Welcome to Egypt: COP27 Off To An Eerie Start
The line-up of speakers for COP27’s opening ceremony side by side before their keynotes.

As ceremonies opened in Sharm El-Sheik’s grand plenary hall on Monday, only one word came to mind in trying to sum up the scene: surreal.

World leaders paraded into the hall to music seemingly taken from a Star Wars film; the cast of speakers taking the stage consisted of a petro-state monarch, a friendly host cum authoritarian dictator, the UN Secretary General, a few academics, a young student, and the heads of state of Barbados and Senegal, sat side by side on white leather armchairs straight out of a first class airplane cabin. 

Set against the backdrop of an existential cross-roads in the global fight against climate change and the Egyptian government’s efforts to gloss over its human rights record, COP27 is off to a complicated start. 

Appearances a focus for Egyptian government amid human rights criticisms

Sharm El-Sheikh
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi takes the stage to deliver his opening address.

The road to COP27 has not been easy for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s public relations department. Like Qatar’s efforts to use its position as host of the FIFA World Cup this winter to better its image on the international stage, Egypt’s plans have backfired.

The video that opened the ceremony – complete with cheering children, highly saturated shots of beautiful Egyptian coastlines, and a smiling cast of happy-go-lucky characters welcoming delegates to the country – was of a tourism advertisement than a call to action. 

And the sight of President Sisi cheering as the screen faded to black was eerie to any observer aware of the subtext behind the choreography: Egypt is, by any metric, a police state.

Scenes from the opening video played before President Sisi’s speech.

Ten years after the revolution in Tahrir Square, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Egypt 166th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index. Since Sisi took power in 2013, over 100 journalists have been imprisoned.

“Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has muzzled the country’s journalists and media,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “Journalists can no longer say what they think and have no choice but to repeat the official line or risk being jailed for threatening the state’s stability.”

Sisi’s government moved to release dozens of high-profile political prisoners ahead of COP27 in an attempt to soften its image. But 19 journalists remain behind bars – making Egypt one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. And the fate of one activist, the British-Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah who on Sunday racheted up his prolonged hunger strike, has focused the international spotlight on the human rights issue.

No word on Alaa, King Charles address mysteriously scrapped

Alaa Abd El-Fatah speaking to Al Jazeera in 2011 amid the uprising against the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Abd El Fattah rose to prominence as one of the faces of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. After Sisi came to power, he became a vocal critic of the regime’s use of military trials for civilians taking part in protests or speaking out against the government. Today, military trials for civilians continue to be allowed under Egypt’s 2014 Constitution.

He is currently serving a sentence handed down in 2019 for “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading fake news” in a manner threatening to national security. Human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer, who represented Abd El Fattah, was prosecuted as part of the same case after authorities detained him when he showed up to represent his client. 

“After Sisi came to power, the whole country was forced to shut up,” Sanaa Seif, Abd El Fattah’s younger sister and three time political prisoner told the European Parliament’s sub-committee on Human Rights in the run up to COP27. “As an Egyptian there is no way, not in my wildest dreams, that I could imagine a local climate activist raising concerns at COP27. Not because they wouldn’t want to, but because they can’t.”

Alaa’s two sisters, Mona and Sanaa, stage a protest for his release outside the British Foreign Office in London.

Abd El Fattah has been on hunger strike since April and began refusing water on Sunday as the curtains lifted on COP27. Without food or water, he is expected to be able to survive just a few days. 

“The only reason I am able to address these concerns is firstly because we are not having this conversation in Egypt, and secondly because I am already doomed with the label of human rights activist,” Ms. Seif told the Parliament. “I have served three prison sentences and my brother is in jail, I have nothing to lose.”

Given the hunger striker´s British citizenship, the question of whether King Charles, who was slated to speak via video address, would bring up Abd El Fattah’s case loomed large over the opening ceremony. But despite being listed as one of the key speakers, no speech by the British monarch was screened. Who made the decision to postpone or axe King Charles’s comments – or whether the King or Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might still address the COP27 in tomorrow´s high-level segment – remains unclear. 

Well-aware of the dangers to her own freedom, Ms. Seif arrived in Egypt on Sunday night. “I am here to shed light on my brother’s case and save him,” she told a sea of cameras as she reached the conference grounds. “Today he took his last glass of water, so it’s now a matter of hours.”

Sharm El-Sheikh as a symbol: no room for civil society

Sharm el-Sheikh
Sharm El-Sheikh has long been used by the Egyptian elite to escape public scrutiny due to its isolated location.

The history of Sharm El-Sheikh is emblematic of the contradictions underpinning Egypt’s hosting of COP27. The purpose built resort town is a six-hour drive from the 22 million citizens of Cairo, and its isolated location allows Egyptian authorities to tightly control who can get close to, let alone enter, the site of the conference. 

In the week leading up to the conference, authorities detained an Indian climate activist walking from the capital to Sharm El-Sheikh for holding a banner that said “March For Our Planet”. He and his lawyer were released some 24-hours later, but the story reflects the value of Sharm el-Sheikh’s fortress-like status in quelling official’s fears over potential civil society demonstrations around the conference. 

“Every Egyptian you will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh will be vetted or intimidated beforehand,” Seif told the European Parliament. “You need to have that in mind while going to COP27.”

When former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced to flee the uprisings of Tahrir Square in 2011, he came to his residence in Sharm El-Sheikh. When president Sisi announced plans to build “New Cairo”, a gated satellite capital in the desert outside the capital, he issued the declaration from the very convention center currently packed with climate dignitaries. 

Over 2 millions protesting in Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s speech saying that he would not step down, February 11th, 2001.

“Sharm El-Sheikh is a dream resort where the government can exclude the majority of Egyptians, and invest huge amounts of resources to ensure that everything is under surveillance and their control,” Hussein Baoumi of Amnesty International told the Guardian. “It’s telling how the Egyptian presidency and the leadership view their ideal society, it’s a gated one without the masses.”

In response to international diplomatic pressure, a designated protest area was constructed alongside a highway far from the conference center. Without the presence of civil society, it will be up to heads of state and negotiators to remember what is at stake. 

“You cannot shy away from addressing the human rights crisis with the excuse that you are going to COP27 to talk about climate,” Ms. Seif concluded as she held back tears during her appearance before the European Parliament.

“The climate crisis is not about the planet, the planet will outlive us all. The climate crisis is about life on the planet. And if you are serious about caring for the planet, you need to push for human rights.”

Image Credits: Gigi Ibrahim, Alisdare Hickson, Rutger van der Maar, Jonathan Rashad.

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