COP27 in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh has begun. Environmentalists around the world are watching for new announcements, progress on climate action, and in the UK – among other events – Ride The Change recently cycled across the country in solidarity with the idea of a future planet fit for human habitation.
But what if this sort of global attention is redundant without a presence in Egypt itself? And what if this idea of a future fit for humans to live, survive and possibly thrive is immaterial when so many in Egypt do not have the luxury of even a present day freedom in order to demand basic justice for themselves?
It has been a tumultuous decade in Egypt. A 2011 revolution led to the country’s first democratic elections, promptly followed by a military coup, and soon after that the country’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Morsi being thrown into the jail cell where he subsequently died. Egypt is thought to have about 100,000 prisoners inside its jails. Because almost everyone even remotely involved with the experiment or demand of Egyptian democracy has since been locked-up, it is hard to put a precise number on the total of political prisoners, but it is certainly more than half, 60,000 is likely. Torture inside jails is rampant, with beatings on arrival. Giulio Regeni, an Italian student from Cambridge University, was tortured and murdered by Egyptian police in 2016 for asking questions as part of his PHD research into Egypt's trade unions. Egypt also upholds the Israeli-led blockade of Palestinians inside Gaza, so that the cycling community there, many of them already maimed by Israeli snipers, can not even receive spare parts or tyres from the Egyptian side of the concrete wall they live behind.
While all this may seem like an abstract, moral point against the idea of engaging in COP27 or anything involving the Egyptian state, or Westerners thinking of the future while climate-vulnerable Egyptians aren’t even afforded a present to live in, this is not the entirety of my argument. All this may be true, but the broader point is that the destruction of Egyptian democracy is not only an outrage, it is an oil-funded outrage. With its military economy precarious, but its population the largest in the Arab world, there was a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby the oil states of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Dubai, notably, will host COP28) have pumped billions into Egypt, and in return got a military coup and dictatorship to stop in its tracks the largest democratic opening in those uprisings known as the Arab Spring.
Democracy for Arabs, democratic demands voiced in Arabic, have always been regarded, understandably, as an existential threat to the dictatorships of the House of Saud and the UAE, every bit as much as their Israeli allies work to suppress the same demands from Palestinians. What this network of oppression achieves, on top of its implicit destruction of humanity, is a tight political oppression over demands to democratise, and in turn perhaps retire early, the world’s largest oil and gas fields. If you want Saudi Aramco to start engaging with issues like scope 2 and 3 emissions in the same way that Norwegian energy giant, Equinor, is obliged to, then you need democracy in the Arab world, and you need it now. How, apart from anything else, can Westerners hope for change in Egyptian or Gulf policy, or pressure on delegates, when Egyptians are not allowed to protest or even gather outside COP27 events?
'If you want Saudi Aramco to start engaging with issues like scope 2 and 3 emissions in the same way that Norwegian energy giant, Equinor, is obliged to, then you need democracy in the Arab world, and you need it now.'
If all this seems gloomy, that is neither my intention nor entirely my own mood. These are simply political realities, and rising above the doom of a realistic appraisal of where we stand is no bad thing. Ride The Change, cycling in solidarity in the UK, already has the advantage of being able to reflect from a distance on the brutality of the Egyptian state. I know from experience, too, that the mood and nature of the ride is good for facilitating conversations, some of them hard, and for thinking that challenges the status quo and all the monstrosities it entails. The bottom line is that we cannot get meaningful climate action without democracy. Whether that is in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the abuse of democratic process that can help coal barons lock-in their control of key US states, the climate movement disregards at its peril the essential role of genuine democracy to realising the world we want.
There are signs, too, in the Egyptian context, that leaders of Western climate communities are taking note. Naomi Klein has written repeatedly of the political disaster of COP in Egypt. In particular, she has raised the case of the brilliant British-Egyptian writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is on hunger strike demanding his freedom and who has served a decade in jail for social media posts and his work in Egypt’s revolution, briefly creating a stage where environmental demands could be heard. Greta Thunberg too has clearly begun to take note.
'The bottom line is that we cannot get meaningful climate action without democracy. Whether that is in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the abuse of democratic process that can help coal barons lock-in their control of key US states.'
The best advice, however, and perhaps unsurprisingly, comes direct from those who have given so much to democracy in Egypt. Alaa Abd El-Fattah had his prison diaries smuggled out of jail, their title is a reminder of the power that all those riding still have: You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.
Alaa’s sister, Sanaa, is currently engaged in a sit-in outside the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, on Whitehall, to pressure UK Government into taking action to protect a British citizen. A visit to this protest, or a letter to your MP on behalf of Alaa, can make vital gains in the struggle against injustice, without which we cannot win climate justice. Britain, too, is the largest source of overseas investment into Egypt, so the government in which you are a stakeholder has genuine and real leverage.
If you have a role in corporate sustainability, you can find out what relation your work might have to the Egyptian state, or Egyptian companies, and if there is a way to bring pressure upon them. If your employer is not attending COP27, then citing the Egyptian record on political prisoners as a reason for non-attendance helps empower those who have had most of their own powers taken away, demonstrating that the world has not forgotten them. It is not only the right thing that we demand freedom for those who cannot make their voices heard in Egypt, the climate movement quite simply needs these voices alongside our own.