(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have arrested dozens of people for calling for protests and restricted the right to protest in the days leading up to the COP27 climate summit, threatening its success, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have added security measures in Sharm El-Sheikh, the resort town where the conference will be held, including mandating the installation of cameras in all taxis, allowing security agency surveillance of drivers and passengers. The authorities also imposed an unduly complicated process for registration for the so-called Green Zone outside the COP venue, which at previous summits was open to the wider public to engage on climate issues and allow interaction with summit participants.
“As participants are arriving for COP27, it is becoming clear that Egypt’s government has no intention of easing its abusive security measures and allowing for free speech and assembly,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities should not be extending its human rights crackdown into the summit space.”
On November 1, 2022, Egyptian media reported that since the beginning of October, Egyptian authorities had arrested dozens of people for calling for anti-government protests on November 11, during the conference. Some of those arrested reportedly face charges of “misusing social media” and “joining a terrorist group.” The number of those arrested is rising every day, local media reported.
On October 31, Egyptian authorities detained an Indian climate activist, Ajit Rajagopal, as he set off on an eight-day walk from Cairo to Sharm El-Sheikh to call attention to the climate crisis. The authorities released him the next day after international outcry.
According to local media, in recent days the authorities stepped up police checkpoints in downtown Cairo and around vital streets in the city, arbitrarily stopping people and forcing them to give up their phones for unconstitutional checks into their social media content. The authorities have repeatedly set up such checkpoints around major events in recent years, resulting in dozens of arbitrary arrests.
The authorities also announced substantial limitations on public protests and marches. On October 22, during a TV interview, South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda said that public protests around COP would be allowed only in the designated area set aside for protests, confirming what Egypt’s foreign minister announced in March. In the recorded video interview with the governor, the local Sada al-Balad channel broadcast footage of what appeared to be the protest area inside the Green Zone. “No one will be allowed except those registered,” the governor said.
Prior to the start of the conference, the COP27 website published guidelines on protests and demonstrations that require organizers to provide notification 36 hours in advance and disclose the purpose of the protest or demonstration, its date, the organizing entity, and a designated focal point with a copy of the conference badge. The protest or march can only take place between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the site’s operating hours. For marches anywhere else, in Sharm El-Sheikh, organizers must provide notification 48 hours in advance along with other details.
The authorities also announced sweeping surveillance plans. During the same TV interview, the governor said that the authorities are installing surveillance cameras in all 800 taxis in Sharm el Sheikh, claiming this measure was needed to “monitor the driver’s behavior” with tourists and visitors, and “not to surveil people.”
He said that by early November, 500 taxis would already be monitored by the cameras which keep audio-video recordings of what happens inside the taxi and are connected to a “security observatory” run by Egypt’s notorious Interior Ministry. He did not indicate how long these recordings could be kept and what laws regulate such massive surveillance, which would appear to violate the international human right to privacy.
On October 24, the Egyptian government released a smartphone application for COP27 attendees that requires users to provide personal information, including their passport numbers. Based on an initial analysis by two local rights groups, the application requires access to the phone’s camera, microphone, location, and Bluetooth connection. All information gathered by the application can be shared with third parties. The wide-ranging information raises further surveillance and privacy concerns.
The authorities have also announced plans that would in effect restrict access for the general public to climate discussions in Sharm El-Sheikh. On October 24, the Egyptian government announced an online registration process for the “Green Zone.” The registration process requires an applicant to provide personal information including passport numbers and cite an affiliation to a participating group, effectively closing it off from interested people who are not affiliated with media or any participating group.
Human Rights Watch and a dozen other organizations have warned that the years-long restrictions on assembly, association, and independent work by the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would effectively hinder meaningful participation by nongovernmental groups and journalists during COP, preventing a successful and ambitious outcome of the climate summit.
About 1,400 groups from various regions and public figures from 80 countries have signed a petition drafted by 12 Egyptian organizations to lift the restrictions.
On October 7, five United Nations special rapporteurs said in a statement that Egypt “must ensure the safety and full participation of all parts of civil society” at COP27 after “a wave of government restrictions on participation raised fears of reprisals against activists.”
International law guarantees everyone the right to free, active, and meaningful participation in public affairs at international, national, regional, and local levels. The right to participate is inseparably linked to other human rights such as the right to peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of expression.
“Arresting Egyptians merely for calling for protests a few days before COP is not just a violation to freedom of expression and assembly, but it is also a direct message to COP participants to stay in line,” Coogle said.