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COP 27: These Checks Look Very Blank to Me 

With the shameful history of human rights in Egypt, it is disappointing to watch the US government play along with the Egyptian state’s pretense to care about climate change, actively taking part in the greenwashing of human rights abuse in a country where the only thing recycled is political prisoners into new cases. A disappointment that multiplies when we know that the potential effectiveness of US action is very real.

“No more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.” 

The words rang in my skull as I read the announcement: President Biden might attend this year’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP 27, hosted by Egypt in Sharm El-Sheikh. 

My blood boiled as I recalled November 2020. Communications seldom reach prisoners, but words have a way of slithering below the fences and through the bars, and with the inauguration of President Biden two years ago, hope made its way into the bleak cells and dinky corners of prison. The news about blank checks and policy shifts filled visitation halls: the Biden administration will not stand by and allow the human rights violations to continue—we will go home soon. 

The smuggled letters from my incarcerated friends shook me. I, of course, have heard such rumors before. For over six years, I moved between seven prisons and detention facilities as a political prisoner myself, and between 2013 and 2020, false hopes pummeled me until I could hope no more.

My skepticism proved accurate faster than I could imagine as the series of disappointments accumulated until the final blow this week. President Biden decided to boost the Egyptian regime’s international credibility by attending an event designed to mask its horrendous crimes. Since the announcement of COP 27 and until the upcoming November 6, when the summit begins, the Egyptian state has been, and will be, doing everything in its power to pump state propaganda through all channels and attain the global legitimacy it constantly seeks. An expert on Newspeak, Egypt has also launched an official website for the summit to showcase the “sustainability” of Sharm El-Sheikh and pledge its commitment to climate issues.

In an Orwellian twist, not wholly unexpected, Egypt also contracted Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a PR firm with an outstanding record of greenwashing major oil companies, to manage its communications for COP 27. The firm’s star roster of environment polluters includes Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron; as reported by Open Democracy.

It does not end at state propaganda and greenwashing though. Another objective the Egyptian regime will adamantly pursue is playing the climate-change-support card to secure the maximum amount of much-needed funds. Rania Al Mashat, Egypt’s minister for international cooperation, stated last May in a conversation with The Guardian that the mobilization of the private sector marked an essential success of COP 26, to the point that “ instead of just billions, the word trillions started coming up.” She highlighted the fact that these trillions must be channeled to the countries that need them most, and it is easy to guess which country she was hinting at. The Egyptian finance minister, Mohamed Maait, reiterated the same notion by stressing how tackling the mounting debt issues and securing investments would be a key priority for Egypt in COP 27.

With the shameful history of human rights in Egypt, it is disappointing to watch the US government play along with the Egyptian state’s pretense to care about climate change, actively taking part in the greenwashing of human rights abuse in a country where the only thing recycled is political prisoners into new cases. A disappointment that multiplies when we know that the potential effectiveness of US action is very real.

As we have witnessed in the past months, US and international pressure could lead to a considerable breach in the prison walls that could impact the disastrous conditions political prisoners in Egypt experience every day, even set several wrongfully detained humans free. As a noted beneficiary of US military aid, and needing a favorable stance from the US regarding the International Monetary Fund’s decision to approve the loan requested by Egypt in March 2022; Egypt has only shown any hints of flexibility on the human rights front when pressured by the United States and other allies. 

We observed these dynamics last fall when, due to the aggravated human rights conditions in Egypt, the State Department withheld $130 million in annual security assistance, specifying political detainees as a primary motive for the decision. In January 2022, the Biden administration announced that it would redirect these $130 million to other programs. 

Soon after, the Egyptian regime has taken surprising measures in response to the developments by declaring the reactivation of the presidential pardon committee for political prisoners, and the call for a “comprehensive political dialogue” with civil society organizations and opposition. 

Several lists of activists were released from pre-trial detention, with promises of more to come. Yet, the numbers remain a minor fraction—tens of prisoners—of the total number of political prisoners, estimated to be tens of thousands at the least. We have realized this time is no different: political prisoners merely represent a bargaining chip played to appease international opinion, then shelved once the job is done. 

Since the Egyptian state announced these steps, in place of every prisoner released, tens have taken their place; a portion of the ones with release orders were reprocessed into fresh cases just like before; released prisoners—like the recently pardoned Sherif El-Rouby—get rearrested if they speak about their detainment conditions; forced disappearances have not ceased, but surged; and three months ago, the state blocked Al-Manassa—one of the prominent independent journalism platforms in Egypt—in the latest attempt to censor its writers and content, adding it to a plethora of similar platforms such as Mada Masr and over 500 local and international websites of organizations and news outlets. 

Egyptian political prisoners continue to languish behind bars, and as COP 27 approaches, the message is renewed: the world has abandoned them. Thousands close on their ninth year incarcerated for deeds as simple as taking part in a protest. They saw their loved ones pass away with no chance to kiss their foreheads goodbye; their children grow up, graduate, get married, and have children of their own; their bodies shrivel and their hair crack white—yet the nightmare goes on with no end in sight. 

Egyptian-British citizen Alaa Abdel Fattah broke the 200 days mark on his hunger strike. One of the highest-profile political prisoners in the Arab world, Alaa has been starving himself, after exhausting all other options of demanding and appealing for consular visits and basic human rights; the Egyptian state continues to look the other way.

The chief investigation officer of Tora prison brutally beat and abused Ahmed Douma two months ago; towering over his frail, bound body and screaming as he kicked him: “you’re beneath my shoe!” 

The violations pour, but the infinitesimal opening that allowed tens of prisoners to wriggle out to the world beyond the wall can surely be widened enough to push hundreds, and maybe thousands, to see the light of day once more if the intention is present.

Climate justice is of paramount importance to all, including those souls for whom tomorrow have become an unattainable mirage. We hope vile human rights violations will not be met by a blind eye; that the weeks leading up to COP 27 will epitomize the intersectionality of climate justice and human rights with strong stances against the façade aiming to cloak the gruesome abuses, that the transgressions will at least be centered and highlighted through the summit to demonstrate how much this US administration stands for and values human dignity. We wish to see tangible actions and a walk that matches the talk.

Because, Mr. President Joe Biden: from a former Egyptian political prisoner, and as much as I’d hate to ruin the show—these checks are looking very blank to me.


Abdelrahman ElGendy is a writer and former Egyptian political prisoner who spent six years and three months behind bars.


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