reprisals are so severe.
Arefin, who conducted extensive research on waste and flooding in Egyptian cities before this latest round of censorious laws, told me that he and other critical academics and journalists “are no longer able to do that work. There is a blockage of basic critical knowledge production. Egypt’s environmental harms now happen in the dark.” And those who break the rules and try to turn on the lights end up in dark cells, or worse.
Alaa’s sister Mona Seif, who has spent years lobbying for her brother’s release and for the release of other political prisoners, wrote recently on Twitter. “The reality most of those participating in Cop27 are choosing to ignore, is … in countries like Egypt your true allies, the ones who actually give a damn about the planet’s future are those languishing in prisons.”
So add that to the negative side as well: Unlike every other climate summit in recent memory, this one will have no authentic local partners. There will be some Egyptians at the summit claiming to represent “civil society,” and some of them do. The trouble is, however well-intentioned, they too are bit players in Sisi’s beachside green reality show; in a departure of usual UN rules, almost all have been vetted and approved by the government. That same HRW report, published last month, explains that these groups have been invited to speak only on “welcome” topics.
What, for the regime, is welcome? “Trash collection, recycling, renewable energy, food security, and climate finance” - especially if that climate finance will line the pockets of Sisi’s regime, perhaps allowing it to put some solar panels on the 27 new prisons it has built since seizing power.
What topics are unwelcome? “The most sensitive environmental issues are those that point out the government’s failure to protect people’s rights against damage caused by corporate interests, including issues relating to water security, industrial pollution, and environmental harm from real estate, tourism development, and agribusiness,” according to the HRW report. Also unwelcome: “the environmental impact of Egypt’s vast and opaque military business activity, such as destructive forms of quarrying, water bottling plants, and some cement factories are particularly sensitive, as are ‘national’ infrastructure projects such as a new administrative capital, many of which are associated with the president’s office or the military.” Definitely don’t talk about Coca-Cola’s
The bottom line? If you want to pick up litter, recycle old Coke bottles, or tout “green hydrogen,” you can probably get a badge to come to Sharm el-Sheikh representing the most-civil form of “civil society.” But if you want to talk about the health and climate impacts of Egypt’s coal-powered cement plants, or the paving over of some of the last green spaces in Cairo, you are more likely to get a visit from the secret police - or from the dystopian Social Solidarity Ministry. Oh, and if, as an Egyptian, you say something scathing about COP27 itself, or question Sisi’s credibility to speak on behalf of Africa’s poor and climate-vulnerable populations given the deepening hunger and desperation of his own people, despite all that North American and European aid, well, you had better hope you are outside of the country already. So far, hosting the summit has proved nothing short of a bonanza for Sisi, a man Donald Trump reportedly referred to as “my favorite dictator.” There is the boon to coastal tourism, which crashed in recent years, and the regime is clearly hoping its videos of outdoor showers and camel rides will inspire more. That’s just the beginning of the green gold rush. Late last month, British International Investment, which is backed by the UK government, giddily announced that it was “investing $100 million to support local start-ups” in Egypt. It is also the majority owner in Globeleq, which ahead of COP27 has announced a huge, $11 billion deal to build out green hydrogen production in Egypt. At the same time, the UK’s Development Finance Institution stressed its “commitment to strengthen its partnership with Egypt and increase climate finance to support the country’s green growth.”
This is the same government that appears to have barely lifted a finger to secure the release of Alaa, despite his British citizenship and his hunger strike. Unfortunately for him, Alaa’s fate was for months in the hands of one Liz Truss, who before becoming Britain’s spectacularly callous and inept prime minister, was its spectacularly callous and inept foreign secretary. She could have used some of those billions in investment and development aid to leverage the release of her fellow citizen but clearly had other concerns.
Germany’s moral failures are equally dismal. When Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock became the country’s first female foreign minister last December, she announced a new “values-based foreign policy” - one that would prioritize human rights and climate concerns. Germany is one of Egypt’s major donors and trading partners, so, like the UK, it certainly has a card to play. But, instead of pressure on human rights, Baerbock has provided Sisi with priceless propaganda opportunities, including co-hosting the “Petersberg Climate Dialogue” with him, where the ruthless dictator was able to rebrand himself a green leader.
Now that Germany’s reliance on Russian gas has both imploded and exploded, Egypt is eagerly positioning itself to provide replacement gas and hydrogen. Meanwhile, German giant Siemens Mobility has announced a “historic” multibillion-dollar contract to build electrified high-speed trains across Egypt.
The international injections of green cash are flowing just in time for Sisi’s troubled regime. Thanks to the tsunami of global crises (inflation, pandemic, food shortages, increased fuel prices, drought, debt) on top and its systemic mismanagement and corruption, Egypt is on the knife-edge of
defaulting on its foreign debt - a volatile situation that could well destabilize Sisi’s iron rule, much as the last financial crisis created the conditions that unseated Mubarak. In this context, the climate summit is not merely a PR opportunity; it is also a green lifeline.
Though reluctant to give up on the process, most serious climate activists readily concede that these summits produce little by way of science-based climate action. Year after year since they began, emissions keep going up. What, then, is the point of supporting this year’s summit when the one thing it is set to absolutely accomplish is the further entrenchment and enrichment of a regime that, by any ethical standard, deserves pariah status? As Arefin asks, “At what point do we say ‘enough’?”
Photo: An aerial view of a flooded residential area in Dera Allah Yar after heavy monsoon rains in Jaffarabad district, Balochistan province in Pakistan on Aug. 30, 2022.© Fida Hussain/AFP via Getty Images