Since November 6, all eyes have been on Egypt as the annual UN Climate Change Conference inaugurated its 27th edition in Sharm El Sheikh, a primarily touristic resort town by the Red Sea.
So far, COP27 has been quite eventful. Around 35,000 participants have registered to attend along with prominent world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The two main venues for the event occur in the Blue Zone and the Green Zone. The former is where all the official negotiations take place, whereas the latter, according to official description on the COP27 website, is a “platform where business community, youth, civil and indigenous societies, academia, artists and fashion communities from all over the world can express themselves and their voices would be heard.”
At a first glance, the Green Zone seems inclusive, but a closer look into the months that preceded COP27 and even just a few days into the event, the reality appears to be more complicated.
While discussions around accessibility to COP—especially when it comes to climate activists and campaigners from the Global South—are nothing new, the process of registration and accreditation to COP27 in Egypt has been especially tedious, according to attendants who spoke to TIMEP and various reports that were published across the past weeks and months.
For researchers, campaigners, or professionals in Egypt who work under big national or international organizations, including banks, UN-affiliated institutions, and international media such AFP and BBC, the registration process was more straightforward but tedious in the usual bureaucratic sense, according to one journalist attending COP27 who spoke to TIMEP. According to him, applications for attendance opened last September and were handled by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with security oversight from the country’s General Intelligence Service. All applicants had to receive security clearance, but they were also vetted for the depth of their climate change coverage in the past.
Individuals and independent professionals had a harder time acquiring permits, however. Speaking to TIMEP, two separate independent researchers from Egypt, who work on a range of topics that include climate change, food security, design, and architecture, said that they had to personally reach out for organizations and initiatives in their network to obtain an “affiliation” with them, even though they do not work there, just to be able to bypass scrutiny or have their requests denied. According to one of the researchers, several people in her network resorted to the same tactic—obtaining an affiliation from bigger institutes or foreign initiatives that are attending COP27 just to be able to have a smoother application process.
As recently as last month, grassroots activists from Africa and other developing countries were vocal about the lack of accessibility to COP27 and the difficulty to obtain visas and accreditations. Egypt has a complicated, and often confusing, visa system that requires people from certain Asian and African countries to apply for pre-approval before the embassy even considers granting the visa, which made it harder for climate activists from those countries to secure a timely trip to Egypt.
While the Green Zone is supposed to be an inclusive platform with local and international civil society representation, the effect of years of crackdown on civil society and NGOs in Egypt, particularly those that focus on human rights issues and social justices, cannot be denied. Because any and all NGOs even mildly critical of the regime have been widely silenced, most civil society organizations and NGOs that were invited or granted access by the state are uncritical, non-political, or perceived to be non-political. In fact, the initial number of state-approved NGOs attending the conference was so low that the government recently decided to issue a one-time summit permit to more than 25 organizations, while still filtering out those that appeared critical of government policies. But even the process of granting those extra permits was covert and did not allow a fair chance for other organizations to apply.
Perhaps the most controversial factor with regards to accessibility in this year’s COP are the exuberant prices of hotels, which were unreasonably hiked after the Egyptian government informed all hotels in Sharm El Sheikh that it would take 25 percent of their revenues from bookings during the conference period. Many attendees reported that their bookings were canceled ahead of the conference, only to have the hotels inform them with the new room prices—sometimes reaching five to 10 times the original price. The government denied being the reason behind price hikes ahead of the COP and advertized that it would subsidize accommodation for 400 youth climate activists. However, it is clear that the government and businesses want to capitalize on the conference, which is bringing in a massive amount of hard currency with all the attendees coming from abroad. With the recent devaluation and the declining state of the Egyptian tourism industry, COP27 is definitely an opportunity to raise money, both inside the negotiations rooms and in the resort town itself.
The issue of priorities here becomes contentious. While the government talks about inclusion, inclusion can impede the way of bringing in desperately-needed dollars. Indeed, putting restrictions on businesses to lower prices, and with that being more inclusive, would bring less money in, and one of Egypt’s motivations behind hosting COP27 is certainly to insert itself into the climate change financial industry. Hence, it is no surprise that climate activists from less wealthier nations had to be sacrificed for that logic. Greta Thunberg herself, who announced that she would not attend COP27 in protest against Egypt’s attempt to greenwash its abhorrent human rights record, remarked that this COP was not made for civil society members.
We are yet to see the remaining events of COP27 unveil, but despite the highly manicured, highly curated context of Sharm El Sheikh, we saw important glimpses of civil society penetration with Sanaa Seif’s iconic appearance in the conference to call for the release of her brother Alaa Abdel Fattah and the end to regime’s repression of human rights defenders. Also, climate activists organized a solidarity protest today, and dressed in white, calling for the release of Egyptian prisoners.
It might be hard to imagine full accessibility in a space that has been marked by the lack of access, crackdowns, and widespread oppression of any dissenting or even alternative voice to that of the government for so long. However, perhaps the fact of how international COP27 actually is helps unmask the reality of Egypt’s political situation to a broader audience, and perhaps this could be the start of a slightly more accountable political space. One can only hope.