Will Sisi's bet on COP27 nomination prove to be an own-goal?
In mid-November, thunderstorms brought thousands of fat-tailed scorpions out of their dens and washed them onto the streets of Aswan, Egypt, injuring over 500 people and killing three. While heavy rains are not unusual in Upper Egypt, the strength and frequency of weather events have been on the rise in the area, reflecting worldwide patterns.
The scorpion ‘invasion’, conjuring up images of biblical plagues, serves as a reminder that climate change hits in the subtlest and least predictable ways. And as a powerful, and somewhat eerie involuntary advert for COP27, the UN climate conference is scheduled to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022.
"Egyptian authorities may choose to ignore protestors (just as negotiators ignored public demands for phasing-out fossil fuels in Glasgow) or prosecute them at a later stage, but they will have a hard time silencing them, be they nationals of foreigners"
The nomination came as no surprise to the officials representing Egypt at COP26 in Glasgow. Equipped with its own pavilion in the blue zone and bolstered by high-profile speakers, including the Ministry of Environment Yasmin Fouad, the Egyptian delegation started laying the groundwork for COP27. This took place through a number of events such as the launch of the new Egyptian environmental strategy, where the PDF presentation was then distributed to all attendees on a freebie USB stick.
A thoroughly-structured blueprint, the strategy outlines five overarching goals – sustainable growth, adaptation and resilience, climate action governance, climate finance, and scientific research – as well as a number of operational objectives to be pursued and monitored by climate change units established across several ministries.
While more down-to-earth, and therefore implementable, than other regional actors’ ecotopias, it clashes with some of the main development avenues charted out by Sisi’s government, including the increasing urbanisation of the Egyptian desert with the resulting strain of water resources and the fossil fuel extraction frenzy triggered by the exploitation of the Zohr offshore gas field.
Fossil fuel phase-out was among the buzzwords in Glasgow, so much that its watering-down in the final declaration brought COP President Alok Sharma to tears and it can be expected to be at the top of the agenda next year.
While ‘intermediate’ COPs tend to hold less significance than major stock-taking COPs (typically held every five years), in light of the soaring popular, political, and media interest for climate issues, next year’s conference is likely to draw as much attention as COP26, which made worldwide headlines for over two weeks last month.
Many of the issues left outstanding in Scotland cannot wait four more years, and Egypt – as a host – will have the opportunity to influence the agenda.
To avoid being put on the spot on fossil fuels, Egyptian negotiators will have to come up with a solid ‘diversion’ strategy – which is where climate geopolitics might come in handy: as a climate-vulnerable African country, Egypt will be in the position to hold the global North accountable and voice the claims of the global South (chiefly loss and damage reparations) as the clock of global warming keeps ticking.
"Even beyond the UN zone, the world will be watching, and crackdowns on demonstrations are unlikely to be tolerated"
Taking into account Egypt’s poor record on fundamental freedoms, human rights activists have expressed scepticism about the ability of civil society groups to make their voice heard in Sharm el-Sheikh.
In fact, given the UN’s legal and organisational requirements, the event might represent a Trojan horse for freedom of speech in Egypt, as it will open up an international space of debate in a country in which, for the sake of avoiding mass gatherings, even public viewings of Mo Salah’s games are banned in certain areas.
The Egyptian regime, of course, will be able to exert some degree of control by granting or denying visas and physically restricting access to Sharm el-Sheikh, whose remote location and comparatively small size make it more easily patrollable than Cairo.
According to UN law, however, the whole COP district (which can extend far beyond the actual venue building) is considered to be UN territory for the whole duration of the event – typically two weeks – and local law enforcement has little to no jurisdiction within it. Even beyond the UN zone, the world will be watching, and crackdowns on demonstrations are unlikely to be tolerated.
In other words, Egyptian authorities may choose to ignore protesters – just as negotiators ignored public demands for phasing-out fossil fuels in Glasgow – or prosecute them at a later stage, but they will have a hard time silencing them, be they nationals or foreigners.
Crucially, silencing protesters might not even be in the regime’s best interest: although Sisi has been among the most paranoid of political leaders worldwide since he took office and over the last few months he has stepped up efforts to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the West.
Under pressure from international donors, the Egyptian government has ended a four-year state of emergency – but not the emergency law – released a number of political prisoners, and published a new national strategy for human rights.
"While it is perhaps too early to tell whether recent developments are a harbinger to substantial change or just window dressing and the challenges ahead are far from trivial, Egypt’s social and political situation is more dynamic than its monolithic totalitarian image might suggest"
Although the above measures should not be taken at face value, they point to the fact that, at least in terms of PR, the Egyptian government is already working to show it has been doing its homework. And while most of this might be purely cosmetic, in some areas actual progress seems to be slowly occurring.
One such area is gender discrimination: recent milestones include the first-ever appointment of women judges and prosecutors to the State Council and the Public Prosecution Authority, new bills on marriage law, and the introduction of harsher penalties for female genital mutilation.
While lawmakers have repeatedly failed to implement effective policies to uproot this heinous tradition (especially in rural areas), concrete measures to this end seem to be building up a decisive momentum.
All this, however, is dwarfed by the burgeoning fight against gender violence: perpetrators are being relentlessly prosecuted and publicly shamed which, in a country like Egypt, can be worse than a court order. Women are feeling empowered to speak up as never before, and the issue has taken centre stage in the public debate. The wave of public awareness is so strong that even the highest religious authority in the country, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, has felt the need to publicly condemn harassment and release fairly progressive (for a conservative religious entity) statements about women’s freedoms.
This, of course, does not imply that the current male-dominated elite has a particular sensitivity toward gender equality. Even the most robust of autocracies cannot do without consensus, and the Egyptian government is no exception. Sisi has positioned himself as a secular leader at home and abroad, and supporting women rights is a way to please his foreign ‘constituency’ as well as to broaden his support base among an increasingly non-religious population. It is this type of ‘curry-favouring politics’ that keeps him in power and landed him the honour of hosting the UN climate conference.
In addition to being a sign of international recognition, however, COP27 will present opportunities that go beyond climate policies: if the Egyptian government is able to prove a credible interlocutor to its global partners, it may be able to rally support over the GERD crisis.
As Ethiopia is mired in a vicious civil war and Sudan is grappling with a bumpy democratic transition, Egypt is taking advantage of its relative stability to engage in diplomatic, psychological, and digital strategies to counteract the filling of the giant dam reservoir on the Blue Nile, which threatens Egypt’s main source of freshwater – over 70 percent of the Nile’s water flow originates in Ethiopia through seasonal rains.
The ‘double pincer’ of dam-induced incoming flow reduction and Delta salinisation due to rising sea levels is bound to affect Egypt’s water security and diminish its agricultural output – which, combined with demographic pressure (the Egyptian population is estimated to hit 150 million by 2050), might jeopardise the very habitability of the country.
What better forum than the UN climate conference, then, to make one’s case in a controversy that lies at the intersection of environmental justice, sustainability, and energy policies?
In sum, while it is perhaps too early to tell whether recent developments are a harbinger to substantial change or just window dressing and the challenges ahead are far from trivial, Egypt’s social and political situation is more dynamic than its monolithic totalitarian image might suggest. Its evolution can help us gauge our expectations in view of COP27.
Andrea Rizzi is a freelance journalist and a researcher with a focus on development policies and political ecology. He lived in different countries across the Middle East and is currently based in London