Egypt defends rights record as it prepares to welcome world at Cop27

While the world convenes to address climate change, the presence of civil society is unclear

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Egypt is preparing to be at the centre of the political spotlight when the Cop27 global summit begins on Sunday.

The UN climate change talks come at a time when the most populous Arab nation faces tough economic choices ― caused in part by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war and the coronavirus pandemic before it.

During the two-week gathering in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt will mostly wear its African hat and assume the role of the standard bearer for a continent struggling to persuade the industrialised West to give it the funds it needs to transition from fossil fuels and adapt to climate change.

It will also seize the opportunity to highlight its potential in the fight against climate change. The country has rapidly expanded its use of renewable and clean energy and has signed multibillion-dollar deals to produce green fuel.

The November 6-18 summit is expected to attract 45,000 delegates, including 100 heads of state and governments ― among them US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Hosting such a large gathering for a milestone event has already boosted Egypt's international profile and afforded it the chance to show its role as a regional power enjoying close ties in its neighbourhood and beyond.

But there has also been criticism of Egypt's rights record at a time when Cairo is focused on ensuring that the summit produces tangible results in the fight against climate change while also battling an economic crisis chiefly caused by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war and the coronavirus pandemic.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has said criticism of the country's human rights record overlooks the leaps made in health, power projects and the many billions of dollars spent on infrastructure to provide the 104 million Egyptians with decent housing, education and access to medical care.

Separate from the climate summit, Mr El Sisi has launched a national dialogue and released government critics in an outreach to his opponents as he works towards political inclusion after years of being reluctant to carry out reforms.

Mr El Sisi, a former army general in office since 2014, has revived a presidential commission mandated to look at the cases of thousands of critics in pre-trial detention. At least 1,000 detainees have been freed since the president first called for a national dialogue in April.

In a call before Cop27, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and welcomed the news that "significant numbers of political detainees" were being released.

He "voiced support for additional such pardons and releases, as well as for steps to strengthen due process of law and protections for fundamental freedoms for all," the US State Department said.

Civil society say they can't access Cop27 - in pictures

The government has not linked the dialogue to the climate summit. It said some political reforms could not be carried out earlier during Mr El Sisi’s rule because of the national security threat posed by terrorism.

Some rights groups have claimed that climate change activists will stay away from this year's Cop summit because they cannot secure accreditation or afford hotel room charges that have significantly gone up in the run-up to the Sharm El Sheikh summit.

It was an issue also raised by Mr Blinken in his call with Mr Shoukry, as the US official touched on the "critical contributions of civil society, including to a successful Cop27."

The Egyptian government has rejected the activists' claims, saying it’s making efforts to ensure civil society groups can participate meaningfully and that it has set aside a venue in Sham El Sheikh for protesters to gather.

Wael Aboul Magd, the special representative for the Egyptian Cop27 presidency, said organisers would ensure civil society groups are able to participate in all activities except for the negotiating process, which is open only to country delegates.

“We’ve exerted every effort to ensure their presence,” he told reporters at a recent briefing. “We’re doing a lot to ensure meaningful participation.”

Authorities also denied charges that they had enabled hotels to sharply increase room rates for Cop27.

The government, Mr Aboul Magd said, is subsidising “a few thousand rooms” in two and three-star 2 hotels and hostels. Rooms will have “a very low cost to ensure there are no impediments stopping people from coming,” he said.

“The Egyptian government understands and appreciates that with hosting the climate summit comes responsibilities,” said Negad Borai, a veteran rights lawyer and a member of the national dialogue’s board of trustees.

“That Egypt has been selected to host the summit is an international recognition that it’s a stable nation that can protect a conference of this size and in the process endure criticism.”

Updated: November 04, 2022, 2:02 PM