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Egypt’s Carceral Climate Summit: Naomi Klein on the Crisis of COP27 Being Held in a Police State

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Egypt is preparing to host world leaders next month at the U.N.’s annual climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, a move that prominent environmentalist and author Naomi Klein calls “greenwashing.” While the government embraces superficial causes to mitigate climate change such as recycling or solar panels, “what is not welcome would be pointing out this enormous lucrative network of deals that the military itself is engaged in that are linked to fossil fuels, that are linked to destroying remaining green space in cities like Cairo,” says Klein. She adds that the international community should seize the opportunity to pressure Egypt into releasing its imprisoned political prisoners, who face brutal conditions.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa, I want to bring in Naomi Klein. Naomi Klein is senior contributing writer at The Intercept, professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia.

Naomi, you wrote a piece in The Intercept and The Guardian, “Greenwashing a police state: the truth behind Egypt’s Cop27 masquerade.” You point out that for the tens of thousands of people that will be at the climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh — Democracy Now!, of course, will be covering it, and we’ll be there — that number may well be less than the number of political prisoners in Egypt’s jails. Can you talk more about this?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. Hi, Amy. Good to be with you. And hi, Sanaa.

I think that number is really important, because you hear these figures thrown around, and it’s hard to wrap your head around it. But as you know, Amy, from covering COPs now for more than a decade, they really are kind of like a city within a city. They’re huge. There’s going to be around more than 35,000 delegates. And this is a combination of government negotiators and activists and NGOs, envoys of all kinds, and a few world leaders mixed in, you know, environment ministers the world over. So it will just be very, very large. But that will be about half the number of estimated political prisoners in Egypt, which is estimated to be around 60,000. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, groups that are following this will be quick to say that because of the total lack of transparency, it’s very, very hard to know whether — it could be many, many more. So, this is the political context. The pieces that you mentioned are — I’m arguing that this really crosses a new red line. There’s often repression during COPs. There’s often arrests. But the stakes of those arrests are completely different in Egypt.

But more than that, this is a country, the most repressive regime in modern Egyptian history, that is at active war with the very idea of civil society. And civil society is a key partner, is a key element in these climate summits. It’s not like holding the Olympics or the World Cup. I mean, this activism, research, freedom of speech, it’s absolutely integral to the negotiations themselves. And there’s going to be this extraordinary cognitive dissonance when people go to Egypt in — it’s less than two weeks now, because there will be a sort of a show that’s going on in Sharm el-Sheikh. There will be some members of Egyptian civil society. There will be youth leaders. There will be people holding signs and seemingly free to say things. But it will be extremely kind of scripted and constrained, because the Egyptian groups that have been allowed into that space, they have overwhelmingly been vetted by the Egyptian government.

And according to Human Rights Watch’s research, there are certain kinds of environmental issues that are considered sort of “welcome” — is the word that they use — topics, and those are things like recycling, picking up litter, advocating for solar panels, advocating for climate finance that would enrich this regime. But what is not welcome would be pointing out the enormous lucrative network of deals that the military itself is engaged in that are linked to fossil fuels, that are linked to destroying remaining green space in cities like Cairo, that are building coal-powered cement plants and so on. None of that is welcome. And indeed, even just doing the research to say what is going on in Egypt could land you with a death sentence under the current regime.

AMY GOODMAN: I was looking at a retweet of yours. You retweeted Gillian Keegan, who said, “Young voices need to be heard. This morning, I met with Egyptian youth climate leaders–amazing people with inspiring ideas. At #Cop27, we must remember the energy and passion of young people, and ensure it drives us forward.” And you retweeted it with this comment: “This is exactly the greenwash/rightswash el-Sisi wants out of #COP27, while thousands of young activists suffer in his torture chambers. What an absolute disgrace. #FreeAlaa.” Talk more about this and the connection of the issue of human rights to climate activism, and who won’t be at the summit, not because they’re thousands of miles away — that’s another issue — but Egyptian activists.

NAOMI KLEIN: Sure. And Sanaa can speak about this much better than I. But that was a British — I believe she’s the envoy for Africa under — I don’t know what her position is today, because, of course, the British government is in complete collapse. And I didn’t mean any disrespect to the young climate leaders who were having their picture taken with her, but this is the kind of photo op that is being staged by el-Sisi. I think that young activists are being put in an absolutely untenable position inside Egypt and outside Egypt. They didn’t choose for this summit to be in Egypt. That was a decision, and I think a terrible one, made by the UNFCCC secretariat, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. You know, holding a COP, holding this huge summit, it’s a big economic boon for a country. It’s a big PR boon for a country. There should be conditions attached to it. There should be some minimum human rights criteria for any country that is going to be hosting a COP. And obviously, Egypt would not meet that.

But so, the irony — you know, Sanaa is with us. You know, Sanaa is a hero in her own right. Sanaa was one of the young people who took Tahrir Square in 2011 and were the toast of the world, right? I mean, Democracy Now! was covering it wall to wall. So was CNN. So was The Daily Show. They were the great hope, the Arab Spring. Sanaa was just 17 at the time. There were 14-year-olds in the square. And so, the irony of this regime holding up their youth leaders and saying that they’re going to be speaking — and this is a direct quote from the COP website — that they will be “speaking truth to power” in Egypt, while thousands upon thousands of young people are in el-Sisi’s torture chambers, is just a kind of — it is Orwellian in the dissonance. In some of the letters from prison, he talks about how some of his cellmates are just 17 themselves and have been in prison since they were kids.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to —

NAOMI KLEIN: So, I think — just one thing I would add is that yesterday Greta Thunberg tweeted in solidarity with Egypt’s prisoners of conscience and, you know, said — used the hashtag #FreeThemAll, which I think is really a very profound act and statement of solidarity from one youth leader to others behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Sanaa, but first I want to play the words of Alaa Abd El-Fattah in his own words.

ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: [translated] All that’s asked of us is that we insist on standing up for what’s right. We’re not required to be victorious in our stand for what’s right. We’re not required to be strong as we stand for what’s right. We’re not required to be rehearsed in our stand for what’s right, or to have a good plan or good organization. All that’s asked of us is that we insist on standing up for what’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: That, from your — from Alaa’s father’s memorial in 2014, briefly released to be able to attend. I know this is very painful for you, Sanaa, as you talk about your brother, more than 200 days on hunger strike. Your dad died in 2014. His son was born — is that right? — when he was in prison earlier.


AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts —

SANAA SEIF: Well, thank you both for —

AMY GOODMAN: — as you head back to the sit-in?

SANAA SEIF: Yeah. I wanted to stress on what Naomi was saying, that it’s really important to use this event to shed light on the human rights situation in Egypt. The repercussions are going to happen anyway. That cannot be saved, unfortunately. But they can be less. Right now the repercussions are starting to happen. Police forces have started around in several neighborhoods in the city of Cairo, in the capital, have started stopping people in the street and checking their mobile phones to see, like, what they write on Facebook. We usually have this — they do this around the anniversary of the revolution, and that’s the month where everybody who was part of the revolution would wipe their phones, would stay in a different address. Everybody believes that this oppressive technique has started early this year because COP is happening in Egypt. So, I just want to urge anybody going to keep that in mind, that people in Egypt are going to pay a very heavy price for that event.

And so, it’s really important to be critical, and it’s really important to speak up. And I’m really thankful to everybody doing that, like Naomi and Greta, because, first, it could ease the repercussions; secondly, while we face those repercussions, we should at least feel the warmth of solidarity. And as collectively all of us around the planet, we could create — it could be a good lesson learned for the future climate conferences that there is a — there are requirements for the host country, so that the next years there are no other countries that are basically sacrifice zones. The next year COP will be in UAE, which will be a much bigger challenge. So, yeah, it’s really important to shed light on the human rights situation in Egypt now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sanaa Seif, I want to thank you so much for being with us. You’re incredibly brave. You yourself have been in prison for more than three years, have also been on hunger strikes. At 17, as Naomi was saying, you were out in Tahrir Square giving out your high school newspaper, opposing the regime. Also one of the editors of the Oscar-nominated film The Square about Tahrir, Sanaa Seif, joining us from London, where she and her sister Mona are leading a sit-in for her brother’s release, on hunger strike for more than 200 days, their mother in Egypt because they always have one family member there to be near Alaa, though he is in prison. And, Naomi Klein, thanks so much for joining us from British, Columbia, senior contributing writer at The Intercept, professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia. Naomi wrote the foreword to Alaa’s book, that was just recently released, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. And we will link, Naomi, to your Guardian/Intercept piece, “Greenwashing a police state: the truth behind Egypt’s Cop27 masquerade.”

Next up, we go to Florida to speak with law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and civil rights attorney Barbara Arnwine, who are on a 26-city tour to increase voter registration and turnout ahead of the midterm elections. Stay with us.

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