PHOTO: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images
Egyptian climate activists have told VICE World News that the work they're doing to protect the environment is being sidelined by the Egyptian government, despite the country hosting COP27, the world's largest climate conference.In video interviews, three people working to protect the environment in Egypt said the real hard work should start once the thousands of foreign visitors leave at the end of COP.
The huge expense of accessing the conference has meant that many local organisations haven’t been able to attend, meaning they can’t showcase their work or lobby for funding, which in turn makes it harder for them to gain international recognition. “I don't think anything will happen after COP,” Ahmed, who runs an initiative that aims to reduce plastic pollution in the country and whose name has been changed for security reasons, told VICE World News on a video call. “I think they [the government] will use these two weeks as propaganda and when COP ends, all the announcements, all the small efforts or initiatives, will end.”He said despite “small initiatives” being introduced, such as banning single-use plastic in some areas of the country, there’s been no real impact as these rules aren’t being implemented.
He also said there’s so many “positive things happening in Egypt”, ranging from companies working in sustainable fashion, to renewable energy initiatives. These organisations hoped the Egyptian government would include them in the preparations for COP and jump at the chance to showcase their work but this hasn’t happened.“We feel very sad that we are not involved in anything. We feel completely rejected,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed believes those in power are “indirectly” blocking the voices of climate activists and those working in the environmental industry by limiting their access to attend the conference. For example, the process to get accredited to attend was lengthy, complicated, and uncertain for many local activists. On top of that, organisations have to foot the large bill in order to have a booth to showcase their work, which he says costs around $20,000 (£17,484/€20,034) on average. “This amount is not affordable to 99 percent of local NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs) here in Egypt. Nothing has been organised through any ministry to be able to invite CSOs to give them free space to exhibit, to give them some presence, some access. We are really on our own.” He said that without being able to showcase the work being done, organisations can’t discuss the challenges they face. Money has also been an issue for other organisations looking to attend COP. Mohammed, who works for an environmental NGO in Egypt, has found the costs of travel and accommodation “challenging”. We have withheld his last name for security reasons. “I don't think it's been easy, especially for local organisations across rural Egypt, away from the hubs of Cairo and Alexandria,” he told VICE World News. “There have been attempts to be more inclusive, but this doesn’t include provision of accommodation and transportation. This is the excluding part of all this; the majority of these organisations cannot afford to go to COP this year with the current costs.”
As for climate activists being able to raise their voices, Mohammed says even using the word “activist” is problematic under Egypt’s authoritarian regime.“We don't use the term ‘activist’ because the situation in Egypt is complicated. You have to navigate what you say very well.”People speaking out against the Egyptian government fear jail, as political activists are routinely given prison sentences for even minor criticisms. During COP, Egypt will be scrutinised for other issues from politics to human rights abuses. The family of imprisoned pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah have used the event to highlight the urgent need for his release.
Mohammed believes environmental activism in Egypt has to be non-confrontational to work. For example, he thinks the government could do better in managing the country’s resources like food and water but as part of his work he has to be very careful about the way he puts this criticism.“I want to not be viewed as it's me against them [the government]. That has not worked in Egypt. I want to be viewed that together, we want to solve this specific problem.” He’s aware people from outside of the country may want to speak up about political, economical, or social issues. But he warns against Egyptians doing it themselves.
“The foreigners who will come to Egypt, they will say a lot of bad things about Egypt, a lot of good things about Egypt, doesn't matter. They're going to come and go. “For Egyptians, the key thing to remember is you're here to stay, the statements you will say will remain.”Mohammed also feels there’s no “sense of urgency” yet in Egypt to deal with the climate crisis, despite the fact that it’s vulnerable to extreme heat waves and dust storms. He fears it “will be a bubble that will pop” once the conference is over.“Even though we've started to experience climate change impacts, what’s being translated into action on the ground is not tangible,” he said. “We're not feeling it. Much more action is needed. And the problem is only getting worse.”But some in the industry, like Nadia, who works in sustainable travel and whose name has also been changed for security reasons, believes the responsibility for solutions to the crisis should not be put on developing countries like Egypt.“I find it a little irritating that activists from across the globe who are from countries that caused this problem and cannot bring their policies in line to decrease emissions, will come and talk to us about how we're trying to achieve ours.”
Rather than criticising Egypt, she wants to see economically advanced and more industrialised countries in North America and Europe doing more. She believes they should be repaying and financially supporting developing countries for “the crisis they’ve created”. “The climate crisis is not the doing of the Egyptian government or developing countries, it's the doing of the global north. “I can look at Egypt and say there are multiple [climate] issues it needs to address. But China and the US are the largest polluters and they are not meeting their goals. They're having conversations internally in the US about whether there even is a climate crisis.”She understands with the world looking at Egypt other issues away from the climate crisis, like politics and human rights, could be brought up and this is something she wants to avoid.“No matter what the political climate is, the environment isn't going to wait for that. Political rights like expression, association and assembly are key. But this isn't the space to have that conversation. Right now, we need to move on the climate.”