SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — With its turquoise waters and rich coral reefs, the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh is a scenic location for this year’s United Nations global climate change summit, known as the name of COP27.
But behind postcard-worthy appearances, it’s a tightly controlled fortress on the Red Sea. Climate activists say the restrictions will discourage protests that have been a way for the public to raise their voices at previous summits.
Many working in tourism have been sent home; those who stayed need special security cards. Holidaymakers were turned away at security checkpoints surrounding the town. Hotel rates have increased tenfold, which has cost a lot. Local workers are not allowed to speak freely with visitors.
In a country where demonstrations are virtually banned, the government has set up a specific venue for climate protests – except no one knows exactly where it is. Notifications are required 36 hours in advance.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. In past statements, officials pledged to allow protests and activist participation.
As COP27 approaches, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has touted its efforts to make Sharm el-Sheikh a more environmentally friendly city, with new solar panels and electric vehicles.
‘From the start, there was a big question mark over choosing Egypt as a host country,’ says Egyptian activist, who has been detained for more than two years without trial during government crackdown against dissent. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing he could be arrested again. “They know Sharm’s choice means there would be no protests.”
The scene is likely to be a stark contrast to last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, where some 100,000 people marched through the streets in a rally and protesters frequently massed in public squares, parks and bridges.
On Friday, a group of activists took part in a small protest calling for climate action on the African continent at a roundabout outside the conference venue in Sharm el-Sheikh. A line of police stood nearby.
A group of experts appointed by the UN expressed concern that the environment in Egypt will not be conducive to full and open participation.
Since 2013, el-Sisi, a US ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has overseen a massive crackdown, jailing thousands of Islamists, but also secular activists involved in the 2011 popular uprising. Many more fled the country. A prominent rights activist, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, intensified his hunger strike this week, also refusing water.
Outside the Sinai Peninsula, where Sharm el-Sheikh is located, rights groups say more than 100 people were arrested over the past two weeks in Cairo and other cities as security forces have stepped up their presence in major squares after rumors of protests planned for November 11. COP27 begins on Sunday and is expected to last until November 18.
The government has repeatedly said its security measures are vital to maintaining stability in a nation of more than 104 million people after a decade of turmoil that began with the Arab Spring and was followed by years of deadly attacks by Islamist militants.
For decades, Sharm el-Sheikh has been the government’s favorite venue for high-level conferences and summits precisely because it is so easy to control. The 1996 Middle East Peace Summit attended by then-President Bill Clinton was held there.
Isolated in the desert near the southern tip of Sinai, Sharm, as it is often called, is a six-hour drive from the capital, Cairo. Vehicles must pass through a tightly guarded tunnel under the Suez Canal and then numerous checkpoints along the highway, allowing authorities to turn back those deemed undesirable.
A concrete and barbed wire barrier surrounds parts of Sharm. An entrance is set in a multi-storey concrete wall painted with a gigantic peace sign – a reference to the “City of Peace”, a nickname authorities have tried to stick with Sharm. Large desert boulevards connect fortified stations, with few public spaces to congregate.
Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Egypt and Libya researcher, called it a “dystopian city”.
“There’s so much surveillance, so much control over who comes in and goes out of town, which again is an attempt to control who can talk to the international community,” he said.
Hotel workers say security is particularly tight for COP27 – all must obtain security clearances and since Tuesday they have been banned from leaving their workplaces or accommodations. Some decided to return to their hometowns until the end of the conference.
“We are used to restrictions, but this time it is very tough and there were no exceptions,” said a waiter at a four-star hotel.
Security has always been high in Sharm because to the north, running the length of the peninsula, the Egyptian army is battling a decade-old insurgency led by a local branch of the Islamic State group. In 2015, a Russian MetroJet plane crashed shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board, an attack claimed by IS.
Sinai has been occupied twice by neighboring Israel: first during the Suez Crisis in 1956, which also involved France and Britain, and later during the Middle East War in 1967 It was returned to Egypt in 1982 as part of the US-brokered peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Since then, government-sanctioned development has helped resorts along the southern Sinai coast become prime beach and scuba diving destinations.
The COP27 conference takes place in the large convention center in Sharm. As at previous COPs, only official UN-accredited delegates can enter the venue, known as the Blue Zone, which during the gathering is considered UN territory and subject to international law.
Another location, the Green Zone, allows companies, young people and civil society to organize events on the sidelines of the summit. It is still unclear where the protests are supposed to take place. A government COP27 website says that in addition to 36 hours notice for protests inside the venue, 48 hours notice by email is required for protests outside.
From the few photos of the Green Zone in the pro-government press, it appears to be on a stretch of highway or parking lot with cafeterias set up. Major-General Khaled Fouda, the province’s governor, called the site “very classy and clean” in comments on local television last month.
“Protests are allowed, but shouting and insults are not allowed,” he said.
The government sent 500 taxis to transport COP27 attendees, Fouda said – all equipped with cameras connected to a “security observatory” meant to monitor driver behavior.
None of this bodes well for activism, say climate protest leaders.
Greta Thunberg, a young protest leader, said she would not participate. “The space for civil society this year is extremely limited,” she said at a recent event in London. “It will be very difficult for activists to make their voices heard.
Cost is another factor. The recently freed Egyptian activist said many could not afford to travel, with the cost of a plane ticket from Cairo out of reach for many amid double-digit domestic inflation.
Cristine Majeni, a young environment volunteer from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, has raised the thousands of dollars needed for her 10-day trip, after struggling through the accreditation process.
“It’s crucial for us to have the opportunity to participate,” she said.
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