I remember the last protest I went to in Cairo. It was November 2013. Egypt’s current president Abdelfattah Al-Sisi had just taken power, and quickly changed the political landscape. One of these changes was imposing a new law by which one could only demonstrate with a permit, which was never granted if the protest was in any way critical of the regime. So that day we gathered without a permit. There were around a hundred fifty of us, we chanted, we stood our ground, until the soldiers charged us, grabbing who they could, including the innocent passersby. I was scared that day. I had been in their prisons before. I had experienced the psychological torture, heard the screams of others from my cell, and smelled seared flesh upon entering my interrogation room. I didn’t want to return there. I was scared even more by what continued to become clear since the coup of July that year: the military was back to stay.
Later that night police forces violently arrested activist Alaa Abdelfatah from his home, accusing him of organizing that day’s protest, without evidence. Proof is rarely needed before a court in Egypt. Alaa had become one of the most prominent activists of the revolution that had ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and as it returned even more brutal, it wanted to make an example of what would happen to others if they didn’t remain silent. The re-emerged military regime wanted all those out of the way who dissented. Today there are over 65,000 political prisoners in Egypt. Alaa is still among them. In April he started an open hunger strike demanding his right to meet with a British government representative – as he’s a dual citizen, then later calling for the release of all political prisoners. So far without any response from the echelons of power.
Meanwhile, the regime is rebranding itself.
As of Sunday, the whole world will look to Egypt as it hosts this year’s COP in the desert resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egypt’s dictator has created a new position for himself within the global climate debate by championing the cause of states hardest hit by the climate crisis. In a speech in September, al-Sisi reminded his listeners of developed countries’ unfulfilled promise of raising $100 billion annually for developing nations by 2020. Meanwhile, Egypt is becoming an ever larger exporter of fossil fuels. Export of oil has increased by 120% compared to the previous year, while its natural gas exports have increased 13-fold in the past eight years. These are statistics neither al-Sisi nor the American PR agency his regime has hired for the COP will ever mention.
Sisi, the oppressor, presents himself as the fighter for the oppressed. Seeing him from the perspective of the climate debtors of the global North, isn’t he? But as an activist from Egypt, the hypocracy is sickening. I believe engagement with the Sisi regime has the potential to derail the struggle for climate reparations, while greenwashing a military dictatorship. Egypt needs a greener economy. But for that to happen we need a complete change of regime, not just replacing one dictator with another.
Protests in Egypt?
You might ask yourself, why there isn’t any form of meaningful protest to the injustice in Egypt. The story of Alaa Abdel fattah depicts the consequences, and the prisons are full of those who tried. That is also why I won’t use my own name to write this article. To make the cleansing of any opposition possible, the Sisi regime has built 27 new prisons. This includes “one of the largest correctional facilities in the world,” which in the dictator’s own words follows the “American model,” the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. The smallest form of demonstration, or even planned protest, the state surveills using technology provided by the likes of German company Fin Fisher, and then harshly crushes. This also applies to protests over environmental concerns, where the regime acts no differently than its treatment of political activists.
Idku is a small fishing town on the Mediterranean coast, about 35km West of Alexandria. It is also where Egypt’s LNG terminal lies that is now shipping liquified gas to the EU as an alternative source of energy to the country’s longterm dependence on Russia. During the Egyptian revolution in 2012, the community carried out a powerful struggle against the fossil fuel industry and prevented BP from setting up yet another gas refinery after the LNG terminal was found to be dumping waste into the sea and ruining the area’s marine life. So, the community occupied the construction site, blocked roads and raided the company’s offices after their verbal complaints went unheeded. Their creative strategies included using a community radio station to spread information that countered the state propaganda on the news. Police regularly arrested people, and attacked their demonstrations, but in the end their struggle bore fruit. BP’s project ceded to the pressure of the social mobilization, though sadly by simply moving to a town nearby to implement the same project. Such struggles were made possible by the opening of political space during the revolution, today few dare take the risk in the face of the regime’s use of excessive force to shut down all forms of protest.
On October 1 an Egyptian Human Rights group reported that state security had disappeared a 55-year old man for joining a facebook group and proposing to organize a demonstration during the COP. This is a common occurrence in Egypt, where the police and military arrest, torture, and kidnap countless people every day. Most of them enter into the labyrinth of Egypt’s detention system, and facade of a judicial system. Some of these disappear, in some cases only to have their murdered bodies appear in unexpected places with marks of torture all over them, like the Italian student Giulio Regeni in 2016. No words can describe the horror of conditions that exist in Egyptian prisons.
Yet, a rare struggle has recently been lead by the farming community of a Nile island called Warraq, that lies in the heart of Cairo. In 2017 the regime annouced a “development” project, which would transform it into Egypt’s “Manhattan island,” with luxury highrises and a 7 star hotel. The project uses all the right buzzwords: green, tech, future. In fact, it makes life impossible for common people, while lining the pockets of the generals. To make this possible, Sisi overturned a law marking Warraq and 36 other islands in Egypt as nature preserves, and ceded these to the military. In August was the latest time the police violently crushed the islanders resistance against displacement. That day police forces arrested dozens, while others are still in prison from earlier clashes when the police also shot dead one resident. It is just one more example of the regime’s land grabbing for it’s own profit at the expense of Egyptians and the environment. In August the police demolished the second of three schools on the island, and shut down the only ferry that reaches it. The outcome of that struggle is clear, and it identifies this military regime’s priorities. Profit, at the expense of an entire population and the natural environment.
Yet another case of regime land grabbing lies a few hundred kilometers West of the fishing village of Idku. Here too, the regime has over the years silenced a resistant community into submission for a different kind of project, a nuclear powerplant. This is being built by Russian engineers with a loan of $25 billion from Russia. No mention of that will be made at the upcoming COP, nor of the repression that made it possible.
Out of the country
I have left Egypt. I no longer found it was possible to speak out against this injustice there and fight on behalf of those at the mercy of a brutal military regime. The price was simply too high. In order to make their regime accepted Egypt’s dictator makes promises of “stability” and “development” by “getting things done.” The possibility of the Egyptian Revolution has turned these generals into madmen scared of the smallest signs of popular outcry, and turned the entire country into an open air prison in order to make possible the “stability” which they need for the ongoing theft of natural and human resources. In order to make their “development” projects possible, including the building of 41 new cities across Egypt, Sisi’s regime has begun a borrowing binge. Since taking power the dictator has tripled the country’s foreign debt without the population’s consent, bringing Egypt today to the brink of bankrupcy. COP27 is a convenient opportunity to attract foreign finances, if they need to be “green,” the regime will make sure they are because they are desparate to finance their debt-ridden machine of terror.
This puts the global North in a dilemma, because by conditionless participation in the climate summit it actually greenwashes the brutal Egyptian regime.
The world’s greatest climate debtors must take a strong moral stance. This means pressuring their „partner“ if they are to be part of the climate conversation. The global North must raise the Sisi regime’s political crimes and not acquiesce to a few – most likely temporary – prisoner releases. Furthermore, with the Egyptian military dictatorship in an economic vulnerable position, the greatest climate debtors should disinvest from Egypt, unless very clear conditions are met.
At the recent Belgian-German climate cooperation meeting, the German Green Foreign Minister Analena Baerbock said: “to make it clear to other countries and regions where the climate crisis is already the greatest security risk that we stand in solidarity with the people there and are by their side.” Here the critical point is indeed that climate debters owe nature, and the world’s poor nations most hit by the climate crisis, including Egyptians, not governments, and certainly not dictatorships.
But there is a further dilemma. The reason the global North is engaging in the possibility of dialogue with a dictatorship, is because it too seeks to utilize COP27 to greenwash its own crimes. If the greatest climate criminals are going to make clean energy financing available, they should do so for that energy to stay in a country that is 94% fossil fuel dependent. Then make that financing conditional on political reforms in Egypt, and create real mechanisms to monitor their implementation – that would make the investment reach people, and not governments. Global North countries’ plans to reach net zero emissions must exclude new extraction and import of clean energy from elsewhere, or else this is merely a new form of colonialism. By importing clean energy from Egypt’s dictator, they make the people of Egypt more fossil fuel dependent. Simply put, creating green partnerships with oppressive regimes, addresses climate criminals’s own climate debts, while strengthening these fascist regimes, deeming a green turn meaningless. For the global North’s energy needs, listen to your own activists, they have a clear plan. Don’t make the COP summit about your own economic advancement.
On October 22nd the Belgian environment minister Zuhal Demir announced she will not attend Egypt’s COP. “Climate summits are not Eurovision song festivals. They, unfortunately, seem to have become grand shows for the outside world,” she said in explanation of her boycott, “nowhere is this more painfully evident than in Egypt where climate scientists are gagged while politicians and corporations are given the red carpet.“
Boycott by politicans must be a dual act that is accompanied by developing strategies for the greatest climate criminals finding structural ways to repay their debts. This goes beyond attending a COP or not. Already in previous summits promises were made and not kept, so the question is not about attendance, it is about paying up. There is still an opportunity to turn the tide on climate reparations. Meanwhile, Egypt’s dictator might be uttering the right words of „climate justice,“ yet he is certainly not a man of justice, and should not be a dialogue partner for anyone seeking either.
[A shorter, German version of this article was first published in DIE ZEIT (November 2022)]