Post-COP 27 Egypt: After the Spotlight
During the UN climate conference, the world’s eyes were on Egypt. Human rights activists also drew hope. And now?
BERLIN taz | Usually the crowds come to Egyptian Sharm al-Sheikh to snorkel, party, desert tours. Then came the world climate conference COP27, that was in November 2022. Suddenly there was a hustle and bustle in the city on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, especially in the conference center, which was equipped with tents and containers.
Around 40,000 suits from all over the world met in the desert city to negotiate the implementation of the Paris World Climate Agreement, to report on the summit – or even to protest. This is otherwise more or less impossible in the military dictatorship of Egypt. However, the conference site was considered UN territory for the duration of the climate summit. The Egyptian government had also set up a small area for sanctioned demonstrations, although this was generally seen as a state-controlled show.
“We are more free at the COP than we have been for a long time,” said Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ezz to the taz in November. he works for Mada Masr, the only independent online newspaper in Egypt. “With the COP, Egypt regained its international importance,” said Ezz. “I can’t imagine that turning around so quickly.”
The international attention generated by the COP has also raised hope among human rights activists. “We saw the COP as an opportunity to put Egypt in the global spotlight, to provide information about the catastrophic human rights situation and to mobilize for reforms,” recalls Hossam Bahgat today, Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Still thousands of political prisoners
In fact, the world press has not only focused on the climate negotiations, but also on the human rights situation in Egypt, such as the many political prisoners. At the time, two of them were Safwan Thabet, head of Egypt’s largest dairy and juice producer, and his son Seif el-Din. Both were imprisoned for two years without trial for alleged connections to the radical Islamic organization Muslim Brotherhood. In January they became Released from jail.
“We saw the COP as an opportunity to put Egypt in the global spotlight”
Since then, however, international attention has waned. Amnesty International still counts thousands of political actors, who were arbitrarily detained under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took power in Egypt with the military in 2013. That also applies to Alaa Abdel Fattah, the most famous Egyptian human rights activist. Despite a hunger strike and international pressure during the climate conference, he remains in prison.
Even after the world climate conference, there is no climate movement in the narrower sense in Egypt. Activists would risk arrest. Nevertheless, the summit changed something, says Haneen Shaheen, who has been campaigning for climate protection in Egypt since 2016 and is a board member of the Arab division of the global umbrella organization Climate Action Network. Many climate activists have networked in Sharm al-Sheikh, Shaheen reports to the taz. She now works with people from all over Egypt.
“We may have a different kind of activism than any other country,” Shaheen says. It’s less about protesting against the government and more about local engagement, from cleaning up beaches to protecting wildlife and sustainable agriculture. They work together with international supporters, the UN and the Egyptian Ministry of the Environment.
According to Shaheen, the climate summit has also made the climate crisis more visible to the Egyptian public. “Finally, the topic was at the top of the agenda,” says the climate protector. “Everyone talked about the environment. My mother finally understood what I do.”
Fears that the actions in Sharm al-Sheikh have sharpened the government’s focus on environmental activists have not come true for Shaheen so far. “It’s like they forgot all the action at the COP,” says Shaheen. “The government seems to want to take a break from the climate issue.”
Between renewables and gas deals
This can also have another reason: Egypt economy. The country is doing so poorly economically that hardly anything else matters. “Protests against the economic situation would be far worse for the government than the climate movement,” says journalist Mohamed Ezz in another conversation with the taz a few months after the end of the climate conference.
Climate policy would also be important in Egypt. Although the country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions are below the global average, since 2000, however, they have been increasing. 90 percent of electricity still comes from fossil energy sources. Oil and gas are those two biggest export hits.
The most populous Arab country is itself threatened by the climate crisis. It causes drought and food shortages, as well as destruction from the rising levels of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. According to Egyptian climate researcher Ahmed Eladawy Farmers and fishermen in Egypt are already feeling the effects of climate change. “They don’t need anyone to tell them climate change exists,” he says.
At the same time, the Egyptian government is focusing on the expansion of renewable energy sources such as solar systems or wind turbines and on gas deals, for example with the EU, which now wants to buy gas from Egypt as an alternative to Russian gas. Last summer, the EU closed one Declaration of intent on a gas deal with Egyptvia whose LNG terminals gas is to come to Europe.
This is criticized by Wahid, an Egyptian human rights activist who has been living in exile in Berlin since 2020 and does not want to give his full name publicly for fear of persecution. He had the initiative for the world climate summit in Egypt Occupy COP27 co-founded. He calls on countries like Germany not to establish economic relations with Egypt.
“Replacing one dictatorship with another for gas in Europe is not a solution,” Wahid said when asked by the taz. “The most important thing is that the governments, including the German one, change their actions: no new ‘green’ gas deals with Egypt, no more weapons for the country without political demands to improve the human rights situation.”