Egypt has come under fire for its crackdown on activists ahead of the COP27 climate summit


Egypt is facing widespread criticism for what rights groups say is a crackdown on protests and activists, as it prepares to host the COP27 climate summit from 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 November 11 at United Nations climate talks.

According to rights groups, security forces have set up checkpoints on the streets of Cairo, stopping people and searching phones for content related to the planned protests.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a non-governmental organization, said on Wednesday that 93 people had been arrested in Egypt in recent days. According to investigations by the National Security Prosecutor’s Office, some of those arrested are said to have sent videos calling for protests against social messaging applications. Some were accused of abusing social media, spreading fake news and joining terrorist organizations, a repressive charge often used by the security apparatus against activists.

Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal was arrested in Cairo last Sunday after embarking on a protest march 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. Briefly detained in Cairo along with his friend, lawyer Makarios Lahzy, Lahzy said in a Facebook post. Reuters, who spoke to Rajagopal after his release on Monday, quoted the Indian activist as still trying to get accreditation for COP27, but had no plans to resume the march.

CNN has reached out to Egyptian authorities for comment.

Egypt suffered two uprisings in 2011 and 2013, which eventually paved the way for then-military leader Sisi to take power. Since then, thousands of activists have been imprisoned, spaces for public expression have been abolished and press freedom has been curtailed.

While protests in Egypt are rare and mostly illegal, the economic crisis and a brutal security regime have fueled renewed calls for demonstrations by dissidents looking to take advantage of the rare window of opportunity presented by the climate summit.

A jailed activist, British-Egyptian citizen Alaa Abdelfattah, stepped up his hunger strike in an Egyptian prison this week after relatives warned of his deteriorating health. “Ala has been on hunger strike for 200 days, surviving on only 100 liquid calories a day,” said Sanaa Seif, Abdelfattah’s sister, who is holding a sit-in outside the UK Foreign Office in London.

The COP, the annual UN-sponsored climate summit that brings together signatories to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, is often the venue for civil society representatives to mingle with experts and policymakers and witness the negotiations firsthand.

It is not uncommon to see a young activist approaching a national delegation walking down the corridor to the next meeting or an indigenous leader chatting with a minister on the sidelines of a debate.

And while security is always strict – after all, it is a gathering attended by dozens of heads of state and government – peaceful protests have always been part of the COP. Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of last year’s Scottish host city Glasgow during the summit.

However, Egypt has tightened the rules on who can enter the talks.

As in the previous ones, this year’s COP conference will be held in two different locations. The official part of the summit is run by the UN and is accessible only 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 demonstrations and events take place during the two weeks of the summit. But while this public part of the summit has been open to anyone in the past, those who want to participate this year will have to register in advance.

The opportunity to protest will also be limited.

Although the Egyptian government has pledged to allow demonstrations, it has said protests must be held in a special “protest zone”, an area away from the main convention center, and must be announced in advance. Guidelines published on the COP’s official website state that any other march would have to be specifically approved.

Anyone who wants to organize a protest must register for the public part of the conference, a requirement that could scare off activists who fear surveillance. Among the rules imposed by the Egyptian authorities on the protests is a ban on the use of “objects that look like satirical drawings of Heads of State, negotiators, individuals”.

The UN has asked Egypt to give the public a voice in the conference.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said “it is essential that everyone – including representatives of civil society – be able to participate meaningfully at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh” and that decisions on climate change must be “transparent, inclusive and”. accounts”.

Separately, a group of five independent human rights experts, all UN special rapporteurs, issued a statement last month expressing concern about the restrictions ahead of the summit. They said the Egyptian government had placed strict limits on who could participate in the talks and how, and said “a wave of government crackdowns fueled fears of reprisals against activists.”

“This new wave follows years of sustained and persistent repression against civil society and human rights defenders using security as a pretext to undermine the legitimate rights of civil society to participate in public affairs in Egypt,” the group said in a statement.

An Egyptian civil rights group has launched a petition calling on the Egyptian authorities to end the prosecution of civil society activists and organizations and to end restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

“Egyptian authorities have been using draconian laws for years, including anti-terrorism, cybercrime and civil society laws, to stifle all forms of peaceful dissent and close down civic space,” the groups said in the petition.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and dozens of other groups have also spoken, asking for the freedom of the arrested activists.

On the occasion of the climate conference, the Egyptian government presented an initiative to pardon prisoners imprisoned for their political activity. Authorities also pointed to a new prison, Badr-3, 70 kilometers (43 miles) northeast of Cairo, where other inmates were allegedly moved to better conditions.

But rights groups say the government’s initiatives have brought little change.

“Ahead of COP27, Egypt’s PR machine is working on all cylinders to hide the terrible reality in the country’s prisons, where prisoners detained for political reasons are being worked in appalling conditions in violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment,” said Agnès Callamard. , Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“Prisoners are suffering the same human rights abuses that have repeatedly bedeviled the old institutions, revealing the Egyptian authorities’ lack of political will to end the country’s human rights crisis.”