The Mixed Message of Holding a Climate Summit in Egypt
You may or may not have noticed that the latest global climate summit has kicked off in, of all places, Egypt. The United Nations’ 27th Conference of the Parties, or COP27, is taking place in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El Sheikh.
I will let the climate journalists and experts dissect the content of the conference and what can and can’t be expected to come of it. I am more interested in the fact that the summit is being hosted by a dictatorship with a dreadful record on human rights and political freedom (and it’s not exactly a paragon of climate virtue). It’s another example of the United Nations undermining itself by rewarding an abusive, authoritarian regime with the prestige (and revenue) of a major international event.
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Over the years, I made several reporting trips to Egypt and witnessed first-hand the struggles of the Egyptian people. My first in-depth experience with Egypt was academic, literally.
I spent the summer of 2006 working in Dubai at what was then the Dubai School of Government. I wrote a research paper on governance and political reform in the Middle East. Egypt was one of my main case studies as it was then a dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak, longtime ruler and U.S. ally.
The thrust of the paper was that experts had long identified the failures of dictatorial regimes in the region and the need for reforms, yet experts were largely ignoring the barriers to such reforms and why change was not happening. One reason was that dictators were eviscerating any political opposition, and the international community said and did little about it. In the case of Egypt, the United States kept providing military aid despite the regime’s domestic abuses.
Here’s an example from that research paper in 2006:
In the Middle East, there have been some leaders such as Ayman Nour in Egypt who have been able to galvanize public support. Nour, however, is currently in jail because of his opposition leadership—it remains to be seen if people around the world will rally to his cause. Egypt’s Kifaya (“Enough”) movement has shown some promise in uniting various parties and reform movements to fight for change, but in the last six months, government crackdowns have largely killed the movement’s momentum.
In December 2007, I traveled to Egypt to report on U.S. public diplomacy programs and efforts to convince Egyptians to like America. For the most part, Egyptians I met said they liked Americans, and they liked American rights and freedoms, but they did not like U.S. foreign policy in the region. They were especially angry about American talk about freedom and democracy as Washington supported a dictatorial regime that clamped down on political expression and jailed critics and opposition figures. Egyptians said the message it sent was that the United States could not be trusted to live up to its values and only cared about its interests.
That was the key take away about U.S. public diplomacy—people cared about deeds, not words. No amount of flashy radio or TV programs extoling the virtues of the United States and its freedoms could change the minds of people who saw the United States propping up a repressive regime that treated its people like dirt.
In June 2010, I returned to Egypt to gather material for a three-part documentary on Arab youth. Things were getting worse in the country, and people were more fed up with the regime. While young people talked about revolution and wanting regime change, it seemed like the Egyptian government—like others in the region—was still solidly in control and managing the situation. Regimes had seemingly mastered the art of jailing opposition to prevent movements from reaching critical mass and allowing some (managed) freedom of expression to let people vent just enough that they would not take to the streets.
While it was clear across the Middle East in the summer of 2010 that people were fed up, no one I talked to believed something like the Arab Spring was possible. The regimes had too much power and played the game well enough to survive.
Alas, a Tunisian man surprised everyone by literally igniting a regional revolution only six months later.
I returned to Egypt in March 2011, shortly after Mubarak stepped down and the military took control of the country. When I arrived, there was a mix of joy and apprehension. People were optimistic that the revolution was going to lead to a free and democratic Egypt. However, some of the hard-core activists who had been at the forefront of the uprising said they were seeing signs that those in charge were not going to allow for radical change in the country—they were prescient. (My March 2011 trip to Egypt is one of the chapters in my book, so you’ll have to wait until next summer for the details of that experience.)
In November 2011, I spent a few days in Egypt covering the parliamentary elections that would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. That came as no surprise.
For decades, the brotherhood had been contained to certain degrees by the state, but it was able to operate and had a structure and network in the country. It was an example of the game that many of the Arab dictators played at the time—Saddam had used the trick, along with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Dictators jailed and otherwise eliminated secular opposition figures and movements. But they allowed the brotherhood to exist as a safeguard. What Mubarak and Assad would do was to say to the west, “You have to continue supporting me, because if I am deposed through an election or uprising, the replacement will be the Muslim Brotherhood, and that will be worse for everyone.”
It was a tactic that worked for years. The United States chose to work with dictators who provided some measure of stability and generally looked after U.S. interests in the region, rather than push for democracy and open elections and champion the rights of the people because the fear was that Islamists would take over.
The United States learned the lesson the hard way in the Palestinian territories. The Bush administration championed the open and free Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. The United States pumped money into the process to ensure a legitimate vote it hoped would strengthen the hand of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party.
However, Hamas won the election in a landslide, dealing a blow to U.S. interests in the region. After that, the United States started dialing back its support for open elections in countries like Egypt that had eliminated secular opposition and allowed Islamists to maintain a presence.
The brotherhood regime was short lived as the United States and others looked the other way when the Egyptian military ousted the democratically elected brotherhood government in 2013. Since then, Egypt has been living under the iron fist of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is a more repressive dictator than Mubarak was.
Hence, there are many who are none too happy that tens of thousands of international dignitaries, policy makers, climate scientists, journalists, and others are in Egypt giving the country the opportunity to elevate its profile on the world stage. Here’s an excerpt from an article in The Guardian today that discusses some of the concerns about Egypt hosting the event.
There are mounting fears over the surveillance of delegates at the Cop27 climate talks in Egypt, with cybersecurity experts warning that the official app for the talks requires access to a user’s location, photos and even emails upon downloading it.
The revelation … has raised concerns that Egypt’s authoritarian regime will be able to use an official platform for a United Nations event to track and harass attendees and critical domestic voices.
The official Cop27 app, which has already been downloaded more than 5,000 times, requires sweeping permissions from users before it installs, including the ability for Egypt’s ministry of communications and information technology to view emails, scour photos and determine users’ locations, according to an expert who analysed it for the Guardian.
This data could be used by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime to further crack down on dissent in a country that already holds about 65,000 political prisoners. Egypt has conducted a series of mass arrests of people accused of being protesters in the lead-up to Cop27 and sought to vet and isolate any activists near the talks, which will see governments attempting to hammer out an agreement over dealing with the climate crisis.
So, in the coming days, keep an eye on the news out of Egypt to see how much focuses on the substance of the summit, and how much discusses concerns and criticisms of Egypt being the host.
Now, for paid subscribers, the following is another deleted chapter from my book detailing my 2010 trip to Egypt to report on gender relations, particularly the struggles of young women trying to change the country’s conservative practices of arranged marriages.
Before you go, though, please check out this post I wrote yesterday. Because it was about sports and not about foreign policy, I chose not to send it by email, but it was something important I felt I had to write about because I am a consistent critic of football, basketball, and baseball for coddling toxic players because they help win games. Unfortunately, the Boston Bruins did something similar last week, and they need to answer for it.