Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been trying to use the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), which started this week in Sharm El-Sheikh, to position Egypt as a global leader in sustainability, touting various environmental initiatives. And to make the most of the opportunity, his autocratic regime has been exploiting the gathering to greenwash its poor human-rights record and repressive tactics.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who is also COP27’s president-designate, recently emphasized the importance of civil society in “holding companies and governments to account, guarding against greenwashing, and ensuring a just transition” to renewable energy. But, as far as Egypt itself is concerned, that is nothing more than propaganda. In reality, the country’s civil-society groups are facing an unprecedented government crackdown.
Since el-Sisi seized power in 2014, following a military coup the previous year, his regime has run roughshod over basic components of governance such as political parties, parliament, and the constitution. The regime has persecuted activists, labeled opposition groups terrorist organizations, and relied on military intelligence and other national-security bodies – headed by members of his own family – to consolidate power. Civil-society organizations have been crippled by draconian laws prohibiting NGOs from engaging in public affairs.
According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities have frozen the assets of seven prominent human-rights organizations and forced many others to close. Officials have also dissolved more than 2,000 charity organizations, seized their assets over alleged links to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, and expanded the crackdown to include environmental activists. This non-stop assault on NGOs and their staff has severely shrunk what was once a vibrant public sphere, even during the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.
El-Sisi maintains an iron grip on power by controlling Egypt’s security apparatus. In 2018, he appointed his then-chief of staff, Abbas Kamel, to lead Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and made his son Mahmoud the GIS’s deputy head. Since then, the intelligence establishment has been controlling key institutions behind the scenes. It has taken over private media companies, merged them under the holding company United Media Services, and turned them into propaganda outlets glorifying el-Sisi as Egypt’s “guardian” and calling on Egyptians to support their leader’s “war on terror” in the Sinai Peninsula.
The GIS’s primary objective has always been to repress any hint of civil unrest or popular uprising. To this end, the regime introduced two major reforms. In November 2013, it enacted the protest law, which requires organizers to provide advance notice of their intention to hold protests, bans unauthorized gatherings of over ten people, restricts where protests can take place, and carries penalties of up to five years in prison. Participating in peaceful demonstrations also carries a fine of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds (USD 4,100).
Two years later, in August 2015, the regime enacted an anti-terrorism law that vaguely defines what constitutes terrorist “entities” and includes a provision criminalizing the dissemination of “false” reports on terrorist attacks – that is, any information not released by the government.
In addition, the regime has been uprooting trees and razing green spaces, particularly in Cairo, supposedly to build new roads and bridges as part of a new urban development drive. In reality, the main reason for the regime’s landscaping projects is to make the public sphere inhospitable to any political gathering that might evolve into a spontaneous mass uprising.
The GIS wields de facto control over every political event in Egypt, from parliamentary elections and constitutional referenda to the passage of new legislation. And it is the body overseeing COP27 as well. By directly managing the conference’s registry system, Egypt’s intelligence apparatus has excluded critical voices and ensured that only pro-government NGOs could register.
Security forces have reportedly arrested dozens of activists – including an Indian activist who led a march from Cairo to Sharm El-Sheikh to raise awareness of climate change – to thwart any attempt to stage protests during the two-week gathering.
More than 11 years after the Tahrir Square uprising that toppled Mubarak’s regime, and in the eight years since the military coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, el-Sisi has cemented his grip on Egypt. But his tactics have deepened the rift between the country’s rival factions, fueling political instability.
The world leaders who have gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh must not lose sight of the brutality of el-Sisi’s regime. A dictatorship teetering on the edge of political turmoil is hardly an appropriate location for COP27 – or for any gathering whose stated goal is to realize a better future for humanity.
(Taqadum Al-Khatib is a lecturer in contemporary politics and modern history of the Middle East at Heidelberg University.)
Contributed by Taqadum Al-Khatib