Cop27 backfires for Egypt as signs of repression mar attempt to bolster image

Harassment of climate summit delegates and holding pen for protesters mar country’s attempt to polish international reputation

An empty pen designed to contain protesters in the middle of the desert, harassment and surveillance of Cop27 delegates (including evidence that the official conference app could spy on them), food and water shortages, and widespread problems with accommodation have all served to undermine the Egyptian government’s attempts to use the climate talk to bolster its international image.

Belgian politician Séverine de Laveleye said she was briefly detained by Egyptian security forces while entering the conference centre simply for carrying badges depicting some of Egypt’s 65,000 political prisoners, including British-Egyptian democracy activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah. “It’s clear that human rights aren’t even respected at the heart of the Cop,” she said. “Sisi’s Egypt is one of repression.”

Egypt’s choice to host the vital climate talks in the remote elite resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh meant Cop27 ensured that attendees saw only a carefully calibrated view of the country. Yet the Cop27 presidency failed to provide the intended public image boost to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s rule. Criticism worsened as the negotiations became increasingly chaotic in their final hours. One observer said: “Veterans are now branding this the worst organised Cop in 30 years.”

Abd el-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif, who attended the talks to campaign for her brother’s freedom, initially drew more focus than the negotiations, leading crowds in chants of “free Alaa, free them all”, words that quickly became a rallying cry for civil society in Sharm el-Sheikh.

“The Egyptian authorities thought Cop27 would be their moment in the sun, with the president taking photos with all the world leaders,” said Hussein Baoumi of Amnesty International. “But then, because of the bravery of human rights defenders and Sanaa Seif, it wasn’t about him or his vision of Egypt. It became about the reality that tens of thousands of people in Egypt live with, which is the human rights crisis.”

Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, Sisi has worked to crush any space for dissent. Writer and activist Abd el-Fatah has spent most of the last decade behind bars, and was sentenced to a further five years in prison last year for sharing a social media post about torture. “I think the case of Alaa has become emblematic – it’s become bigger than Alaa,” said Baoumi. “He’s become symbolic of what the Egyptian authorities are doing to political prisoners.”

The Egyptian authorities attempted to isolate both Abd el-Fattah’s case and life for many Egyptians beyond the conference centre from public view, including arresting more than 500 people across Egypt in the past month over calls to protest.

They also visibly chafed at the mention of Abd el-Fattah’s name or human rights, demanding focus solely on the climate talks. “We’re tired of these apparently intentional distractions from climate issues, excessive focus on unfounded allegations,” said Wael Aboulmagd, special representative to the Cop27 president.

The United N ationsis now reportedly investigating Egyptian security forces’ blatant surveillance of attendees, including recording Seif during events. Aboulmagd labelled this “ludicrous”, adding: “Why would any untoward surveillance exist in an open event?”

An Egyptian human rights activist who attended Cop27 regarded the authorities’ reported surveillance as openly defiant of the UN-led talks. “It’s time for them to be held accountable,” he said. The activist, who asked not to be named, said despite the Egyptian state’s efforts, Cop27 also provided a rare opportunity to showcase the crackdown on rights in Egypt to the outside world.

“The government forgot how to defend themselves as they’re so dependent on repression. They have lost, and lost badly and hurt their image.”


Ruth Michaelson

The GuardianTramp

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