Egypt: Ahead of COP27, environmentalists say they’re being stifled, government says otherwise

By The Africa Report
Posted on Wednesday, 5 October 2022 16:31, updated on Monday, 10 October 2022 17:25

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool

Egypt has touted this year’s COP27 as the one for Africa, framing itself as the leader for developing countries, particularly on the continent, to ensure support for new adaptation projects are followed through. However, behind these actions, the voices of the environmental activists are being stifled. How successful can a UN Climate Change conference be without their voices?

Human Rights Watch released a statement in mid-September saying the Egyptian government has been curtailing the work of environmental groups in the country, which is essential to protecting Egypt’s environment.

“The Egyptian government has imposed arbitrary funding, research, and registration obstacles that have debilitated local environmental groups, forcing some activists into exile and others to steer clear of important work,” said Richard Pearshouse, the environment director at HRW.

The statement comes after 13 activists, academics, journalists, and scientists were interviewed by the rights organisation in June.

“Many organisations have reduced their activities or completely shut down for many reasons, including the lack of funding or fear to voice different opinions,” Ragia Elgerzay, the environmental and health file officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), tells The Africa Report.

Human rights and COP27

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2014, Egypt has been criticised by civil society and international governments for its violations of human rights.

In its country report in 2021, the US Department of State said: “[…] serious restrictions on free expression and media, including arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the abuse of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organisation, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organisations; restrictions on freedom of movement.”

A year ago, the Egyptian government launched its National Human Rights Strategy to “advance human rights in Egypt”. However, Amnesty International says this is merely a smoke screen to cover the human rights crisis on the ground. In its recently released report titled ‘Disconnected from Reality: Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy covers up human rights crisis’, the lobby group says the national strategy has been used “as a propaganda tool”.

“Egyptian authorities have created the National Human Rights Strategy as a shiny cover-up to their unrelenting violations of human rights, thinking they would fool the world ahead of COP27, but the grim reality of their notorious human rights record cannot be rebranded in a PR stunt,” says Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.

Following in the same vein, on 28 September, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies also added its voice to the growing chorus with its paper titled ‘Climate Summit and the Human Rights Crisis in Egypt’. Following the declaration that the North African country would host this year’s conference, the organisation warned that Cairo’s record on human rights may “undermine COP27”.

Egyptian authorities have created the National Human Rights Strategy as a shiny cover-up to their unrelenting violations of human rights, thinking they would fool the world ahead of COP27…

The gravity of the situation became evident when a group of Egyptian civil society groups were reportedly prevented from COP27 when applying for their accreditation. Though the process takes place via a UN-administered site, the Egyptian government decides the application process and selection criteria. “You don’t let a government tell the UN who is and who isn’t an NGO, certainly not the Egyptian government,” Ahmad Abdallah, of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), said in an interview with The Guardian.

Elgerzay adds that “some people from the civil society managed to communicate with […] the foreign ministry and handed it a list of the names” of the organisations wishing to participate in the COP. “Some of these organisations were temporarily registered [for the COP] while many others [weren’t], including EIPR. We were told that we are not registered as an association, which is true, but the period granted by the law to finalise the requirements for that [isn’t] over yet.”

Meanwhile, those that have been given a green light may face reprisals after COP27 wraps up. “The security apparatus will probably now more than ever before focus on environmental civil society in Egypt,” said one activist outside the country as quoted by HRW. “When COP[27] ends, they might start looking and see who is doing what, who got funds from where, for example.”

Is COP27 still advantageous?

In the lead-up to COP27, there has been some indication of positive change, says Elgerzay. “We can say that there ha[ve] been some [climate] activities lately related to recycling, plastic pollution, and the urban environment. Groups of environmental organisations have been more active, working with the youth and spreading awareness […] The COP[27] has given a boost to such activities. The government has also started to pay more attention to supporting some climate organisations and activities.”

Given the global situation of today – the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the energy crisis due to the Ukraine-Russia war – the issue of climate change is being sidelined. However, Egypt is hoping to make this year’s conference a success by addressing the Loss and Damage deficit for developing countries, particularly in Africa – an issue that has been low on the agenda in previous COPs – and securing funding, not just promises of funding, or funding with debt.

“The funding needs to be made available by delivering more low-cost and innovative finance solutions, grants, and concessions, debt relief and debt swaps, to help developing countries deliver mitigation and adaptation and address loss and damage,” Mohamed Nasr, lead negotiator and director general climate, environment and sustainable development, ministry of foreign affairs Egypt, tells The Africa Report.

He says: “Egypt with its legacy for diplomacy and meaningful ‘problem solving’ on the international stage is working with all parties to ensure that we address climate change holistically at Sharm El Sheikh.”

This means understanding the “importan[ce] of partnership and collaboration amongst all stakeholders”, including environmentalists.

… the civil society is weak and the relevant laws are not encouraging…

“We have worked with our sisters and brothers in Africa and also with others back home to allow for enhanced participation of African and Egyptian NGOs, which lead to granting single time accreditation to more than 40 NGOs, and [an] ever-increasing number of passes for the NGOs.”

Elgerzay does point out that while the government has not been directly targeting environmental activism per se, “the civil society is weak and the relevant laws are not encouraging […] Environmental activism requires information access, research, the participation of the public, and the ability to rally and speak out; for instance, to criticise projects that cause pollution or health threats […] There is no room for that.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options