Egypt is facing a barrage of criticism for what rights groups say is a crackdown on protests and activists as it prepares to host the COP27 climate summit starting Sunday.
Human 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, during United Nations climate talks.
According to rights groups, security forces have set up checkpoints on the streets of Cairo, stopping people and searching their phones for any content related to the planned protests.
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), an NGO, said on Wednesday that 93 people had been detained in Egypt in recent days. He said that according to investigations by the national security prosecutor’s office, some of those arrested allegedly sent videos calling for protests on social messaging apps. Some were also accused of abusing social media, spreading fake news and joining terrorist organizations, a repressive charge commonly used by the security apparatus against activists.
Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal was arrested last Sunday in Cairo after he made a protest walk from the Egyptian capital to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort where the COP27 conference will be held on 6 to November 18. Rajagopal was released after a brief detention in Cairo along with his friend, lawyer Makarios Lahzy, said a post by Lahzy on Facebook. Reuters, which spoke to Rajagopal after his release on 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 reached out to Egyptian authorities for comment.
Egypt suffered two mass uprisings in 2011 and 2013 that eventually paved the way for then-military chief Sisi to take power. Since then, thousands of activists have been imprisoned, spaces for public expression have been suppressed and press freedom has been curtailed.
Although protests are rare – and mostly illegal – in Egypt, a looming economic crisis and a brutal security regime have spurred new calls for demonstrations by dissidents seeking to take advantage of a rare window of opportunity presented by the summit of the climate
A jailed activist, British-Egyptian citizen Alaa Abdelfattah, has stepped up his hunger strike in an Egyptian prison this week, amid warnings from relatives about his deteriorating health. “Alaa has been on hunger strike for 200 days, surviving on just 100 calories of liquid a day,” said Sanaa Seif, Abdelfattah’s sister, who is organizing a sit-in outside the UK Foreign Office to London.
COP, the annual UN-sponsored climate summit that brings together the signatories of the Paris Agreement on combating climate change, is traditionally a place where representatives of civil society have the opportunity to mingle with experts and political leaders and observe the negotiations first hand.
It is not unusual to see a young activist approaching a national delegation walking down the corridor to their next meeting or an indigenous leader chatting with a minister on the sidelines of a debate.
And although security is always tight – after all, this is a meeting 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 host city, Glasgow, Scotland, during the summit.
However, Egypt has tightened the rules on who can access 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 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 venue where exhibitions and climate events are held during the two weeks of the summit. But while this public part of the summit used to be open to everyone, people who want to attend this year will have to register in advance.
The possibility of protest will also be restricted.
While the Egyptian government has pledged to allow the demonstrations, it has said protests will have to take place in a special “protest zone,” a dedicated space away from the main conference site, and must be announce in advance. Guidelines posted on the COP’s official website say any other march would need to be specially approved.
Anyone who wants to organize a protest will have to register for the public part of the conference, a requirement that may scare off activists who fear surveillance. Among the rules imposed by the Egyptian authorities on the protests is a ban on using “impersonated objects, such as satirical cartoons of heads of state, negotiators, individuals”.
The UN has urged Egypt to ensure that the public has a voice at the conference.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said it is “essential that everyone, including representatives of civil society, can participate meaningfully at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh” and that the decisions on climate change must be “transparent, inclusive and responsible”.
Separately, a group of five independent human rights experts, all UN special rapporteurs, issued a statement last month expressing alarm at the restrictions ahead of the summit. They said the Egyptian government had placed strict limits on who can participate in the talks and how, and said “a wave of government restrictions on participation raised fears of reprisals against activists.”
“This new wave follows years of persistent and sustained 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.
A group of Egyptian civil rights groups has launched a petition calling on Egyptian authorities to end prosecutions of activists and civil society organizations and to end restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly .
“Egyptian authorities have for years used draconian laws, 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 out and called for the release of the detained 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 prisoners were moved to supposedly better conditions.
But rights groups said the government’s initiatives brought little change.
“Ahead of COP27, Egypt’s public relations machine is operating on all cylinders to hide the terrible reality in the country’s prisons, where prisoners detained for political reasons are released in horrific conditions in violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other abuses,” said Agnès Callamard. . , Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“Prisoners face the same human rights violations that have repeatedly plagued older institutions, exposing the Egyptian authorities’ lack of political will to end the country’s human rights crisis.”