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7 November 2022updated 09 Nov 2022 10:01am

Surveillance, greenwashing and a hunger strike: welcome to Egypt’s Cop27

Can the authoritarian state, currently building a water-consuming desert capital, host a summit that achieves real change?

By Ruth Michaelson

In mid September Karim Safwat joined his older brother to work in Egypt’s new capital city, currently under construction an hour east of Cairo. In the harsh desert heat the two young men tended the garden of a new presidential palace and its neighbouring banqueting hall. The palace had been built with an arch at its centre, sculpted to resemble the iris of a watchful eye; on either side a façade of sandy-coloured stone wings echoed those of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis.

After three days of work Safwat pulled out his phone to take a few photographs and was immediately seized by security forces. He was detained inside the palace; his brother was told that he would be released only after a scheduled visit from Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president, that month.

When complete, Egypt’s New Administrative Capital will be the size of Singapore. For now it is a vast construction zone overseen by a company whose main stakeholder is the country’s military. On television and social media, the government has distributed a constant stream of computer-generated publicity for the new metropolis, promising a monumental glass obelisk, gleaming skyscrapers and Africa’s tallest tower; citizens have been encouraged to buy villas on an artificial river bordered by urban parks. The new capital may currently resemble a moon colony, but it is already one with a palace, numerous government offices and streets of luxury homes. Despite officials’ promises of social housing for those who support the city’s infrastructure, there were no signs of it when I visited three years ago – and few indications any has been built since.

Construction work ongoing at the “business and finance district” of Egypt’s “New Administrative Capital” megaproject, some 45 kilometres east of Cairo. Photo by Khaled Desouki

The case for a shiny new capital remains debatable. In theory the £54 billion spent on the project will buy Egypt’s elites a cleaner environment, a fortified bubble of wealth and prosperity where they can escape Cairo’s crowds and pollution. The military has promised to install rooftop solar panels across the development. “We are trying to solve all the problems we had in the past,” the spokesman for the project, Khaled el-Husseiny, told journalists last year.

Meanwhile, the state will be able to watch over its residents using new surveillance technologies: an estimated 6,000 wireless security cameras will feed into a control centre where – according to Honeywell, the American conglomerate that manufactures the cameras – the authorities can “monitor crowds and traffic congestion, detect incidents of theft, observe suspicious people or objects, and trigger automated alarms in emergency situations”. Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that such technology becomes “Orwellian” when deployed by the Egyptian authorities. “It will be misused – it’s not about security, it’s about using them to crack down on basic rights,” he told me. Inhabitants of Egypt’s new “smart city” will be rewarded in kind, with wireless payments and free Wifi broadcast from lampposts. The information harvested is likely to be housed in Africa’s new and largest data centre, recently built in the new capital by the Orange Group for just over £120 million.

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Karim Safwat was held for two weeks before being sentenced to fifteen days in prison for “membership of a terrorist group and spreading false news”. His imprisonment, like those of thousands of others within the country’s labyrinthine detention system, can be renewed indefinitely and is likely to last much longer than the initial sentence.

[See also: Could the rich stop climate change?]

This Sunday (6 November) diplomats, global leaders and climate activists arrived in the coastal Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for the 27th United Nations Conference of the Parties, or Cop27, tasked with negotiating vital solutions to the climate crisis. Global South nations, and in particular members of the African Union, are relying on Egypt to marshal essential climate financing to aid their move away from fossil fuels.

Yet Egypt is a deeply compromised host. It views the conference as an opportunity to greenwash its human rights record, promote tourism and present itself as an investment opportunity. The American PR firm Hill+Knowlton, known for its work with Big Tobacco and major oil companies including Shell, ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, has been hired to oversee Cop27 communications. Critics such as Greenpeace have also said that Egypt’s decision to allow Coca-Cola, the world’s largest plastic polluter, to sponsor the event is a sign that negotiators are more focused on Egypt’s image than climate solutions. Meanwhile Egypt’s ability to silence critical voices, and its ambivalence around the need to divest from fossil fuels, is likely to be closely watched by the United Arab Emirates, studying the limits of international tolerance before it hosts Cop28 in Dubai next year.

Domestic civil society groups critical of the government have been prevented from registering for the conference, while any permitted demonstrations will be confined to a fenced-off area away from the main gathering. The activist Sanaa Seif, sister of the jailed British-Egyptian pro-democracy campaigner Alaa Abd el-Fattah, has criticised groups, including Greenpeace, for failing to make enough of the fact that Cop27 will be hosted by a dictatorship. “What will be the plan when dealing with corrupt regimes who are very likely to misuse those funds?” she tweeted, referring to the climate finance deals likely to be signed at the summit. “Does your lovely green vision embrace the complexity of our region?” Abd El-Fattah, a figurehead of the 2011 Arab Spring who has spent most of the past decade in prison, was given an additional sentence last year for a social media post about torture. On 1 November he announced that he would escalate his hunger strike, stopping his intake of 100 calories a day, and ceasing water the day Cop27 begins, increasing the possibility that he will die during the conference.

Sanaa Seif, sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, climate activists Greta Thunberg, Andreas Magnusson, and Mona Seif, sister of Abd El-Fattah, pose for a photograph during at sit-in for jailed British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah on October 30, 2022 in London. Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images

That a young man taking photographs of a construction site should be treated as a national security threat speaks to a key fear of the Egyptian authorities: that the public will see how they have profited even as the economy has crashed. At least a third of Egyptians now live below the poverty line, and the state’s public debt reached $157.8 billion earlier this year. Sisi is pressing for unconditional support from the International Monetary Fund, arguing that economic collapse in Egypt “will have serious repercussions on stability”. Meanwhile the increasing gulf between the wealthy and working class, fuelled by government-led austerity, has become a security issue for the president and his paranoid backers. In 2019 thousands were arrested following rare protests against state corruption. Since then, a casual comment on Facebook has been enough to put people in prison, often on charges of “spreading false news”.

[See also: Climate finance: Who pays to close the inequality gap?]

Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013 and quickly acquired almost unlimited powers to crack down on dissent. Such measures have not disguised the fact that the prosperity he promised has not materialised, however, and Sisi has instead become adept at seeking funds from international donors while enacting austerity measures at home. Should Egyptian diplomats choose to deploy these negotiating skills at Cop27, some argue, they could actually help other Global South countries. “What separates Egypt from its peers is that it is better at juggling rival partners to extract the maximum concessions,” Timothy E Kaldas, an economic analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told me. “In a sense, that makes it a great candidate for trying to push for progress on this issue [the climate crisis]. Egypt takes these negotiations seriously, even if it is largely out of its own national interests.”

People celebrate at Tahrir Square with a portrait of Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after a broadcast confirming that the army will temporarily be taking over from the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013 in Cairo. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

The country has a long history of foreign funding for projects labelled environmentally friendly. Backers have included institutions such as British International Investment (BII), the development arm of the Foreign Office, which has financed almost £675 million in Egypt, which recently pledged to build a green hydrogen plant in a trade area around the Suez canal controlled by the military.

The wider population of 100 million Egyptians are unlikely to see the benefits, however, Kaldas said. “Egypt is looking for any mechanism to move hard currency into its economy. If you want to call it green, call it green. The priority is to bring in more financing rather than climate concerns. The New Administrative Capital has a gigantic park in the middle that it doesn’t need, and will use water resources that Egypt simply doesn’t have.”

[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27 in Egypt?]

In the desert north of Aswan, on the Nile in southern Egypt, sprawls a sparkling navy expanse of solar panels, the Benban solar park. It is the fourth largest in the world, and perhaps the lone example of an Egyptian megaproject that can claim to be truly green. The project, funded to the tune of at least $2.2bn by a consortium that includes the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the UN Green Climate Fund and BII, aims to generate more than a third of Egypt’s energy by 2035.

Benban is run by the state’s renewable energy body, which lists three ranked members of the Egyptian military on its board. This includes a major general from the National Centre for Planning State Land Uses, another institution in which the military plays a prominent role, allocating land outside urban areas for construction. “The army is present in most megaprojects, if not controlling them entirely,” a human rights activist based in Aswan told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We all know that no project the size of Benban can exist without their involvement. There is no transparency, so how much money it makes or where the energy goes is unknown.” Egypt’s military is not required to open its books, even when its many lucrative contracts involve state funds. Sisi cited perhaps the most extreme example of this earlier this year: the military intends to rent the governmental district in the new capital back to the state at an annual cost of roughly £150m.

Those who live near Benban have welcomed the solar park and the jobs it has brought. It has kept electricity flowing into the grid, preventing what were once frequent and highly politicised power cuts. But citizens can only guess how much of the electricity powering their homes comes from the solar plant, rather than nearby power stations. When we spoke last month, the activist in Aswan had just paid his electricity bill for September, and was shocked to find that it had reached the equivalent of almost £45, an unaffordable sum for many Egyptians. The solar park had done little to reduce bills, he said, because the government repeatedly rolled back energy subsidies as part of its IMF-led austerity measures.

The Benban plant of photovoltaic solar panels in Aswan, Egypt. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

This lack of transparency around the military’s spending and income, particularly on megaprojects such as the new capital, has grown in parallel with a crackdown on civil rights, including on environmentalists. A recent report by Human Rights Watch detailed how the Egyptian state has prevented activists or researchers from examining the impact of government projects, among them quarries, water bottling plants and a growing number of cement factories. The report found that “the most sensitive environmental issues are those that point out the government’s failure to protect people’s rights against damage caused by corporate interests, including issues relating to water security, industrial pollution and environmental harm from real estate, tourism development and agribusiness”.

[See also: What would make Cop27 a success?]

Any investigation of these projects is undertaken at considerable personal risk. Researchers must obtain government permission before publishing anything critical of the state’s financial interests. Chief among the no-go subjects is the new capital, which one activist who spoke to Human Rights Watch described as “a red line” for the authorities.

According to Ahmed Abdallah of the Cairo-based rights group the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), the donations that flow into Egypt for environmental projects effectively fall into a black hole. “There needs to be strong public finance and management structures which control how money is spent, alongside access for civil society,” he explained. “Yet Egypt silences freedom of expression and transparency. Without these structures in place, you can’t guarantee that any of this money will be used efficiently to combat climate change.”

When delegates gather in Sharm el-Sheikh this weekend Karim Safwat will almost certainly still be in prison, while Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s supporters hope he will still be alive. Egyptian officials will be focused on their role as hosts, and on discussions of climate finance rather than climate justice. The company behind Benban with links to the military will unveil a solar park next to the conference centre; the taxis used to ferry attendees will be fitted with cameras linked to a local data centre operated by the interior ministry, according to the governor of South Sinai. In short, the Egyptian surveillance state and military greenwashing efforts will be in full effect at Cop27.

Almost a decade after the authorities instituted laws that all but prohibit demonstrations, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister and Cop president, has promised that activists will be able to exercise their rights in “a facility adjacent to the conference centre”. For many observers, however, particularly those Egyptians old enough to remember what mass street demonstrations look like, the idea that the security forces will permit protest – whether in support of Abd el-Fattah, the thousands of others currently detained in Egypt’s prisons, or against the government’s environmental record – is a fantasy. Days before the conference began, the Egyptian authorities told anyone looking to protest that they must apply for permission 36 hours in advance. Many Egyptian activists have said they will stay away, fearing government reprisals either during or after the conference.

“The risks are clear for any Egyptian who wants to protest, including at Sharm el-Sheikh,” Mohamed Lotfy of ECRF told me. He intends to send lawyers to support any demonstrators arrested by the security forces. “Of course the government will be very keen to show a nicer face. But how much tolerance for dissent there will be – that is the big question.”

Ruth Michaelson formerly reported from Egypt for the Guardian. She is currently based in Istanbul.

[See also: Why Cop27 has a confidence problem]

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