The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate talks in Egypt overshadowed by shouting matches over human rights

Sanaa Seif, sister of Egypt's jailed leading pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is on a hunger and water strike, speaks to members of the media at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Egypt hoped that hosting this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, would bring positive attention and prestige. But an outburst at a news conference Tuesday showed the country is struggling to stage-manage the global event and keep the lid on domestic controversies.

Sanaa Seif — a sister of British Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah, who escalated his months-long hunger strike by giving up water on Sunday — had just finished speaking about her brother’s case in front of dozens of international journalists on Tuesday afternoon when Egyptian lawmaker Amr Darwish stood up in the audience to berate her.

“You are here summoning foreign countries to pressure Egypt,” Darwish said in Arabic. “You are here to call for a presidential pardon for a criminal inmate,” he continued.

He repeatedly interrupted Seif as she tried to translate his remarks into English, shouting as U.N. security escorted him out of the building: “Don’t touch me! You are here in the Egyptian land. I asked her a question; she should answer me.”

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His disruption may have been an attempt to defend the government’s jailing of Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist during the country’s 2011 revolution. Instead, human rights advocates said it perfectly exemplified to a crowd of foreign observers a side of Egypt that officials here have tried to conceal from COP27 delegates.

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard, who visited Abdel Fattah’s mother in Cairo before flying to Sharm el-Sheikh, confronted Darwish during his outburst in the conference hall. Later, she tweeted that his comments gave “us all a small sense of the regime of fears and silencing in the country right now.”

The incident didn’t surprise Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who was sitting just a few rows ahead of Darwish at Tuesday’s event.

“This kind of intimidation and harassment is the least we have to experience. The only reason we actually had the news conference at all is because it happened in the area under U.N. control,” he said. “A news conference for Sanaa Seif would have been unimaginable in Cairo or anywhere else had it not been for COP27 taking place in Egypt.”

President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s government, he added, “has been fully stacked with pro-regime parliamentarians, handpicked by security agencies, and this is what is expected of them.”

Bahgat, who has repeatedly faced charges in Egypt and was fined last year over a tweet, traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh with accreditation from a German nongovernmental organization. Every Egyptian human rights group that applied for accreditation through the government was denied, he said, forcing local activists to go through foreign groups.

Amid complaints from COP delegates that certain websites are blocked in Egypt, including Human Rights Watch, the ban appeared to be lifted on Tuesday. WhatsApp calls, normally blocked here, also started to go through.

Activists have long raised concerns about tight security and a lack of transparency at climate conferences. In Glasgow, Scotland, last year, they criticized conference organizers for limiting observers’ access to negotiating rooms. But one civil society representative, who has been assisting fellow activists this year with security issues and other rights concerns, said the situation in Egypt is uniquely worrying.

“This is the most repressive COP probably in the history of COP,” said the civil society representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her organization’s members.

There have been relatively few demonstrations inside the conference venue. And outside the “Blue Zone” — the main conference area overseen by the United Nations — there have been none.

For attendees accustomed to seeing raucous demonstrations surrounding COP meetings, the silence in Sharm el-Sheikh is deeply unsettling — and may amount to a “breaking point” for civil society’s trust in the COP process, the representative said.

“There is such an intrinsic connection between human rights and climate justice,” said Jean Su, a board chair for Climate Action Network International.

“The credibility of COP27 and its outcomes will be at stake if Egypt fails to respond to the call for the release of Alaa and other prisoners of conscience,” she said.

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Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who is also serving as president-designate of COP27, told CNBC in an interview this week that Abdel Fattah “is receiving all the necessary care in prison.” But Abdel Fattah’s family has raised concerns that Egyptian officials are force-feeding him. His mother, Cairo University professor Laila Soueif, has waited for two days in a row outside his prison but has not received any proof of life.

In one of the most direct statements yet from a Western leader on Abdel Fattah’s case, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Tuesday for his release “so that this hunger strike does not end in death.”

He described the situation as “very depressing.”

Tuesday evening, at an event hosted in the conference’s German pavilion, so many people packed in to see Seif speak alongside human rights groups that the crowd overflowed into the hallways and neighboring pavilions.

As the event drew to a close, a half dozen young protesters rushed the stage.

Wearing white T-shirts that read, “#FreeAlaa #FreeThemAll,” they began to chant: “Free Alaa! Free Alaa!” Soon members of the crowd joined in. But one woman began shouting back in an apparent effort to counter the protest.

U.N. security hustled Seif off the stage.

Wiktoria Jedroszkowiak, a 21-year-old activist from Warsaw, was among the protesters. She said she felt obligated to use her “privilege as an E.U. citizen” to call out human rights violations in a way Egyptian citizens can’t do safely. “We cannot talk about climate justice without talking about freedom of speech and human rights,” she said.

As she spoke, an organizer of the protest hurried over to urge Jedroszkowiak to take off her T-shirt before leaving the conference venue. Inside, she was protected by the United Nations. Outside, it wasn’t clear what the Egyptian government might do.

“It’s absurd,” Jedroszkowiak said. “There’s only about five places in the venue to protest. We can’t do our jobs as climate activists here.”

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