WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
The Frontline dives into a new human rights report that shows the fear environmental groups in Egypt feel—and their weariness in participating in the upcoming COP27.
The upcoming climate negotiations, better known as COP27, are rapidly approaching. Activists, politicians, and climate experts will fly from all over the world to gather in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 6. There, outside environmental advocates will likely take to the streets (as they do during every other COP). It’s a different story, however, for the advocates who live in Egypt.
A new report from Human Rights Watch has shed light on the reality of what being an outspoken and critical environmental defender in Egypt means: loss of funding, harassment, and arrest. This is what Egyptian activists are up against with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, whose authoritarian regime has kept many environmentalists in the shadows since at least 2014, when he went into power. Without activist pressure, the Egyptian government is unlikely to meet the climate call. The North African county is uniquely positioned to suffer from climate change impacts, yet its leaders have done little to protect Egyptians from what’s already unfolding.
Welcome to The Frontline, where human rights sit at the heart of climate justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Let’s take a look at how Egypt is feeling climate change impacts today and how the government is making it worse. Tragically, advocates on the ground can’t speak out publicly, but their voices are necessary to build climate justice in Egypt and abroad.
“The risk of disappearing is extremely high, and, therefore, I need to think about every word before I say it. It’s an immense psychological burden, but at the end of the day, we need to find ways to push for change.”
These are the words from someone who works on environmental issues in Egypt. He’s chosen to remain anonymous out of concern of retaliation from the Egyptian government. There’s plenty in our conversation he keeps off the record because he doesn’t want to risk someone identifying him. He’s scared of disappearing, which can mean any number of things: arrest, abduction, torture, and death.
This is what national security forces do to people who dare challenge the government. Sometimes, TikTok videos are enough to be arrested. No form of criticism is tolerated. However, all governments need criticism when it comes to protecting the planet. Otherwise, how else will they reject the capitalist, extractive mindset that fuels their refusal to reduce emissions and invest in communities?
“So many projects have environmental implications and will raise the hardship people are living under, and there’s no ability to challenge or discuss them,” the activist said.
He’s one of the 13 individuals who spoke to Human Rights Watch for its report out last week on how Egypt is silencing its environmental organizers. The Egyptian government has refuted the report’s findings, but there’s no denying that the current authoritarian government has created an atmosphere of fear and despair across the country. The human rights crisis is urgent. Freedom of speech is dead, and discriminatory violence against women and LGBTQIA+ people continues. Alongside all this, the climate crisis rages on, creating an uncertain future for the North African region.
Despite concerns, the United Nations has allowed Egypt to host the upcoming climate negotiations. COP27 will bring in thousands of climate experts and activists. They’ll be able to protest on the street, but what about local advocates? As the new report from Human Rights Watch makes clear, many are uncertain about participating in COP27. Maybe the Egyptian government will allow them to protest during the event, but what comes after?
“When COP ends, they might start looking and see who is doing what, who got funds from where, for example,” an activist outside the country told Human Rights Watch.
“Without the Nile, there is really no Egypt.”
Funding has been a mechanism by which the authoritarian government has stripped environmental groups of power, according to the report. Since the president rose to power in 2014, the government has passed several laws restricting grants and donations from foreign sources. Some groups have struggled to register as nongovernmental organizations or conduct research. As a result, dozens of groups have ended their work in the country or left it altogether. Those that continue must be careful about the issues or projects they organize to ensure they won’t upset the government.
“The sum total of this is that you’re not having the really important environmental debates that are required, and that’s a huge problem for Egypt,” said Richard Pearshouse, the environment director for Human Rights Watch who worked on the report.
Indeed, these debates are critical, especially as climate change unfolds in the region. Over the last 30 years, Egypt’s precipitation has dropped by 22%, per the World Bank. Meanwhile, its temperatures are already rising. Future heat waves and drought are all but inevitable for the region no matter what the global response is to climate change. Heat is dangerous for the human body, but it also damages crops, affecting food security. And the Nile Delta, the center of a major water conflict in the region, has been flagged as an extreme vulnerability hotspot.
Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have been unable to agree on water rights related to the Nile River. Historically, due to British colonialism and the monarch’s financial interest in Egypt, the country had substantial water rights—to the point where Ethiopia, the origin of most of this water, was left with zero water allocations from the Nile. As climate change makes water resources more vulnerable everywhere, the three countries are caught in a dispute that may end in war. Egypt is unwilling to give up its historical access to the Nile—which it needs for drinking, industry, and tourism—even though other more impoverished African countries need access, too.
“Without the Nile, there is really no Egypt,” said Dr. John Mukum Mbaku, an economics professor at Weber State University who has examined the water crisis in the region for nearly a decade. “Egypt is essentially a desert. The only reason Egypt exists today is because of the Nile.”
Local activists, however, can’t get involved in this dispute. They can’t call out Egypt’s decisions—including developing Warraq Island (formerly a nature reserve), where authorities are forcibly removing rural landowners. As a result of agricultural issues, other rural communities are migrating into cities, the anonymous activist shared, but the living conditions aren’t safe. Egypt is seeing a mass exodus that highlights the intersectional way climate change operates.
“Everything is interconnected and will have compounding impacts,” he said.
Environmental groups know this, and yet they can’t speak out. The government is especially sensitive to criticism of its national infrastructure projects or harmful practices by corporations and the military, Pearshouse said. Challenging these sectors will lead to harassment or worse. Human Rights Watch hopes its report encourages more solidarity around the globe, especially from those attending the climate conference in November that claim to care about human rights.
“We need more climate activism—not less—at a global level. That’s just what this fight needs. We need people in the streets.”
“Where is the solidarity with Egyptian environmental groups?” Pearshouse said. “We want the negotiations at COP27 to be successful, but we’re also going to be looking very closely to see what level of support there is for easing the restrictions on environmentalism in Egypt because Egypt and the world are not going to get good climate policies unless there is public pressure demanding those policy changes. We need more climate activism—not less—at a global level. That’s just what this fight needs. We need people in the streets. We need environmental journalists. We need independent courts. We need peaceful protests.”
Atmos sent specific questions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) about the concerns raised in the report, but the institution instead sent a lengthy response about how COP works, how it selects hosts, and how it invites and accepts environmental groups that want to attend.
“For COP27, the U.N. Climate Change secretariat already has around 10,000 registrations from almost 2,000 admitted observer organizations, which is similar to COP26 in Glasgow,” a spokesperson said. “Thus, we believe that with the variety and great number of admitted observers to the UNFCCC process, the meetings of the Conference of the Parties in Sharm El-Sheikh will continue to be as transparent and inclusive as possible.”
As for the anonymous environmental organizer, he doesn’t want solidarity from Western governments. They’re complicit, too, he said. They talk about human rights, yet they continue to uphold and support governments like Egypt that oppress its people.
“I want solidarity from communities and people and those in the Global South,” he said.
He also wants systemic change. After all, the government’s abuse is a symptom of the broader system that perpetuates climate change and the exploitation of people and planet. He hopes people worldwide— especially in Egypt—will soon wake up to this. Time is running out to mitigate climate change and adapt.
“People are hopeless here already about everything else and have not recognized the urgency of the climate crisis even though year after year everyone is feeling the impacts directly and seeing it. It’s become undeniable,” he said. “We need to get people to realize how much worse it’s going to get.”