Egypt Hosting COP27, the UAE COP28: What a COP Out!

Cairo traffic. Photo by the Author.

The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) has made another stellar choice of location for the upcoming ‘blah blah blah’ event – Egypt. While the UK was slammed for representing the agenda of the greenwashing Global North, Egypt and later the United Arab Emirates will take greenwashing to new heights.

Not to be hosted in the megacity of Cairo, COP27 (to run 6-18 November) will be held in the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, in the purpose built tourism resort of Sharm el Sheikh, which has 62,000 hotel rooms, on the Red Sea.

Sharm, as it is commonly referred to, has become Egypt’s hub for international conferences, festivals and events for one specific reason – it is far from Cairo. The resort reflects the image Cairo would like to convey to the world – tidy, unpolluted, not congested, and ‘modern’. It is also bereft of Egyptians (unless workers or wealthier residents) as permission is required for citizens to get through the multiple military check points that effectively separate the Sinai from mainland Egypt (tourists also require a separate visa to visit the rest of Egypt from the Sinai). Such controls are also in place due to Cairo’s decade long war against a ‘jihadist insurgency’ in the Sinai Peninsula.

Being far from Cairo and the heavily populated Lower Nile, Sharm is a good place to prevent any demonstrations by pesky climate activists from taking place, and by Egyptians, who have been banned from protesting. Those that do protest, as many Egyptians have since the 2011 uprising and the military coup in 2013 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi, face fines, jail time and torture, possibly in the notorious Scorpion prison (an acquaintance’s relative was rounded up at a Cairo protest a few years ago, and the family had to pay $100,000 to get him out). It is also not a safe place for foreigners, highlighted by the torture and murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni in 2016. Italian prosecutors believe Egyptian officials are responsible for the “aggravated kidnapping” of Regeni.

Distanciation is one of President (former Field Marshall) Fattah al Sisi’s policies to keep the lid on demonstrations, which is why a new capital is being built on the outskirts of Cairo, far from the masses. New Cairo would no doubt have been a top choice to host COP27 if the sprawling project was ready.

Aside from Sharm being a bubble of its own far from the rest of Egypt, it is also an environmental travesty, as is much of the beach tourism on the Red and Arabian seas, which have been ravaged by toxic sunscreen and plastic pollution. Water comes from desalinisation, with drinking water having to be trucked in, as do all fruits, vegetables and consumer goods.

Cairo or Alexandria would have been better options for COP27, as they would highlight the serious challenges ahead to decarbonise the economy. The Mediterranean city of Alexandria, home to 5 million, is sinking due to sea level rise and declining levels of silt in the Nile Delta. As the former Python Michael Palin described the Corniche (the sea front): “It’s like Cannes with acne”. When I visited, the sea shore was full of plastic waste, and the city exceedingly rundown. I also nearly got arrested for taking photos on the street, and in a separate incident, the police pulled me over for questioning as I walked to the train station (they let me go after seeing photos of me and friends with beer bottles on a restaurant table, which ‘proved’ I wasn’t an Islamist despite my bushy beard).

As for Cairo as a host city, attendees with little experience of Global South megacities would have a taste of the serious traffic congestion, pollution, and poverty that 20 million plus Cairenes face on a daily basis. The city is also illustrative of the challenges that population growth is placing on countries with limited resources – 97% of Egypt is desert, and the population is growing by a staggering 2-3 million people a year, having crossed the 100 million mark in 2020, and projected to reach 145 million by 2030. Around 60% of the population is under 24 years old.

A COP27 in Cairo would also no doubt have included a trip for participants to the Pyramids at Giza. Delegates would have much to gawp at as they crawled along in the traffic, with the stretch of road from the airport and the city centre row-upon-row of non-descript tower blocks, many of which do not have windows and would get a F in green-building design. They could also see how considerate Egypt’s road builders are towards residents that get in the way of developments.

A day trip could also be taken to one of the country’s industrial clusters, like Sadat City or 6 October City, where over 1 million Egyptians work in garment and textile factories for around $100 a month, to witness ‘fast fashion’ cut-and-sew up close.

Delegates could also take a trip to the pyramids at Sukkara via the back roads, as I inadvertently once did. We drove for kilometres alongside canals used for irrigation that were choked with trash and smelled like open sewers. As part of the 3% of the country that is not desert, the mind boggles – and the stomach churns – at the thought of all the food being grown amid such environmental degradation.

But any talk of Egypt’s environmental catastrophe is, as with any other dissidence, not allowed. In 2018, an Egyptian singer was jailed for insulting the state by saying people should not drink from the dirty Nile, and that “You are better off drinking Evian” (which is what delegates at COP27 and 28 will probably quaff, with the French brand highly popular in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf. Egyptian military owned brand Safi will also probably be on offer). Indeed, the Nile is considered a matter of “national security”, as I was told by hotel security when I was caught filming it from the balcony.

Cairo would also be an apt place to discuss the military’s role in environmental damage and carbon emissions, with members of the Egyptian security apparatus evident throughout the city, especially in Tahrir Square, which is flanked by armored personnel vehicles to prevent a repeat of the January 2011 uprising.

Egypt is considered an Officer’s Republic, with the military playing an increasingly heightened role in the economy. The USA could also discuss the $1.3 billion in military aid it provides to Egypt every year (since 1987), and how neoliberal policies adopted by the Hosni Mubarak regime wrecked the agricultural sector and drove up inequality. As Tunisian academic Habib Ayeb has argued, Egypt should stop desert irrigation, as nearly half of the water is lost by evaporation, and halt agricultural exports.

If you thought COP26 was bad, this one will be even worse. And then we’ve COP28 to look forward to, which will be hosted in Dubai of all places. Dubai is a capitalist’s wet dream, symbolising all that is wrong with our consumerist, carbon-addicted world. But as we have come to expect, COPs sum up the upside down world we live in.

Pavlos Boulos (a nom de plume) is an independent journalist covering the Middle East and Africa.