Human rights defenders warn activists are being arrested ahead of Egypt's climate summit
Reports of authorities searching phones, arresting people for planning demonstrations during COP27
Human rights groups in Egypt had hoped the authoritarian government would relax its grip on civil society ahead of COP27, but instead advocates say police have started cracking down and arresting anyone suspected of planning a protest in the lead up to the UN climate summit.
The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27), kicks off on Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Just as much as the annual climate change summit is tradition, so too is the backdrop of crowds marching in the street, chanting demands for elected officials to address the climate crisis.
But COP27 will be different.
"This is going to be probably the most restricted COPs in the history of COPs," said Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt and Libya researcher with Amnesty International.
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Baoumi spoke with CBC News from Brussels, where he lives in exile. Originally from Egypt, he left the country because his advocacy work defending human rights made it too dangerous to stay, he says.
Unlike last year's summit in Glasgow, which saw mass demonstrations, Egypt has little tolerance for public dissent and protest.
In 2013, human rights observers estimated hundreds of protesters were killed during the military coup that ousted the country's first democratically elected president, the late Mohamed Morsi, and saw the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, take over leadership of the country.
Baoumi said in the lead up to COP27, Amnesty International has confirmed that police have arrested as many as 90 people for allegedly calling for anti-government protests on Nov. 11.
"If you go to Cairo or any major Egyptian city now, what you will see is that there are police checkpoints everywhere. They are stopping people randomly, ordering them to open their phones and those who don't comply are arrested," Baoumi said.
"Those who have critical content of the authorities are arrested … if you try to protest anywhere in Egypt, there is no doubt that authorities will crack down without hesitation."
According to a human rights organization, The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, those arrested have been charged with allegedly spreading false news, misusing social media and participating in a terrorist group.
"We were expecting that as Egypt hosts COP27, the security grip would be eased on all forms of political activism in Egypt and openness in the public sphere, but this has not happened," director Mohamed Lotfy told Reuters, speaking in Arabic.
"What we see is toughening of the [security grip] even on civilians passing by on the streets and interference in their personal lives and breaching their privacy by forcing them to open up their mobile phones and inspecting their political views."
A designated protest zone far from the conference
While the Egyptian COP27 presidency has set aside a designated area for demonstrations at the site of the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, critics say it's far from where negotiations are taking place and carefully controlled.
Already, the conference is taking place in a remote resort town on the coast of the Red Sea, about a six hour's drive from the bustling capital of Cairo.
The designated area for protests is across the road from where the summit is taking place — called the "Blue Zone" —and confined to an enclosed space within what's called the "Green Zone."
The Egyptian COP27 presidency did not respond to a request for comment, but according to its website, anyone who wants to plan a climate demonstration in the designated area is required to submit a request 36 hours in advance and include a description of the purpose of the protest, the date and the organizing body.
Activists who hope to plan a public climate march in town are required to submit notice 48 hours ahead of time.
"It's not like Glasgow or Madrid, the previous COPs, where there is going to be massive mobilization," said Ahmed El Droubi, the regional campaigns manager for Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa.
He said the climate movement has been calling for decentralized actions around the world during COP27, instead of "having a march in a space where it's only the climate activists talking to themselves."
The tightly controlled environment leaves little space for citizen dialogue during a global summit that's supposed to centre on the theme of climate justice, all while in a country that's extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Canadian activists still plan on attending
Despite the restrictions, some international activists — including Canadians — are planning on showing up.
Sophia Mathur, a 15-year-old climate activist from Sudbury, Ont., who has organized student protests in Canada will be flying to Egypt to attend the conference with her parents.
"It is a little upsetting that we can't hold big protests. But … I think there are lots of ways we can work around it, like holding discussions online," she said.
Tia Kennedy, who is from Oneida Nation of the Thames and Walpole Island First Nation, will be at the summit as an Indigenous youth delegate with Kairos and For the Love of Creation.
She said activism can take many forms and doesn't necessarily require marching in the streets.
"I think being in these spaces is a form of advocacy and activism in and of itself," she said. "For a long time, Indigenous peoples were left out of these spaces on purpose. So just being able to show up as our authentic selves — that in itself is a form of resistance and activism."
While authorities in Egypt may try to muffle dissent, environmentalists say they will continue to fight to hold their governments accountable on climate action once they return home.
"We need to witness. We need to be there with the world governments," said Kupki7(Chief) Judy Wilson, who is the chief of Neskonlith Indian Band and will attend COP27 as secretary treasurer for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
El Droubi agrees that meaningful climate action must have support from the citizens, which is why he will also be attending COP27 as a representative for Greenpeace.
"Policies cannot come top down," he said.
"It is vital that local communities and local civil society are heavily engaged during COP27 but more importantly, in the future."
With files from Reuters