Egypt faces a barrage of criticism over what a human rights group says is a crackdown on protesters and activists as it prepares to host the COP27 climate summit that begins Sunday.
Rights groups have accused the Egyptian government of arbitrarily detaining activists after Egyptian dissidents abroad called for protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Nov. 11 during the United Nations’ climate talks.
According to human rights groups, security forces have set up checkpoints on the streets of Cairo, stopping people and searching their phones to find content related to the planned protests.
The Egyptian Commission on Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), an NGO, said on Wednesday that 93 people had been arrested in Egypt in recent days. It said that according to national security investigations, some of those arrested allegedly sent videos calling for protests over social messaging apps. Some were also charged with abusing social media, spreading false news and joining terrorist organizations – a repressive charge often used by the security apparatus against activists.
Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal was detained in Cairo on Sunday after taking a protest walk from the Egyptian capital to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort where the COP27 conference will be held from November 6-18. Rajagopal was released after a brief detention in Cairo with his friend, lawyer Makarios Lahzy, according to a Facebook post from Lahzy. Reuters, which spoke to Rajagopal after his release Monday, quoted the Indian activist as saying he was still trying to get accredited for COP27 but had no plans to resume his march.
CNN has contacted Egyptian authorities for comment.
Egypt experienced two massive uprisings in 2011 and 2013 that eventually paved the way for then military leader Sisi to take power. Thousands of activists have since been jailed, spaces for public expression have been destroyed and press freedom has been curtailed.
While protests are rare – and mostly illegal – in Egypt, a looming economic crisis and a brutal security regime have sparked renewed calls for demonstrations by dissidents seeking to take advantage of a rare opportunity presented by the climate summit.
An imprisoned activist, British-Egyptian citizen Alaa Abdelfattah, escalated his hunger strike at an Egyptian prison this week amid warnings from family members about his deteriorating health. “Alaa has been on hunger strike for 200 days, living on just 100 calories of liquid a day,” said Sanaa Seif, sister of Abdelfattah, who is holding a sit-in outside the British Foreign Office in London.
COP, the annual UN-sponsored climate summit that brings together signatories to the Paris Agreement on combating climate change, has traditionally been a place where representatives of civil society have the opportunity to mingle with experts and policymakers and guide the negotiations from the to observe first hand.
It’s not uncommon to see a young activist approaching a national delegation walking down the hallway to their next meeting, or an Indigenous leader chatting on the sidelines of a debate with a minister.
And while security is always tight – after all, this is a gathering attended by dozens of heads of state and governments – peaceful protests have always been part of COP. Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of last year’s host city, Glasgow, Scotland during the summit.
Still, Egypt has tightened rules about who has access to the talks.
As in the past, this year’s COP conference will take place in two different locations. The official part of the summit is led by the UN and is only open to accredited persons, including official delegations, representatives of NGOs and other civil society groups, experts, journalists and other observers.
Then there is a separate public space where climate exhibitions and events take place during the two weeks of the summit. But while this public part of the summit has been open to everyone in the past, people who want to participate this year will need to pre-register.
The chance to protest is also limited.
Although the Egyptian government has pledged to allow demonstrations, it has said that the protests will have to take place in a special “protest zone”, a special space away from the main conference venue, and that they must be announced in advance. Guidelines published on the official COP website say that other marches must be specially approved.
Anyone wishing to stage a protest must register for the public portion of the conference — a requirement that could deter activists fearing surveillance. One of the rules the Egyptian authorities have imposed on the protests is a ban on the use of “imitated objects, such as satirical drawings of heads of state, negotiators, individuals”.
The UN has urged Egypt to ensure that the public has a say in the conference.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said it is “essential that everyone – including representatives of civil society – can meaningfully participate in COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh” and that decisions on climate change are “transparent.” inclusive and responsible.”
Separately, a group of five independent human rights experts, all UN special rapporteurs, released a statement last month expressing concern about restrictions ahead of the summit. They said the Egyptian government had placed strict restrictions on who can participate in the talks and how, saying that “a wave of government restrictions on participation has increased fears of reprisals against activists.”
“This new wave follows years of sustained and sustained crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders who use security as a pretext to undermine civil society’s legitimate rights to participate in public affairs in Egypt,” the group said in a statement. .
A group of Egyptian civil rights groups has launched a petition calling on the Egyptian authorities to end the persecution of civil society activists and organizations and end restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
“Egyptian authorities have for years applied draconian laws, including counter-terrorism, cybercrime and civil society laws, to suppress all forms of peaceful dissent and close off public spaces,” the groups said in the petition.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and many other groups have also spoken out demanding the release of imprisoned activists.
In the run-up to the climate conference, the Egyptian government presented an initiative to pardon prisoners for their political activities. Authorities also pointed to a new prison, Badr-3, 70 kilometers (43 miles) northeast of Cairo, where other inmates were being transferred to supposedly better conditions.
But human rights groups said the government’s initiatives brought little change.
“Ahead of COP27, Egypt’s public relations machine is spinning on all cylinders to hide the horrific reality in the country’s prisons, where prisoners held for political reasons languish in horrific conditions and the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment violations,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.
“Prisoners face the same human rights abuses that have repeatedly destroyed older institutions, highlighting the lack of political will on the part of the Egyptian authorities to end the human rights crisis in the country.”