Biden under pressure to address Egyptian rights abuses at COP27

Protesters, wearing white in support of political prisoners as well as human rights defenders and environmental activists, participate in a demonstration at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Human rights activists worry that Egypt’s government will use the COP27 United Nations climate summit in the country to launder its human rights record, and are calling on President Biden to use his appearance there to press Cairo to release political prisoners. 

“It’s very clear that the Egyptian Government has sought out a COP27 posting as a way to legitimize its dictatorship as a way to work the dictatorship’s re-entry into the international community as a legitimate form of government,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the group Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Critics of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s government have pointed to his government’s crackdowns on human rights activists and protesters, including the killing by security forces of at least 900 protesters in 2013 when he seized power.  

President Biden is set to meet with Sisi this week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a White House briefing Thursday. During that meeting, Sullivan said, Biden and Sisi will likely discuss imprisoned Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been on a hunger strike for seven months and started a water strike to coincide with the conference. 

“We have deep concern about it,” Sullivan added. “We would like to see him freed.” 

Observers, as well as members of his family, are concerned Abdel Fattah’s life is at imminent risk, and the UN’s own human rights watchdog has called for his release. 

The president is under particularly intense pressure to stand up to Sisi after activists sharply criticized his collegial meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where the president unsuccessfully appealed for increased oil production. 

Whitson noted that the U.S. is not a neutral actor in Egypt. “In this case, the US is actively arming and protecting the dictatorship in Egypt as it carries out these heinous abuses,” she said.  

“It’s sort of irreconcilable for the US to be championing environmental activism and environmental change in a country that has done everything to suppress the voices of its citizens, including the ones demanding environmental change,” she added. 

In a letter Monday, 57 Congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), wrote to Biden urging him to address Egypt’s human rights record with Sisi’s government, warning that failure to do so would undermine the U.S.’ moral authority on climate issues. 

“We are … deeply troubled by the message it sends to the world that the Egyptian government is hosting COP27 while imprisoning tens of thousands of political prisoners – including many environmental activists,” they wrote. 

In addition to Fattah, the letter also names trade unionist and environmentalist Ahmed Amasha, who, after being imprisoned from 2017 to 2019, was arrested in summer of 2020 and has not been seen since. The human rights advocacy group Frontline Defenders classifies him as forcibly disappeared, a crime against humanity under international law. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a signer of the letter, invoked Amasha’s case on the Senate floor in September to ask the Biden administration to withhold aid to Sisi’s government. 

Separately, last week police detained Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal as he began a planned march from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort town hosting COP27. Although he was later released, the arrest drew international condemnation and highlighted what Sisi critics say is the disconnect between his policies and the goals of the summit. 

“For years, advocates have been saying you cannot have climate justice without human rights. Here’s an example from Egypt on why,” tweeted Mai El-Sadany, a human rights lawyer and managing director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 

Any implicit cosigning of repressive policies actively makes addressing environmental issues more difficult, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard told The Hill in an email.

“As a wealthy country with the highest historical carbon emissions, the United States must be an example and take resolute actions,” she said. “How can we even begin to respond effectively to the climate crisis if civil society is not allowed to work with affected communities, speak, dissent; if researchers do not have academic freedom; if journalists are not allowed to report and inform; if data analysts are forced into submitting inaccurate data; if there is no access to information; if there is no transparency?” 

The Hill has reached out to the Egyptian embassy for comment. Asked about the concerns raised in the letter from lawmakers, a White House spokesperson referred The Hill to Sullivan’s Thursday remarks. 

Ultimately, Whitson said, for the U.S. and other world powers to cooperate with Egypt’s government on the summit undermines global efforts on climate. 

“It just doesn’t work for the international community to try to paper over heinous, murderous governments like Egypt by rewarding them with a global conference like this COP,” she said. 

“It ends up blowing up, and it ends up distracting from the environmental mission. We’re talking about Egypt and what an awful, inhumane government it is, and we’re not talking about environmental pledges.”

—Updated Friday at 3:52 p.m.

Tags Abdel Fattah El-Sisi Biden Chris Murphy COP27 human rights Jake Sullivan Joe Biden
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