Egypt: Gov. undermined work of environmental groups ahead of COP27, rights report

Human Rights Watch says Egypt has ‘severely curtailed’ work of environmental groups that carry out their duty to protect the country’s natural environment; urging COP27 countries to press Cairo to end restrictions on them, and enable them to participate.

This comes two months ahead of the COP27 climate summit which will be held in Sharm El-Sheikh and hosted by the UN.

Over months, human rights organizations have criticized the decision to hold the climate summit in Egypt, where civil society has been quashed and there are more than 60,000 political prisoners behind bars.

“The Egyptian government has severely curtailed environmental groups’ ability to carry out independent policy, advocacy, and field work essential to protecting the country’s natural environment,” Human Rights Watch stated, adding, “These restrictions violate the rights to freedom of assembly and association and threaten Egypt’s ability to uphold its environmental and climate action commitments, as Egypt hosts the COP27 climate summit in November 2022.”

On his part, Richard Pearshouse, environment director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The Egyptian government has imposed arbitrary funding, research, and registration obstacles that have debilitated local environmental groups, forcing some activists into exile and others to steer clear of important work. The government should immediately lift its onerous restrictions on independent nongovernmental organizations, including environmental groups.”

Since the 2013 military coup the Egyptian government has frozen the assets of leading human rights organizations and shut others down on charges of having links with the Muslim Brotherhood. A host of legislation has made it extremely difficult for NGOs to get any foreign funding weakening some of the top organisations in Egypt.

In June, Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 activists, academics, scientists, and journalists working on environmental issues in Egypt. All have been involved in promoting, advocating for, and working on climate action in some capacity. Some currently work for nongovernmental groups.

Others who did stopped for safety or security reasons or left the country. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. Six other people declined to be interviewed, variously citing security concerns or that government restrictions had forced them to stop their environmental work.

Those interviewed described a sharp reduction in the space for independent environment and climate work since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government took office in 2014.

They described  harassment and intimidation tactics, including arrests and difficulties travelling,  creating a general atmosphere of fear.

These experiences mirror similar tactics pursued by Egyptian authorities against independent local and international groups more generally since 2014 as part of a relentless crackdown on civil society.

At the same time, some people described a recent expansion of official tolerance for environmental activities that are easily reconciled with government priorities and not perceived as critical of the government.

An emerging cohort of these environmental groups are working mostly within technical domains such as trash collection, recycling, renewable energy, food security, and climate finance.

Increasingly, “the government adopts radical discourse when it comes to the Global North and its contribution to climate change and carbon emissions, just because this intersects with their interests, like the need for more funds,” one person said.

But staff members of critical human rights and environmental groups said they are wary of publicly engaging at COP27 because of fears of reprisals. “The security apparatus will probably now more than ever before focus on environmental civil society in Egypt,” an activist outside the country said. “When COP ends, they might start looking and see who is doing what, who got funds from where, for example.”

Human Rights Watch found that the most sensitive environmental issues are those that point out the government’s failure to protect people’s rights against damage caused by corporate interests, including issues relating to water security, industrial pollution, and environmental harm from real estate, tourism development, and agribusiness.

Activists also said that the environmental impact of Egypt’s vast and opaque military business activity, such as destructive forms of quarrying, water bottling plants, and some cement factories are particularly sensitive, as are “national” infrastructure projects such as a new administrative capital, many of which are associated with the president’s office or the military.

Restrictions on receiving funding has affected many environmental groups. Several laws since 2014, including a 2014 amendment to the penal code as well as the old and new law on nongovernmental groups, arbitrarily restrict grants and donations from foreign and national sources.

Increasingly since 2014, the government has prosecuted dozens of independent human rights and civil society organizations, some of them doing environmental work, for receiving foreign funds, and imposed travel bans and asset freezes on leading activists. Such prosecutions have had a chilling impact on these groups.

Many environmental activists described a pattern of harassment by state authorities. Some have received threatening phone calls at times when they have been perceived as criticizing the government when pursuing advocacy objectives related to their environmental work.

“Some of my partners in the public sector received phone calls from their bosses telling them to find someone else to work with,” said an environmental advocate who has since stopped some of their work because of such threats.

Others described being repeatedly held up for security checks and questioning at Cairo airport upon leaving or arriving, and sometimes prevented from leaving the country.

“One person described the harassment of their partners in the Egyptians Against Coal campaign, a popular but ultimately unsuccessful movement that emerged in response to the government’s drive to reintroduce coal to power cement factories from 2013,” stated HRW.