With turquoise waters and rich coral reefs, Egypt’s resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh is a picturesque setting for this year’s United Nations global summit on climate change, known as COP27.
But behind the postcard-perfect appearances, there’s a tightly controlled Red Sea fortress.
Climate activists say the restrictions will discourage protests that have been a way for the public to raise their voices at past summits.
Many who work in tourism have been sent home; those who stayed need special security cards.
Tourists have been turned away at security checkpoints surrounding the city.
Hotel rates have increased tenfold, and the prices of many. Local workers are not allowed to talk freely with visitors.
In a country where protests are virtually banned, the government has set up a specific site for climate protests, except no one knows exactly where it is.
Notifications are required 36 hours in advance. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
In previous statements, officials have pledged to allow protest and activist participation. As COP27 approaches, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has touted its efforts to make Sharm el-Sheikh a greener city, with new solar panels and electric vehicles.
“From the beginning, there was a big question mark about the choice of Egypt as a host country,” said one Egyptian activist, who was detained for more than two years without trial during the government’s crackdown on dissent
He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing he could be arrested again.
“They know the election of Sharm means there would be no protests.”
The scene is likely to be a stark contrast to last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, where around 100,000 people took to the streets in a rally and protesters frequently gathered in public squares, parks and bridges.
On Friday, a group of activists took part in a small protest calling for climate action on the African continent at a roundabout outside the conference venue in Sharm el-Sheikh.
A line of policemen stood in wait.
A group of experts appointed by the UN has expressed concern that the environment in Egypt is not conducive to full and open participation. Since 2013, el-Sissi, a US ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has overseen a massive crackdown, imprisoning thousands of Islamists but also secular activists involved in the 2011 popular uprising.
Many others have fled the country.
A prominent rights activist, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, has stepped up his hunger strike this week, also refusing water.
Outside the Sinai Peninsula, where Sharm el-Sheikh is located, rights groups say more than 100 people have been detained in the past two weeks in Cairo and other cities as security forces increased their presence in major squares after rumors of planned protests in November. 11. COP27 begins on Sunday and is expected to last until November 18.
The government has repeatedly said its security measures are vital to maintaining stability in a nation of more than 104 million people after a decade of turmoil that began with the Arab Spring and was followed by years of ‘deadly attacks by Islamic militants. For decades, Sharm el-Sheikh has been the government’s favorite location for high-level conferences and summits precisely because it is so easy to control.
The 1996 Middle East Peace Summit attended by then-President Bill Clinton was held there. Isolated in the desert near the southern tip of Sinai, Sharm, as it is often called, is a six-hour drive from the capital, Cairo.
Vehicles must pass through a heavily guarded tunnel under the Suez Canal, then numerous checkpoints along the highway, allowing authorities to turn back those deemed undesirable.
A concrete and wire barrier surrounds parts of Sharm.
One of the entrances is located in a concrete wall several stories high, painted with a gigantic peace sign, a reference to the “City of Peace”, a nickname that the authorities have tried to stick to Sharm.
Great boulevards in the desert link walled tourist centers, with few public spaces where people gather. Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Egypt and Libya researcher, called it a “dystopian city”.
“There’s so much surveillance, so much control over who comes in and out of the city, that it’s again an attempt to control who can talk to the international community,” he said.
Hotel workers say security is particularly tight for COP27: all must obtain security clearance and, since Tuesday, have been barred from leaving their workplaces or homes.
Some decided to return to their hometowns until the conference ends. “We are used to restrictions, but this time it is very tough and there were no exceptions,” said a waiter at a four-star hotel.
Security has always been high in Sharm because in the north, along the peninsula, the Egyptian army has been fighting a decade-long insurgency led by a local branch of the Islamic State group.
In 2015, a Russian MetroJet plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board, an attack claimed by IS. Sinai has been occupied twice by neighboring Israel: first during the Suez crisis in 1956, which also involved France. and Britain, and later in the 1967 Middle East war.
It was returned to Egypt in 1982 as part of the US-brokered peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Since then, government-licensed development has helped South Sinai’s coastal resorts become one of the top beach and diving destinations.
The COP27 conference takes place in the large convention center in Sharm. As in previous COPs, only official delegates accredited by the UN can enter the premises, known as the Blue Zone, which during the meeting is considered UN territory and subject to international law.
Another space, the Green Zone, is for companies, young people and civil society to hold events on the sidelines of the summit.
It is not yet clear where the protests are to be held.
A government COP27 website says that in addition to 36-hour notice for on-site protests, 48-hour email notice is required for off-site protests.
From the few photos of the Green Zone in the official press, it seems that it is located on a stretch of highway or in a parking area with enabled cafes. Major General Khaled Fouda, the provincial governor, described the site as “very elegant and clean” in comments on local television last month.
“Protests are allowed, but crushing and insulting are not allowed,” he said. The government has sent 500 taxis to transport COP27 attendees, Fouda said, all with cameras connected to a “security observatory” meant to monitor drivers’ behavior.
None of this bodes well for activism, climate protest leaders say. Greta Thunberg, the youth leader of the protest movement, has said she would not attend.
“The space for civil society this year is extremely limited,” he said at a recent event in London. “It will be very difficult for activists to make their voices heard.”
Cost is another factor.
The recently freed Egyptian activist said many cannot afford to travel, with the cost of a plane ticket from Cairo out of reach for many amid double-digit domestic inflation.
Cristine Majeni, a youth environmental volunteer from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, raised the thousands of dollars needed for her 10-day trip, after struggling through the accreditation process.
“It is crucial that we are given the opportunity to participate,” he said.