Biodegradable drinking straws and recycling bins, beach strolls and electric shuttles, a complete ban on plastic bags: For months, Egypt has been giving the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh a green makeover in preparation for hosting a global climate conference there starting Sunday.
It is a cheery vision of what promises to be a fraught summit for Egypt, whose repressive politics have undermined its attempts to frame itself as a climate champion of the developing world.
Egypt plans to lead a push at this year’s meeting, known as COP27, to compensate those countries that are least responsible for global emissions but most feeling the results of climate change.
“We need a comprehensive vision to support African nations in their effort to adjust to climate change,” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said in September at a forum on climate change.
But Egypt’s place at the center of the conference has raised questions about whether an authoritarian country with troubling records on both the environment and human rights should be hosting a major climate summit at all.
Egypt aims to become a regional natural gas exporting hub, and its capital, Cairo, has some of the world’s most polluted air. Many environmental advocacy groups within Egypt are harassed to the point of closure, according to rights organizations and Egyptian environmentalists, even though they were given more leeway in the run-up to the summit.
And the environment is just one of many issues that Egypt considers sensitive.
El-Sissi’s government has jailed or driven into exile thousands of perceived political opponents since coming to power in a 2013 military takeover. They include ordinary Egyptians who criticize the authorities on Facebook and well-known opposition politicians.
Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist, said this past week that she would not attend the summit in Egypt partly out of concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. Along with a large network of international climate groups, she has signed a petition calling on Egypt to ease repression and free political prisoners, a call echoed by the European Parliament.
“This is a challenge for the global community,” said Alden Meyer, an international climate policy expert at E3G, a Washington-based think tank. “People are asking, ‘Should you be rewarding countries that have huge human rights concerns and issues by allowing them to host these high-profile, prestigious U.N. conferences?’”
Last month, Egypt freed a well-known political activist and former lawmaker, Ziad el-Elaimy.
But thousands remain imprisoned, including Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the country’s most prominent dissident, who has spent more than 200 days on a hunger strike in an effort to pressure the authorities to let him go. His family fears he is nearing death.
He has vowed to stop drinking water just as the summit, which will last two weeks, begins Sunday. But despite efforts to win his release by his family and officials from Britain, where he holds dual citizenship, Egypt has so far remained unmoved.
Egypt has also placed ever-tighter restrictions on civil society groups and academics who work on human rights, the environment and other issues.
Highly attuned to international scrutiny, the government has said protests will be allowed in a purpose-built desert area set apart from the conference center — although only if demonstrators register their protests in advance. In the past, protests were allowed in and around the main summit venue.
However constrained, the protest zone, complete with cafes and restaurants, will be “very chic,” the local governor, Khaled Fouda, promised in a recent television interview.
Egypt wants to ensure that the protests will not disrupt organizations that rent exhibition booths at the conference, Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, said in September in an interview with The New York Times on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
But protests are “certainly not precluded,” he added.
Even if foreign visitors do succeed in demonstrating, authorities have moved with typical care to ensure that Egyptians will not spoil the country’s big moment with mass political unrest. Local human rights groups say dozens of Egyptians have been arrested in recent days after they called for anti-government demonstrations during the summit.
Sharm el-Sheikh is fenced in wire and moated with checkpoints. Egyptians entering the area by microbus, the most common form of cheap transportation, must show a license to prove they work there. Sharm el-Sheikh residents have said that Egyptians not directly tied to the conference have been forced out of the city in recent weeks.
But with accommodation scarce — hotels cost up to 10 times their usual rates during the summit — there is little prospect of Egyptians traveling in to protest anyway.
The heavy security is also intended to guard against Islamist militants, who bombed Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and brought down a Russian plane filled with tourists as it flew out of the resort in 2015.
Yet, Egypt is also working to head off political strife, analysts and diplomats say.
Eager to buff its image before the summit and soothe internal dissent from an economic meltdown prompted by the war in Ukraine that is hitting Egyptians hard, the country began a “national political dialogue” in the spring to make politics more inclusive and released hundreds of political prisoners.
Still, rights groups say such actions do little to reverse years of repression.
Egyptian environmental activists are often targeted with threats, asset freezes, travel bans or arrests. Dozens of human rights and civil society groups have been prosecuted since 2014 for receiving funds from abroad, leaving them struggling to survive on the little funding available in Egypt.
A Human Rights Watch report in September found that several environmental groups had scaled back or shut down in the face of government harassment and restrictions on funding and field work. Groups faced insurmountable hurdles obtaining legal status and the security permits that would allow them to conduct research, the report found.
Egypt’s official media center did not respond to several requests for comment. But a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in September that it was “deplorable and counterproductive” for Human Rights Watch to “issue such a misleading report” when the world should be focusing on climate goals.
In interviews, environmental activists said victims of industrial pollution and other Egyptians who could help provide valuable environmental data often refuse to talk because the government has painted researchers and journalists as foreign agents. In many cases, researchers say, they refrain from asking questions to protect such people from repercussions.
“It’s very risky to do it without approval,” said Ragia el-Gerzawy, an environmental researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of Egypt’s few remaining rights groups. “People are afraid to talk to us.”
The restrictions have led to “very poor” data on pollution problems, such as Cairo’s notoriously grimy air, she said, weakening analyses of Egypt’s environmental needs and hamstringing solutions. Cairo’s air ranks among the world’s most polluted.
In another dubious distinction, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that environmental research in Egypt is some of the most underfinanced in the world.
In the past, some of the only areas environmentalists could safely focus on included trash cleanups, recycling, climate finance, renewable energy and food security, priorities that aligned with the government’s.
By contrast, groups that campaigned against industrial pollution and the environmental damage from military-owned businesses, development, tourism and agriculture — including marquee government projects such as Egypt’s New Administrative Capital — said they faced heavy pushback.
But Egyptian environmentalists say the atmosphere has improved as COP27 nears, helped by finding common cause with the government on pushing rich nations to do more on climate change. Officials have invited some of the environmentalists to roundtable discussions and sought their input on preparations.
Thirty-five Egyptian civil society groups received U.N. permission to attend the summit with Egypt’s support, including well-respected ones, although others were rejected. Egypt also pushed for dozens of other African civil society groups to attend.
The optimism is guarded.
Several environmental activists said they worried that this respite would prove brief. As soon as the world’s attention turns elsewhere, they said, they fear receiving even stronger scrutiny from security agencies.
“I see a lot of progress,” said Ahmed el-Saidi, an environmental lawyer in Cairo who has sued the government over several violations of environmental law. “But we need more. And after COP, no one knows what’ll happen.”