Climate protests
Right to protest: at past COPs, civil society participation has been pivotal in pressuring conference delegates into more meaningful commitments © BJ Flavio Massari/Alamy

Global climate conferences have almost always been accompanied by a big, vocal activist presence. But this month’s COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, is set to look and sound rather different.

Over the past decade, Egypt has all but banned protest and cracked down on independent civil society as it has become increasingly autocratic. This has led to scepticism among international and local campaign groups about whether they will be able to participate in discussions, let alone effectively influence proceedings.

Senior Egyptian officials have promised that, in this instance at least, protest will be permitted. In May, foreign minister Sameh Shoukry pledged to have “a facility adjacent to the conference centre that will provide [activists] the full opportunity of participation, of activism, of demonstration, of voicing that opinion”. However, while some Egyptian activists say government engagement in the run-up to COP has been better than they have ever experienced, many feel it is still insufficient and has mostly come from less powerful parts of government.

Few environmentalists seem wholly convinced by official assurances. Campaigners say they are wary of organising unsanctioned demonstrations for fear of getting activists from the global south into trouble. Those activists are uncertain whether they will even make it to Egypt. Many are battling some of the same struggles to secure visas that they frequently had ahead of European and North American events.

Online groups focused on environmentalism in Sub-Saharan Africa have voiced complaints about Egyptian embassy paperwork demands and the cost of accommodation in Sharm el-Sheikh. Some hotel operators have raised prices up to 10 times beyond their usual levels, threatening to compromise a conference that was billed as a more accessible than COP26 in Glasgow. “You need to win the lottery,” said one COP-bound Jordanian activist on Facebook.

Sharm el-Sheikh
Sharm el-Sheikh: many hotels near the COP venue have significantly raised their prices, making it difficult for some activists to attend © Ivan Kmit/Alamy

Wariest of all are independent Egyptian environmentalists. As documented in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, they have been stifled by severe restrictions on funding, NGO registration and research permits. Many anticipate a serious backlash were they to do anything that authorities perceive as embarrassing while the eyes of the world are upon them.

“When COP ends, they might start looking to see who is doing what,” a longtime activist told HRW. “The security apparatuses will probably, now more than ever before, focus on environmental civil society.”

Omar Elmawi, co-ordinator for Stop EACOP, an East African environmental group, and member of the COP27 Coalition, says: “We are still looking at possibilities but we might have to settle for actions inside the COP [main convention centre] and not outside, as we are a bit worried about the security outside. We hope there would not be reprisals after international activists have left COP and local organisations end up being targeted.”

Recent events suggest that he has good reason to be sceptical about Cairo’s promises. Egyptian campaigners say authorities are training state-affiliated NGOs to protest about “safe” subjects this month and deliver the impression of a bustling local civil society.

Meanwhile, some local human rights organisations, such as the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), have been denied COP accreditation. And, less than 60 miles from the COP convention centre, the state is ignoring objections of local activists and developing the area around St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, a Unesco world heritage site of historic and environmental significance.

For the relatives of activists who are languishing in prison because of their work, the award to Egypt of the world’s marquee climate event is an enduring injustice.

“It’s tragic that the [President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi] regime is able to greenwash environmental and human rights violations documented by the UN itself,” says Mohamed Amasha, a PhD student at Yale in the US and son of Ahmed Abdelsattar Amasha, a longtime environmental and human rights advocate. Amasha senior has been imprisoned without charge in Egypt for more than two years.

“The regime is deliberately cutting environmentalist attendees from the harsh environmental reality that most Egyptians endure on a daily basis,” his son says.

Even so, most activists and NGOs in Egypt and across the Middle East welcome the decision to hold the COP locally, despite the possible pitfalls. COP28 will be held in Dubai next year.

They see this as an opportunity to mobilise authorities that have so far been slow to engage on environmental problems. Egypt is already suffering from devastating climate shocks that include more intense heatwaves, fiercer sandstorms, and a rising sea level along the Mediterranean coast.

It is also a chance to secure much-needed climate adaptation funding for themselves and their global south peers, and in a political environment that might be more conducive than some recent COPs. But, with war in Ukraine distracting attention from climate action, Egyptian and international campaigners have expressed doubts about how much can be achieved in Sharm el-Sheikh unless organisers allow them the freedom to fully participate.

At past COPs, some argue that strong and relatively uninhibited civil society participation helped pressure state and business delegates into more meaningful commitments. “We need more climate activism, not less,” says Richard Pearshouse, director of environment and human rights at HRW. “We need activists and protests, environmental journalists, independent courts. Absent those, we’re not going to come close to the climate policies we need.”

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