Across Sharm el-Sheikh, a slim strip of manicured resorts, asphalt and concrete near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, teams of workers are putting the finishing touches to preparations for the UN’s Cop27 climate conference.
Sparkling new buses are ready to drive down the enlarged highways that cut across desert landscape, flanked by smooth shiny new walkways adorned with angular sculptural arches. A field of glittering solar panels run by a company with ties to the Egyptian military will be online in time for the conference, as well as a new shopping mall.
New surveillance technologies are also in place, so much so that Maj Gen Khaled Fouda, governor of South Sinai, recently boasted to a local cable channel that any visitors entering overland will be extensively searched at a gate encircling the city. He added that 500 white taxis commissioned to transport attenders during the conference will be equipped with interior cameras, all connected to a local “security observatory”, to monitor the footage.
There will be space for protesters to gather at Cop27, but only in a purpose-built area out near a highway and away from the conference centre or any other signs of life. Images of the designated protest area show a row of white painted cabins between a row of palm trees and a car park. It was unclear whether protesters will be permitted to spread out among the vast open landscape, or be forced to crowd next to the cabins to find relief from the desert sun.
“It’s very chic, very clean. There are cafes and restaurants on site,” said Fouda, and: “No one is allowed here without registration.” He added that Egyptian authorities constructed the protest area in response to a spate of calls from western diplomats worried that demonstrations would be prevented at Cop27 in line with a ban on public protest that has existed for almost a decade.
“This could be the most highly surveilled Cop in the history of the conference,” said Hussein Baoumi, of Amnesty International.
He scoffed at the Egyptian government’s vision of a designated protest area. “It’s theatrics,” he said. “They don’t want to allow the right to protest or freedom of assembly, but they want to seem as though they are. It’s [president] Sisi’s vision of a protest – you go to a place and register and protest for an hour where no one can see you, and then they have you on camera where the authorities can see if you say something they don’t like. It’s the act of a state that doesn’t want to allow freedom of assembly, but doesn’t want to be called out for not permitting it.”
For many observers, Egypt’s choice to hold Cop27 in a resort town far from the country’s bustling capital with its population of 22 million is by design. Sharm el-Sheikh has long been used by Egypt’s leadership as a satellite location, a way to escape their own citizens and ensure that visiting dignitaries and officials are kept far from the country’s major cities when they attend state events. The purpose-built town draped between the sea and a backdrop of mountain ranges that resembles a lunar landscape features no central square or places where people could gather in large groups even if the law permitted. Instead, long, flat highways connect a web of luxurious high-end resorts, intended for visiting tourists or the Egyptian elite to gaze out on to the Red Sea, the ideal staging ground for intensive surveillance of anyone attending Cop27.
“Sharm el Sheikh is a dream resort where the government can exclude the majority of Egyptians, and invest huge amounts of resources to ensure that everything is under surveillance and their control,” said Baoumi. “It’s telling how the Egyptian presidency and the leadership view their ideal society, it’s a gated one without the masses.”
Surveillance of Cop27 attenders will also extend to their virtual world, via an app created by the Egyptian government to act as a guide to the conference facilities. “You can download the official Cop27 mobile app, but you must give your full name, email address, mobile number, nationality and passport number. Also you must enable location tracking,” tweeted Hossam Baghat, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Baoumi added that technology specialists working for Amnesty International reviewed the app and flagged concerns about surveillance, due to its ability to access the user’s camera, microphone, location data and Bluetooth.
The complex of hotels and mansions in Sharm el-Sheikh have symbolised elite seclusion for decades. When Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak fled popular uprisings across mainland Egypt in 2011 it was for his mansion in Sharm el-Sheikh. Bakr bin Laden, former head of the family’s construction firm and half-brother of Osama, was one of Mubarak’s notable neighbours, known for doing business from his luxurious home.
The convention centre adjoining the Jolie Ville resort, with its lush gardens and a golf course built by a former Mubarak ally, also frequently hosts diplomatic events, a way for Egypt to welcome allies from Saudi Arabia or Israel in a remote location. But since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has also been fond of using Sharm el-Sheikh as the venue for national conferences where the authorities can make sweeping decisions for the Egyptian citizenry far from any public input or scrutiny. This, notably, includes the state’s economic development conference in 2015, where he announced that Egypt would build a new capital in the desert outside Cairo, and received $12.5bn in donations from Egypt’s Gulf backers, as well as $12bn in deals with BP.
There is a marked contrast between who is welcomed into the gated community of Sharm el-Sheikh and the treatment of those elsewhere in the Sinai peninsula, not least because Fouda oversaw the construction of a wall around the city in 2019 to “beautify and secure Sharm el-Sheikh”. The wall consists of concrete barriers and razor-wire with “four very beautiful doors” to access the town. Bedouin and local communities living in the north of the peninsula, meanwhile, have long been subject to neglect and state violence, including mass home demolitions that Human Rights Watch labelled a possible war crime.
Observers say hosting Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh is a way for the Egyptian authorities to control which citizens interact with conference attendees, and to ensure that anyone permitted to enter is under heavy surveillance. “They don’t want Egyptians to interact with the world, or the world to interact with Egyptians,” said Baomi. “One of the major reasons for them hosting the Cop is greenwashing, to conceal the crimes that are happening inside the country and to prevent state delegations and officials from meeting with Egyptians”
A participant who attended a briefing with Egyptian officials at the Bonn climate change conference this year described how they presented Cop27. “It was billed to us as a lovely vacation at all inclusive resorts,” they said. “They showed us pictures of luxury resorts and palm trees by the beach. It was extraordinary.
“They implied we would be able to snorkel and go on snazzy excursions, that we’d be chauffeured from place to place – you’d think we were going on a dream holiday. Cop27 was being sold to us as a romantic five-star getaway when many are trying to raise concerns that civil society and delegates from the global south can’t afford the price of hotel rooms or get visas on time, to ensure that we can actually engage in some meaningful discussion and action.”
Using Cop27 to showcase Sharm el-Sheikh as a tourism destination does not bode well for vital climate negotiations, they added, . “It’s just very telling how these climate talks are now regarded. It’s not about what’s on the agenda or delivering results,” they said. “It’s just about bringing in money, greenwashing, and snapping beautiful pictures along the way.”