Climate Activism in Egypt Ahead of COP27

From the historic Tahrir Square demonstrations to the political graffiti adorning the walls of Cairo, national activism has become a powerful tool for people living in 21st-century Egypt. It was only a decade ago that millions of Egyptians successfully overthrew former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak through widespread civil disobedience — most of which was achieved through demonstrations, marches, and occupying public spaces.

Two years later, Egyptians would march again — this time looking for the resignation of the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi. Instead, a coup d’état ended the demonstrations, suspended the 2012 Egyptian constitution, and placed Egypt under the command of its current president, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

Public activism in Egypt has significantly declined since Sisi’s authoritarian regime took office — human rights protestors have experienced censorship, jailing, and, in the worst cases, state-sanctioned brutality. Nevertheless, protests have occurred under Sisi’s rule — in 2019 and 2020, Egypt saw decentralized nationwide protests calling for the president’s resignation.

But the government was ready, having already implemented preemptive measures. Egyptian security forces performed random searches of civilians, increased social media and communication surveillance, and engaged in thousands of arrests of prominent activists, students, and intellectuals ahead of the rumored protest in an attempt to dampen its effects.

The 2020 demonstrations were quickly met with teargas and live ammunition; meanwhile, the state and its media denied the protests ever happened. In Sisi’s Egypt, this level of political suppression is not uncommon — leaving many activists concerned ahead of what is likely the most important climate conference in Egypt’s history.

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference — or the COP27 conference — is set to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt this month. Though Sisi seems to have adopted a position of hope towards the COP27 conference — the official website for the event displays a message from the Egyptian president that refers to COP27 as “an opportunity to showcase unity” — this optimism does not seem to extend to Egypt’s climate activists.

Days before the conference, Egyptian authorities have allegedly begun conducting random phone searches alongside arrests and summons for interrogation ahead of a call to protest on November 11. Restaurants and local businesses were told to close their doors after a “dress rehearsal” was held in Tahrir in late October, with security officers being deployed across the city.

Prominent environment activist Greta Thunberg announced she would not be attending the COP27 conference, saying, “the space for civil society this year is extremely limited… It will be difficult for activists to make their voices heard.” Thunberg is not the only one accusing Egypt of “greenwashing” — the practice of using environment activism to increase marketability or, in this case, to cover up human rights abuses. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, and climate activists have accused Sisi’s government of using the event as an opportunity to “greenwash” a decade of oppression.

In a letter addressed to international heads of state, 15 Nobel Laureates called for conference attendees to “devote part of your agenda to the many thousands of political prisoners held in Egypt’s prisons.” Humans Rights Watch reported that, as of 2022, Egypt holds over 60,000 political prisoners. Medical neglect and lack of due process in the Egyptian prison system have led some prisoners — including prominent Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah — to embark on ambitious hunger strikes to protest their unfair living conditions.

The government has also targeted environmental activists — “harassed, imprisoned, put under surveillance and silenced,” according to a group of Egyptian activists whose words were circulated by the UK-based Egypt Solidarity Initiative, “the response is always the same: repression.”

Egypt’s restrictions on civil society have become a central point of contention in the days leading up to COP27. As a country highly vulnerable to climate change — which will continue to experience water scarcity, droughts, rising sea levels, and other effects of global warming as the crisis continues — Egypt has the opportunity to affect the global climate movement at Sharm El-Sheikh this year. However, with thousands of climate activists behind bars and the movement in Egypt almost entirely subdued, it seems as if the only thing that will truly be affected is the image of Sisi’s regime.