“This is a defining moment in the life of our planet,” declared Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as proceedings got underway earlier this week. “There’s no room for retreat or excuses. Missing the opportunity means the loss of our legacy and the future of our children and grandchildren.”
But a gloomy pall has been hung over the conference from the onset. Climate activists like Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg have already turned their back on COP27, insisting it’s an exercise in “greenwashing” by laggard governments and cynical corporations. Few governments have followed through on ambitious pledges to accelerate their cuts to emissions. Some wealthy nations have failed to fund a planned vehicle of financial aid for developing countries, many of which are experiencing the front-line effects of a warming planet with limited capacity to mitigate against them. And in a year of economic instability and energy price volatility, many countries have sunk public funds into the cultivation and acquisition of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
“Some of the splashiest COP26 pledges have been derailed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and upheavals in the global economy,” wrote my colleague Sarah Kaplan. “Catastrophic climate disasters hampered countries’ abilities to invest in renewable energy and resilient infrastructure, even as they exposed the urgency of preparing for a warmer world.”
For Sissi, though, the summit’s legacy may have nothing to do with climate action. Egypt’s autocratic government was powerless to prevent political activists from taking center stage in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday and highlighting the plight of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a 40-year-old British Egyptian activist on hunger strike. A prominent, popular figure involved in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, Abdel Fattah was imprisoned in 2014 by Sissi’s autocratic regime on dubious charges for protesting without permission and later sentenced in 2021 to five more years in prison for “spreading fake news,” a charge weaponized by Egypt’s authorities to silence their critics.
On Sunday, according to Abdel Fattah’s relatives, he took his last sip of water, escalating a hunger strike that could lead to his death. His plight has overshadowed proceedings at COP27 and led to rights groups and international organizations calling out Egypt’s appalling human rights record, including the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners. On Tuesday, U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk urged Egypt to release Abdel Fattah from prison and give him medical attention.
“I call on the Egyptian authorities to fulfill their human rights obligations and immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, including those in pretrial detention, as well as those unfairly convicted,” he said. “No one should be detained for exercising their basic human rights.”
Sissi’s regime has largely enjoyed the support of the West, which did little to push against the coup he led in 2013 against a democratically elected, politically Islamist government. This week, Sissi has already met with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — all three of whom are said to have pressed the Egyptian leader on the urgent need to release Abdel Fattah. But they put forward no clear threat of repercussions should Cairo resist their appeals. President Biden is expected to also lobby Sissi on human rights when they meet Friday.
For now, the small space afforded to dissenters in Sharm el-Sheikh is proving costly to Egypt’s regime. On Tuesday, Egyptian lawmaker Amr Darwish interrupted a news conference featuring Sanaa Seif, Abdel Fattah’s sister, with an outburst from the crowd. “You are here summoning foreign countries to pressure Egypt,” Darwish said in Arabic, berating Seif in front of dozens of international journalists. “You are here to call for a presidential pardon for a criminal inmate.”
Darwish was escorted out by blue-shirted U.N. security personnel. “His disruption may have been an attempt to defend the government’s jailing of Abdel Fattah,” wrote my colleagues Siobhán O’Grady and Sarah Kaplan. “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.”
“This kind of intimidation and harassment is the least we have to experience. The only reason we actually had the press conference at all is because it happened in the area under U.N. control,” Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told my colleagues. “A press conference for Sanaa Seif would have been unimaginable in Cairo or anywhere else had it not been for COP27 taking place in Egypt.”
That message was echoed by climate campaigners. “There is such an intrinsic connection between human rights and climate justice,” Jean Su, a board chair for Climate Action Network International, told The Post. “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.”
Allison McManus, research director at the Freedom Initiative, a human rights organization focused on the Middle East and North Africa, urged the Biden administration to hammer home the message about freeing Abdel Fattah and not otherwise enable the “greenwashing” of Egypt’s image at the climate summit.
“There is something truly perverse in Sissi’s assumption that the world would ignore Alaa’s plight because we were so impressed with Egypt’s ability to hold an international conference,” McManus said in an email statement. “As we are seeing, he grossly miscalculated: this COP will be remembered as Alaa’s COP.”