Don’t greenwash your climate crimes by greenwashing Egypt’s military dictatorship

Protesters listen to Samaya Halawa explain about the detention of her brother Ibrahim when he was just 17 exercising his right to protest peacefully against the military coup in August 2013. Alisdare Hickson. November 2015.

As Egypt plays host to COP27, Y.Y.H. Al-Askar – writing under a pseudonym – draws attention to the plight of the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. Al-Askar points to the hypocrisy of Sisi, presenting himself on the international stage as a fighter for the oppressed while brutally repressing any Egyptian who dares to speak out against his military regime. Al-Askar argues that through its uncritical engagement with Sisi’s Egypt, COP27 threatens to derail the struggle for climate reparations while greenwashing Egypt’s military dictatorship.

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 and fifty of us. We chanted, we stood our ground, until the soldiers charged us, grabbing who they could, including the innocent passers-by. 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 Abdel-Fattah 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 the military regime returned even more brutally than before, it wanted to make an example of what would happen to others if they didn’t remain silent.

Alaa’s sisters, Mona and Sanaa Seif, protesting outside the British Foreign Office in the run up to COP27. Alisdare Hickson. October 2022.

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. On Sunday, the first day of COP27 he drank his last glass of water and enters a zero calorie strike, because so far there has been no response from the echelons of power.

Meanwhile, the regime is rebranding itself.

This week, as you read this post, the whole world is looking to Egypt as it hosts this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (or 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 at COP26, al-Sisi reminded his listeners of developed countries’ unfulfilled promise of raising $100 billion annually for developing nations by 2020. He is certainly going to be reminding his listeners of that again this week.

Meanwhile, Egypt is becoming an ever-larger exporter of fossil fuels. Export of oil has increased by 120% this year compared to 2021, while its natural gas exports have increased 13-fold in the past eight years. These are statistics neither al-Sisi nor Hill & Knowlton – the American PR agency that 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, is he not? But as an activist from Egypt, the hypocrisy 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.

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 surveys using technology provided by the likes of German company Fin Fisher, and then harshly crushes them. 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 35 kilometres west of Alexandria. It is also where Egypt’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal lies which is now shipping liquified gas to Germany as an alternative source of energy to the country’s long-term 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 the activist 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 of this year, just over one month ago, 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 the labyrinth of Egypt’s detention system and facade of a judicial system. Some of these people 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.

A silent vigil in memory of Giulio Regeni and the hundreds of Egyptians forcibly disappeared and tortured every year. Alisdare Hickson. February 2017.

Yet, a rare struggle has recently been led by the farming community of a Nile island called Warraq, that lies in the heart of Cairo. In 2017 the regime announced a ‘development’ project, which would transform it into Egypt’s ‘Manhattan Island’, with luxury high-rises 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.

August was the most recent 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 its own profit at the expense of Egyptians and the environment. That same month, 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 kilometres west of the fishing village, in the town of Dabaa. 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.

I have left Egypt.

I no longer found it 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 his 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. It has 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 more than tripled the country’s foreign debt without the population’s consent, bringing Egypt today to the brink of bankruptcy. COP27 is a convenient opportunity to attract foreign finances. If it needs to be ‘green’, the regime will make sure it is because it is desperate to finance its debt-ridden machine of terror.

This puts the global North in a dilemma, because by condition-less participation in the climate summit it greenwashes the brutal Egyptian regime.

The world’s greatest climate debtors must take a strong moral stance. This means pressuring their partners. 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 economically vulnerable position, the global North should disinvest from Egypt, unless very clear conditions are met.

At the recent Belgian-German climate cooperation meeting, 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 debtors owe nature and people most hit by the climate crisis, including Egyptians; not governments, and certainly not fascist ones.

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’ own climate debts, while strengthening these fascist regimes, making a green turn meaningless. For the global North’s energy needs, we need to listen to activists, they have a clear plan. The COP summit must not be about northern economic advancement.

On 22 October 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”.

A boycott by politicians must be a dual act that is accompanied by developing strategies for the global North to repay their climate debts that reach people, rather than prop up governments. 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 partner for anyone seeking either.

A version of this article was first published in German in DIE ZEIT (November 2022).


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