Envoys from around the world gathered this week in a renovated Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where green development projects proliferated in the run-up to this year’s climate change summit.
Recycling bins dot stretches of the city’s once dilapidated roads as a fleet of solar-powered electric buses ferry COP27 delegates at top speed.
But as the country’s shimmering Red Sea coastline becomes a showcase of what a sustainable future could look like, voices are silenced on the crowded streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities to maintain a semblance of perfection.
“Egypt’s public relations machine is working flat out to hide the terrible reality in the country’s prisons. [But] no amount of public relations can hide the country’s dismal 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 freedom of expression and association in the run-up to COP27. Political prisoners in Egypt are estimated at 60,000 since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013, a figure denied by Cairo.
The case of prominent British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah took center stage as he escalated a hunger strike to include water as the summit began 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 receiving proper attention or care,” Mona Seif, Abd el-Fattah’s sister, told Al Jazeera.
Seif said his 40-year-old brother, who has spent most of the last decade in prison after being sentenced for a Facebook post, has little hope of “individual salvation” but wishes his death, if inevitable, be a way. shed light on the violent suppression of civil liberties.
“Alaa’s cellmates are mostly very young people, in their early 20s, and they 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 waging against the people, and in particular against the younger generation, to be heard and acknowledged.”
No room for dissent at COP27
Amnesty documented the arrest of 184 people between October 25 and November 6 in Cairo alone, including some in connection with calls for protests at COP27 on November 11.
Hussein Baoumi, a researcher at Amnesty, told Al Jazeera that the Egyptian government was doing its best to prevent dissent while organizing the climate summit.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected five Egyptian environmental groups that do not criticize the authorities. [to take part in COP27]Baoumi said, while others remained without accreditation and unable to cross checkpoints erected on the roads to Sharm el-Sheikh.
According to the Egyptian COP27 presidency website, protests are allowed between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. in a camera-monitored area far from the conference site. Anyone wishing to organize a demonstration must inform the authorities 36 hours in advance.
An app created by the government to act as a guide to conference facilities requires users to provide their full name, email address, mobile phone number, nationality and passport number. “The app also asks to grant certain permissions that allow it to access the camera and microphone, which can be used for surveillance,” Baoumi said.
Authorities also ordered the installation of cameras in all taxis and introduced a registration process for the so-called Green Zone outside the COP headquarters, which at previous summits was open to the general public.
The Egyptian presidency of COP27 did not respond to requests for comment.
Among the more than 25,000 participants, some human rights activists, including Abd el-Fattah’s younger sister Sanaa Seif and prominent human rights defender Hossam Bahgat, were able to highlight the continuing violent repression of civil liberties.
But heightened surveillance, including unconstitutional requests for bystanders to hand over their phones to checkpoints for scrutiny of their social media content, has increased the risk of retaliation.
Egypt’s social networks are witnessing some calls for protests on 11.11 as the country hosts #COP27. The government reacted as usual with hysterical checkpoints on vital streets arbitrarily targeting people to open their phones for illegal content checks. pic.twitter.com/h7C8ztFHs8
— Amr Magdi (@ganobi) October 20, 2022
On November 1, outspoken journalist Manal Ajrama was arrested after criticizing government policies on her personal Facebook page. The deputy director of the state Radio and Television Magazine has since appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecutor on terrorism charges, human rights groups say.
A member of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate reported last week the disappearance of al-Ahram journalist Mahmoud Saad Diab, who disappeared after trying to board a flight to China from Cairo airport.
On October 31, Egyptian authorities arrested an Indian climate activist, Ajit Rajagopal, as he began an eight-day trek from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh to draw attention to the climate crisis. He was released the next day after an international outcry.
Human Rights Watch found that state of emergency and counterterrorism laws have been widely used against journalists, activists, and critics in retaliation for their peaceful criticism. El-Sisi declared a national state of emergency in April 2017, which has been renewed and has been in effect ever since.
While 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, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, has spent more than 1,000 days in Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison 2 maximum security.
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 custody in Egypt since the beginning of the year.
Political prisoner Alaa al-Salami died after a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his detention, according to the organization. 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 at the Badr 3 compound, 70 kilometers northeast of Cairo, are being held in punitive conditions that include fluorescent lights and 24-hour security cameras and are deprived of access to sufficient food, clothes and books.
There is no climate justice without open civic space
A group of independent Egyptian human rights organizations met in the months leading up to the summit to form the Egyptian Coalition for Human Rights at COP27 to drive mobilization under the slogan “No climate justice without open civic space”.
“It is an abysmal situation for human rights in Egypt. You cannot discuss the environmental crisis without addressing the general human rights situation,” Yasmin Omar, a human rights lawyer with the Committee for Justice and a member of the coalition, told Al Jazeera.
“The Egyptian human rights movement has sought all 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 his human rights activities, said.
On Friday, UN special rapporteurs joined a growing chorus of voices demanding that nations and other stakeholders pressure the Egyptian government to release Abd el-Fattah and show that international human rights commitments matter.
“Mr. Abdel Fattah’s hunger strike, a decision that may end in his death, appears to be the last resort of a person deprived of all avenues to challenge a ruling by Egypt’s Anti-Terrorism Court of First Instance, where the basic procedural and substantive rights, including lack of judicial independence, are allegedly systemic,” the experts said.
“The fact that we are ‘hearing and watching’ Mr. Abdel Fattah now, because the COP27 conference is taking place in Egypt, underscores the importance of States and other stakeholders addressing their situation directly with the Egyptian government.”
‘Fear of retaliation’
Others have not yet made their voices heard. Among the notable absentees 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 COP27 is an expected result of the Egyptian government’s policies, which have stifled traditional forms of peaceful expression and assembly, including people’s councils,” Ahmed Salem, director of the Sinai Foundation for the Human Rights, he told Al Jazeera.
Beyond the closed facilities of the COP headquarters, thousands of demolished houses are the remnants of military operations that have driven thousands from their homes, in what Human Rights Watch said amounts to forced eviction and population transfer, and possible war crimes.
Between late 2013 and July 2020, the army destroyed at least 12,350 buildings, mostly homes, and razed some 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of farmland as part of a protracted fight with the Wilayat Sinai armed group, an affiliate local ISIL (ISIS), according to the watchdog.
In the process, activists who criticized the government’s heavy-handed response were silenced, including some who demanded action on pressing environmental concerns such as groundwater depletion and beach erosion.
“Environmental protection groups cannot address these issues for fear of reprisals,” said Salem, who also lives in exile.
“The protection of the environment cannot be effective without the protection of the rights of people.”
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