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Hosting climate summit El Sisi seeks diplomatic spotlight and financing boost

Despite widespread critiques of its repression of opponents and the slow pace of economic reform, the government hopes for a filip from the UN summit

The arrival of thousands of political leaders, diplomats, journalists and a few, carefully screened, activists, in Sharm el Sheikh for the UN COP27 Climate Summit on 6-18 November could boost Egypt's international standing but will shine a spotlight on the country's deep inequalities and repression under President Abdel Fattah el Sisi's government (AC Vol 63 No 1, Sisi seeks security).

The summit opens as Egypt struggles with another foreign exchange crisis, having devalued the pound again and agreed a US$3 billion loan package with the IMF last month. Egypt is the second biggest borrower from the IMF after Argentina and several of its leading business people fear it risks following that country's path in debt restructurings and bankruptcy without radical economic reforms (AC Vol 63 No 7, Back to the IMF…again).

It has borrowed another $5bn from other multilateral lenders and some of the Gulf States which are seen as having an interest in bolstering Egypt's security state. In April, El Sisi announced the government would raise some $40bn by selling state assets but those plans will be resisted by vested interests in the military whose economic operations have thrived under this government.

For many, a symbol of that repression has become the detention of Egyptian-British blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah in solitary confinement at the Tora maximum security prison since September 2019, whose health has deteriorated sharply after he went on hunger strike in April. Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who arrived in Sharm el Sheikh on 7 November, has been lobbied by Fattah's supporters and promises to raise the issue when he meets El Sisi.

There are no verifiable official statistics on the number of political prisoners in Egypt. Following a report in the New York Times that the security forces had detained 60,000 activists since El Sisi seized power in 2013, the government has announced a spate of releases (Dispatches 21/9/22, Washington makes symbolic cuts to Cairo's military aid). And alongside the economic reforms El Sisi announced in April, he also promised to launch a political dialogue with selected oppositionists after the Climate Summit.

But activists doubt the seriousness of any pronouncements on liberalisation, arguing the government fears that the parlous economy, spiralling prices for food and fuel, could spark mass protests of the level that unseated President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The El Sisi regime remains one of the most repressive in the region; it is 168 out of the 180 countries surveyed for the World Press Freedom Index.

There is a sharp disconnect with the showcase of the climate summit and the reality for civil society groups in Egypt when the spotlight is off. A special representative for Egypt's COP27 organisation, Wael Aboulmagd, had promised free access for activists to the summit sessions apart from the country-to-country negotiating groups.

Yet activists have complained that their applications submitted months back have been delayed by the government's accreditation teams and some allege officials have increased hotel prices to deter civic society groups from attending.  Activist groups say accommodation and living expenses for the duration of the summit work out at $7,000 per person and have been scrambling to raise funds.

Local civic groups, making their way to the Sharm el Sheikh coastal resort by road, say security officers have questioned and turned back many would-be activist attendees. Last year, the El Sisi government passed tough new restrictions on non-governmental organisations, compelling them to register with the state or face prosecution.

About 25 small and state-approved local groups have been accredited to attend the climate summit. Dual national activists living in Europe or North America have been warned against returning to Egypt to protest during the summit.

Egypt campaigned long and hard to win the hosting rights for the second UN climate summit in Africa (the first was in Morocco in 2016). Cairo's closest rival in the early stages was Ethiopia. The two countries are locked in dispute over the rights of Addis Ababa to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, downstream from Egypt.

The hosting rights for COP27 could have been an awkward rivalry for the African Union, which is headquartered in Ethiopia.

But the chances for Addis Ababa were taken off the table when war broke out between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front two years ago.

Now the main regional challenge for Egypt is to ensure that this summit can deliver some policy wins and, most importantly, funding for adaptation projects as well as the many green energy plans currently on the drawing board.

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