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Climate Activists Are at Odds Over Egypt’s Human Rights Abuses

Many groups want to use next week’s COP27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh to highlight the country’s imprisonment of political dissidents. Others, including Greenpeace, are shying away from it.

Sanaa Seif holds a picture of her brother Alaa Abdel Fattah
Vuk Valcic/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images
Sanaa Seif holds a picture of her brother Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist jailed in Egypt who has been on hunger strike for over 200 days, at a protest in London last month.

Next week, the U.N. climate talks known as COP27 will kick off in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. For many attendees flocking to the seaside resort town from abroad, the location of the talks can be somewhat incidental to the dealmaking and diplomacy that happens inside sterile conference center halls. Egyptian activists facing brutal repression under President Abdel Fattah El Sisi are calling on those visiting the talks to pop the “COP bubble”: to use the spectacle of the international event, and their relative freedom as outsiders, to pressure the government to release at least some of its estimated 60,000 political prisoners.

“These prisons need to be emptied,” said Yasmin Omar, an Egyptian human rights lawyer with the Committee for Justice, who has been leading the organization’s work on COP27. That has mainly been via the COP27 Civic Space, a coalition of groups working on human rights issues both within Egypt and in exile. Over the last several months, it has circulated a petition calling for the release of political prisoners, highlighting particular cases. “Hopefully those who are attending COP will be bringing those cases to the discussions and acknowledge that they are on land that does not accept human rights,” she said.

As of writing, 247 organizations had signed on. After offering her support, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg visited a London sit-in by Mona and Sanaa Seif, sisters of the imprisoned human rights blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah. A software developer and political activist, El Fattah is now more than 200 days into a hunger strike they fear could last until death. On Monday, his family announced he wrote them a letter saying he would stop ingesting calories altogether, after having subsisted on about 100 calories per day. When COP27 begins on November 6, he’ll begin a water strike, as well. But the call to release him and other political prisoners has sparked tense debates among visiting green groups weighing their own access to the talks, policy priorities on the inside, and—in some cases—the safety of staff on the ground.

In interviews, international groups with a presence in Egypt expressed a reluctance to be more outspoken on the issue out of an abundance of caution for personnel both within Egypt and in repressive regimes elsewhere, declining to discuss details on the record. Over the course of reporting this story, several did eventually sign the COP27 Civic Space petition.

Greenpeace International is among the groups that have not. As The Guardian reported over the weekend, Greenpeace also opposed language calling for the release of political prisoners in a list of demands put out by the COP27 Coalition, an African- and Arab-led group of which Greenpeace was a member. The preamble to that list now references that climate justice is impossible “in societies that close civic space and do not ensure the human rights of all people and communities, particularly those who defend these rights.” Greenpeace and a number of Egyptian NGOs have since left the coalition.

“I wouldn’t blame Greenpeace, however I would blame the authority that made engagement with human rights in Egypt a hazard for everyone. This is what the authorities meant to do,” Omar said last week, before tensions surrounding the group became more public. “People are afraid to work together. At another time, they would never refuse. Some of them, I know how much they refuse,” she said, referring to recent discussions within and among green groups. “I understand that fear is a real thing in Egypt.” Key to protecting those on the ground, Omar says, will be maintaining focus on Egypt after COP ends.

Greenpeace U.K.’s co-executive directors released a statement last week calling for El Fattah’s release and demanded the U.K. government work to secure it. Greenpeace International declined a request for comment on this article, as did three other groups that have not signed the petition: the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Federation. But a Greenpeace International spokesman told The Guardian, “We are very concerned about the dire situation of human rights in Egypt and believe you cannot have climate justice without social justice.… Our work in Egypt comes with significant risk to the safety of staff who will continue working there long after COP27 is over. It is our duty to not only consider their safety but also to avoid increasing the risks faced by the growing environmental movement in Egypt.”

Greenpeace International’s position has been criticized by Egyptian human rights defenders such as Sanaa Seif. “Greenpeace International’s position is really disappointing, and they should know better,” she told The Guardian. “A lot of us are worried about putting African and Egyptian activists in danger, but the big Western organizations have much more room and leverage to speak out and make human rights a priority at COP.”

Other groups have embraced such demands more openly. “It has and always will be a priority for this network to fight for civic space and for meaningful and effective civil society in the UNFCCC processes,” said Tasneem Essop, the South Africa–based executive director of Climate Action Network International. The group is a long-standing presence at COPs composed of 1,300 groups from 130 countries, organized into regional nodes that coordinate through an international secretariat. Some subsidiary groups had already signed the petition when we spoke in the lead-up to this COP. CAN International eventually followed suit, after consultations with members in Africa and the Arab world.

In the name of fighting terrorism, Sisi’s government has used new and old laws—some dating back to the colonial era—to ban protests and gatherings of more than five people, granting security forces wide discretion to declare assemblies unlawful and forcibly disperse them. Prosecutors can dole out collective punishments to anyone present, without having to prove that people have violated a certain statute before imprisoning them. More than a third of political prisoners are still awaiting trial in often dire conditions. Three died within two days in September as a result of poor conditions and medical negligence, according to the Egyptian Network for Human Rights.

After the Egyptian Revolution ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, there was a brief period of relative political freedom. In the small town of Edku, near Alexandria, residents successfully fought off plans by BP to expand its gas infrastructure, forcing the company to reroute a proposed pipeline and processing plant with tactics that included a sit-in at the prospective construction site. The atmosphere changed after Sisi came to power in 2014, and repression has escalated ever since.

“People disappear, and there’s a cycle of pseudolegal imprisonment, where they’re arrested under charges and under temporary detainment. As soon as the legal limit for their detainment is finished, they’re released on paper and rearrested with a copy of the same police report,” the source said.

“Arbitrary detention has become an epidemic in Egypt,” Omar told me. “This is the worst era in modern Egyptian history. Even [former President Muhammad Anwar] Sadat and Mubarak were only detaining those who you could connect directly to either political groups or human rights groups. Now the arbitrary detention machine is working randomly.”

Omar’s husband—a journalist—spent a year in prison after being targeted for his work. Her name was eventually added to a case for her work as a human rights lawyer. The case included charges punishable by the death penalty, so they decided to relocate to the United States and now live in Nevada. She fears things could get even worse as Egypt deals with the government’s disastrous economic policies, pairing austerity with massive, debt-funded vanity megaprojects amid a soaring cost of living crisis. “The worse the situation gets regarding poverty and social security, the more they fear that people will revolt, and therefore they are arresting even more people,” Omar says. “I don’t think if there is another revolution it’s going to be as peaceful as what happened in the Arab Spring.”

While human rights defenders have been some of the most high-profile victims of arbitrary detainment, activists of all sorts have come under threat. Civil society groups are barred from taking foreign grants and conducting most activities—including opinion polling—without explicit state permission. Human Rights Watch has reported that environmental groups specifically have been under increased scrutiny from the government in the lead-up to COP27, combined with a “recent expansion of official tolerance for environmental activities that are easily reconciled with government priorities and not perceived as critical of the government.” Such dynamics put anyone with ties to groups criticizing government policies at risk, the climate organizer told me: “This COP is going to end. Everyone’s going back to their own country, and there are going to be Egyptians left to face resistance from the government.”

Key to making sure that doesn’t happen, Omar said, is building relationships that last beyond the length of the conference. Those involved with the COP27 Civic Space have been setting up a system to track any reprisals from the government and offer legal aid. “We cannot take our eyes off Egypt when we are gone,” Essop said. “We don’t want to fall into a typical Northern NGO–type approach. We’re really doing this in a very sensitive, considered manner,” she continued, adding that CAN International “did not go public on all the work we’ve been doing” to mitigate risks.

In the U.S., which gives more military aid to Egypt than any country besides Israel, the political pushback over Egypt’s abuses has been relatively quiet. At the start of the Biden administration, the State Department suggested it would block $300 million worth of defense funds out of concern for human rights violations. In the end, $170 million ended up going through, including $75 million of conditional aid approved because the government had demonstrated “clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law.”

That progress is largely window dressing, Omar says. While between 200 and 400 prisoners are estimated to have been released between April and June of this year, Committee for Justice documented that 900 more have been taken into custody since the government announced its new human rights strategy. “The state is just doing a cosmetic procedure to gain the world’s satisfaction and silence” ahead of COP27, she said. “We have called on the U.S. not to be fooled by these measures” and for Biden to raise concerns about political prisoners while addressing the conference next month and in any talks with Sisi.

Members of Congress have questioned U.S. military aid to Egypt in recent years, including via the Egypt Human Rights Caucus. “I am concerned, and I know many of my colleagues are concerned, that the Egyptian government is on track to get a climate P.R. boost from hosting COP27,” Congressman Jamaal Bowman told TNR, referencing Alaa Abd El Fattah’s hunger strike specifically. “We need to keep organizing to change the calculus here; we need the regime to feel that in order to have a successful conference, it must free the prisoners.”

The U.S. also isn’t alone in its financial support for Egypt. Germany has pursued close ties with Sisi’s government and helped broker a $9 billion deal between Egypt and the German energy company Siemens for gas and wind power components. Egypt is also a major buyer of German weapons and military equipment, having purchased an estimated $850 million worth of them in 2020. Former Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan is now serving as international climate envoy for the German government. She co-chaired a meeting with Sisi in Berlin this summer, when he and Chancellor Olaf Sholz also discussed a gas purchasing agreement.

Deep, lucrative ties between Egypt’s regime and Western governments give activists there a responsibility to put pressure on decision-makers at home, some argue. The climate movement, after all, is relatively well practiced in campaigns to withdraw financial support for wrongdoing, targeting banks and asset managers that fund fossil fuel infrastructure. “To me, the question is not so much whether civil society should go to COP,” said Nicolas Haeringer of, which is a signatory on the COP27 Civic Space petition, “but how those of us who are and are not going can put pressure on our own governments to make sure they’ll hold the Egyptian regime accountable rather than signing deals and importing fossil fuels”

Residents of Sharm El Sheikh and surrounding areas are getting a preview of what activists can expect at COP27. Over the last several weeks, they have faced police inspections on highways and public transport, in which they’re questioned about their political activities and made to turn over their phones. Those without work permits—and even some who do have them—have trouble getting into the city. Increasing militarization has made the city feel like “a war zone,” one resident told Middle East Eye. Every hotel—all fully booked for the conference—will reportedly have a National Security Agency officer assigned to the lobby to monitor guests’ comings and goings. A COP27 app created by the Egyptian government requires users to let it track their location data, as well as sign on to terms and conditions stipulating that their personal information—including passport numbers—can be used “for security reasons.”

While visitors are likely to face fewer risks than Egyptians, those visiting for the conference are taking extra precautions around digital security and legal rights; the COP27 Safety Hub has compiled resources in seven languages on precautions to take while traveling and in attending the conference. Reports emerged over the weekend that Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal had been arrested, along with the lawyer he called for assistance, Makarious Lahzy. Both were released on Monday.

Protests are a common feature of COP gatherings, where local activists tend to convene some sort of parallel space outside of the conference center for talks and direct action planning. Demonstrations within the conference—held by those with badges to get in—are usually complemented by protests outside. But given the repressive environment in Egypt, COP27 is expected to be far quieter on that than its predecessors.

“We’re going to COP very well aware of the challenges that civil society groups on the ground face, and that’s why we’re taking our lead from those groups in terms of how best to engage,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has signed on to the COP27 Civic Space petition. “We have certainly been raising concerns about security and safety issues in the lead-up to COP with the U.S. delegation.”

Asked to offer any advice for those arriving in Egypt over the coming days, the Egyptian climate organizer I spoke with said, “Don’t stay in the bubble of Sharm El Sheikh,” which they called a “resort fortress” surrounded by concrete walls. “It is the definition of a bubble. If they can get out of it, they must. And it’s vital that the atrocities committed by the regime are highlighted. But at the same time, it is vital that the climate justice agenda is prioritized and that these stories build on one another and one not be pitted against the other. This regime is a product of global injustice, including climate injustice.”