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Egypt accused of 'greenwashing' rights record as it hosts U.N. climate conference

"Without freedom of assembly and association, you cannot achieve climate justice," an Egyptian human rights group told NBC News.

When world leaders, diplomats, campaigners and scientists from nearly 200 countries arrive for the United Nations climate change conference in Egypt on Monday, their focus will be on curbing global warming.

But away from the five-star hotels and soft, sandy beaches in the Red Sea resort town where the huge conference is being held, rights groups and activists have accused Egypt of “greenwashing” — the act of claiming to be environmentally friendly to enhance its reputation.

They have called for the world leaders attending the event, known as COP27, to confront the Egyptian government over its alleged human-rights abuses, particularly its treatment of political prisoners.

Hunger and water strike

Among the most prominent of those prisoners is Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a popular blogger, software developer and pro-democracy activist who rose to prominence during the popular uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

In 2019, he was jailed for “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading false news” to undermine national security.

Amnesty International called the charges “bogus” and said Fattah’s trial was “inherently unfair,” in an open letter to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last November. It said that Fattah, 40, a British national, was being prosecuted because of his activism and social media posts highlighting human rights violations allegedly committed by the Egyptian government.

Fattah has been on a hunger strike for more than 200 days and escalated his protest on Sunday to stop drinking water, his family said.

“He is very frail. Just skin and bones,” his sister, Mona Seif, told NBC News Thursday.

Seif, 36, who with her sister, Sanaa, 28, began a sit-in outside Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in central London to highlight his case, said that her brother’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and the family was worried he could die in the coming weeks.

Amnesty’s head, Agnes Callamard, warned Sunday that Egypt had no more than 72 hours to save the jailed dissident's life.

“If they do not want to end up with a death they should have and could have prevented, they must act now,” Callamard said at a news briefing in the capital, Cairo.

Authors Join Sit-In For Jailed British-Egyptian Activist
Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a British-Egyptian blogger and activist, has been on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison for six months. His sister, Sanaa Seif, has recently staged a sit-in outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office in an effort to force the British government to intervene. Hollie Adams / Getty Images

Several high-profile figures, including the actor Emma Thompson and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, have supported the family's campaign, along with the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who joined their protest in London last month.

Thunberg said Sunday that she was boycotting the COP27 summit because of Egypt’s human rights record.

After speaking with the sisters on the phone, James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign minister, tweeted that the U.K. would “continue to work tirelessly for his release.”

But Seif said the U.K. government “didn’t seem to have an action plan,” and she was hoping COP27 — where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrived early Monday — would be used to highlight the plight of political prisoners in Egypt.

“Regardless of how it ends, Alaa has already won this battle,” Seif said.

NBC News has emailed the Egyptian Ministry of Justice about the allegations made about the treatment of Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Public protests have been effectively banned in Egypt, following a brutal clampdown on political dissent that began with the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood leader and former president Mohammed Morsi in 2013, by el-Sisi, who was army chief at the time.

After he was elected president the following year, Sisi said these security measures were needed to stabilize his country, and a subsequent crackdown swept up liberal activists as well as Islamists.

Since then, little has changed, human rights groups say.

‘Greenwashing’ a government crackdown

Environmental activists are among the tens of thousands of people, including political protesters and journalists, who have been languishing in Egyptian prisons for years, many without trial, according to Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental research and advocacy organization.

Basing his opinion on recent interviews conducted with people inside Egypt and other data, Richard Pearhouse, Human Rights Watch’s environment director, said by telephone Friday that the violent repression of civil society includes the “jailing and harassment of environmental activists and restrictions on groups researching the impact of climate change in the country."

“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,” he said.

Guests enter the convention center, which hosts COP27, on Friday. Peter Dejong / AP

Ahead of COP27, Ahmad Abdullah, the co-founder of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a Cairo-based nongovernmental organization, said research conducted by his organization’s data team showed at least 174 Egyptians had been arbitrarily arrested.

NBC News could not independently verify this number.

Abdullah added that Egyptian police had increased random stop and searches and had been inspecting the phones and social media activity of people on the streets of major cities.

That has led to the "greenwashing" accusations.

“They have two main objectives,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa researcher Hussein Baoumi.

“The first is pushing their climate agenda, which I would say includes environmental damage and reparations. But on the other hand, they want to greenwash their image and show to the world that they’re not responsible for human rights abuses,” he added.

NBC News emailed the Egyptian Ministry of Environment for comment.

The accusations are echoed by Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human rights organization.

"My organization has been working in the field of environmental justice for 10 years now," Bahgat said Saturday.

"And like most other environmental groups, we have had to stop working with communities, to stop doing any organizing on the ground. Not just because it became too dangerous for our staff and members, but [because it became] even more dangerous for the members of the communities themselves," he said.

Bahgat said that on account of his activism, the Egyptian government has had him under a travel ban for the past seven years and frozen his bank account and assets since 2016.

NBC News has emailed the Egyptian Ministry of Environment for comment.

Linking climate protests to human rights, Abdullah, of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said, “Without freedom of assembly and association, you cannot achieve climate justice. So human rights should be at the center of climate justice, especially in a country like Egypt.

“So, whether you’re an environmental group or a human rights group, you are not allowed to speak up freely for the issues you’re campaigning for,” he said.