Envoys from around the globe gathered this week in a renovated Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where green development projects mushroomed in the lead-up to this year’s climate change summit.
Recycling bins dot stretches of the city’s once-dishevelled roads as a fleet of solar-powered electric buses transports COP27 delegates at full throttle.
But as the country’s glittering Red Sea coast becomes a showpiece for what a sustainable future might look like, in the overcrowded streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities voices are being silenced to keep up a veneer of perfection.
“Egypt’s PR machine is operating on all cylinders to conceal the awful reality in the country’s jails. [But] no amount of PR can hide the country’s abysmal human rights record,” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said in a statement.
The rights watchdog documented the arrest of 1,540 people for exercising free speech and association in the lead-up to COP27. Political prisoners in Egypt are estimated at 60,000 since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013, a number denied by Cairo.
The case of prominent British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah took centre stage as he escalated a hunger strike to include water as the summit kicked off on November 6.
His story, however, is far from isolated. “Alaa’s case is critical and urgent, but there are many other urgent cases that are not getting any proper care or attention,” Mona Seif, Abd el-Fattah’s sister, told Al Jazeera.
Seif said her 40-year-old brother, who has spent the best part of the past decade in prison after being sentenced over a Facebook post, has little hope for “individual salvation” but wishes that his death, if unavoidable, be a way to shed light on the violent crackdown on civil liberties.
“Alaa’s cellmates are mostly very young people, in their early 20s, and have become adults in prison,” Seif said. “He wants the voices of those who have been trying to get out of this massive war that el-Sisi is lashing out on people – and on the younger generation in particular – to be heard and acknowledged.”
No space for dissent at COP27
Amnesty documented the arrest of 184 people between October 25 and November 6 in Cairo alone, including some in connection to calls for protests at COP27 on November 11.
Hussein Baoumi, a researcher at Amnesty, told Al Jazeera the Egyptian government was going to great lengths to prevent dissent as it hosted the climate summit.
“The ministry of foreign affairs handpicked Egyptian environmental groups that are not critical of the authorities [to take part in COP27],” Baoumi said, while others remained unaccredited and unable to cross the checkpoints erected on the roads to Sharm el-Sheikh.
According to the Egyptian COP27 Presidency website, protests are allowed between 10am and 5pm in a camera-monitored area away from the conference site. Anyone wishing to organise a demonstration must inform the authorities 36 hours in advance.
The regulations aimed to “provide a peaceful environment for everyone to express their views freely.”
Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt’s ambassador to COP27, said demonstrations are “completely under the command and control of the United Nations”.
“We instituted a parallel system, which is comparable but slightly different,” said Aboulmagd.
An app created by the government to act as a guide to the conference facilities requires users to provide their full name, email address, mobile number, nationality and passport number. “The app also asks to grant certain permissions that enable it to access the camera and microphone, which can be used for surveillance,” Baoumi said.
Authorities also mandated the installation of cameras in all taxis and introduced a registration process for the so-called Green Zone outside the COP venue, which at previous summits was open to the wider public.
The Egyptian COP27 Presidency did not respond to requests for comment.
Among the more than 25,000 participants, a few human rights activists – including Abd el-Fattah’s youngest sister Sanaa Seif and prominent human rights defender Hossam Bahgat – were able to shine a rare spotlight on the continuing violent crackdown on civil liberties.
But the heightened surveillance, including unconstitutional requests for passers-by to hand over their phones at checkpoints for scrutiny of their social media content, has magnified the risk of reprisals.
Egypt's social media is witnessing some calls for protests on 11.11 as the country hosts #COP27. Gov't reacted as usual by hysterical checkpoints in vital streets arbitrarily picking ppl to open their phones for unlawful checks into their contents. pic.twitter.com/h7C8ztFHs8
— Amr Magdi (@ganobi) October 20, 2022
On November 1, outspoken journalist Manal Ajrama was arrested after she criticised government policies on her personal Facebook page. The deputy editor of the state-run Radio and Television Magazine has since appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution under terrorism charges, rights groups say.
A member of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate last week denounced the disappearance of al-Ahram journalist Mahmoud Saad Diab, who went missing after attempting to board a flight to China from Cairo’s airport.
On October 31, Egyptian authorities detained an Indian climate activist, Ajit Rajagopal, as he set off on an eight-day walk from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh to call attention to the climate crisis. He was released the next day after an international outcry.
Human Rights Watch found counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws have been extensively used against journalists, activists and critics in retaliation for their peaceful criticism. El-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency in April 2017, which has been renewed and in effect ever since.
As hundreds are arrested, thousands more languish in Egypt’s prisons.
Former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was sentenced to 15 years in prison in May for “spreading false news” and “incitement against state institutions”.
Mohamed el-Baqer, human rights lawyer and founder of the Adalah Centre for Rights and Freedoms, has spent more than 1,000 days in Egypt’s notorious maximum security Tora Prison 2.
Blogger and journalist Mohamed Ibrahim Radwan, known as Mohamed Oxygen, has been locked up mostly in solitary confinement in the same facility for more than three years.
According to the Egyptian Network for Human Rights, at least 35 people have died in detention in Egypt since the beginning of the year.
Political prisoner Alaa al-Salami died following a hunger strike to protest against the conditions of his detention, according to the organisation. The 47-year-old was sentenced to life imprisonment and held first in the maximum-security Scorpion Prison and then transferred to the newly built Badr 3 prison.
Human rights groups say prisoners in the Badr 3 complex, 70km northeast of Cairo, are held in punitive conditions including fluorescent lights and security cameras switched on round the clock and deprived of access to sufficient food, clothing and books.
No climate justice without open civic space
A group of independent Egyptian human rights organisations came together in the months leading up to the summit to form the Egyptian Human Rights Coalition on COP27 to leverage mobilisation under the strapline, “No climate justice without open civic space.”
“It’s an abysmal situation for human rights in Egypt. You cannot discuss the environmental crisis without addressing the overall human rights situation,” Yasmin Omar, human rights lawyer at the Committee for Justice and a member of the coalition, told Al Jazeera.
“The Egyptian human rights movement has sought every means of accountability to address this within the UN mechanism, but COP27 represents a unique moment to make this situation not only our responsibility but the responsibility of the world,” Omar, who left Egypt to continue her human rights activities, said.
On Friday, UN special rapporteurs joined a growing chorus of voices demanding nations and other stakeholders put pressure on the Egyptian government to release Abd el-Fattah and demonstrate that international human rights commitments matter.
“The hunger strike by Mr Abdel Fattah – a decision that may end in his death – appears to be the last resort of an individual deprived of all avenues to challenge a sentence by Egypt’s Terrorism Circuit Court, where basic procedural and substantive rights concerns, including lack of judicial independence, are allegedly systematic,” the experts said.
“The fact that we ‘hear and see’ Mr Abdel Fattah now, because the COP27 conference takes place in Egypt, underscores the importance of States and other stakeholders addressing his plight directly with the Egyptian government.”
‘Fear of reprisal’
Others have not yet had their voices heard. Among those notably absent from the climate conference are individuals and groups from the Sinai Peninsula, where the summit is taking place.
“The absence of the Sinai community from the COP27 is an expected result of the policies of the Egyptian government, which have stifled traditional forms of peaceful expression and assembly including popular councils,” Ahmed Salem, the director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera.
Beyond the gated premises of the COP venue, thousands of demolished homes are the remainder of military operations that have driven thousands from their homes, in what Human Rights Watch said amounts to forced eviction and population transfer – and potential war crimes.
Between late 2013 and July 2020, the army destroyed at least 12,350 buildings, mostly homes, and razed about 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of farmland as part of a protracted fight with the armed group Wilayat Sinai, a local ISIL (ISIS) affiliate, according to the watchdog.
In the process, activists who criticised the government’s heavy-handed response were silenced, including some who demanded action on pressing environmental concerns including groundwater depletion and beach erosion.
“Environmental protection groups are unable to address these issues due to fear of reprisal,” Salem, who also lives in exile, said.
“The protection of the environment cannot be effective without the protection of people’s rights.”