The COP27 climate change summit is taking place in the closed civic space of Egypt, where the government ruthlessly represses civil society. This threatens to rob the meeting of much of the vital pressure civil society usually brings – yet the need for it has never been greater, with recent reports making clear that current and planned greenhouse gas emissions far exceed the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Governments should meet the moment by committing to end new fossil fuel projects, provide much more financial support for the transition and open up more space for civil society in climate talks, including by holding summits in countries where human rights are respected.

The size of the task has never been clearer. Nor has the need for urgent action. Report after report have made clear the world is on a trajectory to a temperature rise of devastating consequences. If all current climate pledges are met – something that seems unlikely – global temperatures will still rise by around 2.5 degrees by 2100, with catastrophic effects.

The commitment to limit the rise to a still-harmful level of 1.5 degrees, made by almost every state in the 2015 Paris Agreement, has no chance of being met if the current behaviours of states and corporations continue. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be halved by 2030 to meet the target – but instead they’re going up.

The major climate summits known as conferences of the parties (COPs) to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change offer annual opportunities to review progress and, potentially, correct course. But the mood going into COP27 in Egypt feels bleak.

The year since COP26 in Glasgow, UK, has seen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has forced an energy crisis, making clear how dependent the world still is on fossil fuels. Soaring oil and gas prices have helped force some realisation of the value of investment in renewable alternatives. But they’re also encouraging a search for new sources of extraction.

High prices have been great news for fossil fuel companies. The start of COP27 was preceded by announcements of record profits for fossil fuel giants, estimated at US$173 billion in the first nine months of 2022. These are potentially transformative sums that could be used to secure a safer future – but instead they will largely be used in share buy-backs and dividend payments.

At COP26 it was acknowledged that the plans every state must submit to limit and respond to climate change – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – were inadequate to cut emissions consistent with a 1.5-degree temperature rise. COP26 ended with an agreement that states would develop more ambitious NDCs by COP27 – but only 23 submitted revised plans by the 23 September deadline. The implementation of current NDC commitments would increase greenhouse gas emissions by over 10 per cent by 2030.

This desperate scenario calls for strong civil society action. Civil society is the force keeping climate change on the global agenda. Through a combination of tactics, including mass protests, non-violent civil disobedience, advocacy towards decision-makers and court action against states and companies, civil society has made clear the imperative to make more ambitious climate commitments and act on them urgently.

Civil society usually works to try to carry its calls for action into COP summits. But now there’s a problem: COP27 is taking place in Egypt, a country run by a government actively hostile towards civil society. Under Egypt’s many restrictions, civil society will likely be far less vocal and visible than usual at COP27. Without civil society’s pressure, a disastrous continuation of business as usual is likely to result.

Egypt’s crackdown

Egypt has been the scene of a sustained assault on civil and political freedoms since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led the 2013 military coup that removed the elected government. The following year el-Sisi became president in an election characterised by boycotts, and has remained so ever since. In 2018 he renewed his supposed mandate through a nominal election against a single token candidate with very low turnout, promising this would be his final term. But in 2019 he pushed through a constitutional referendum, riddled with reports of numerous voting irregularities, which means he could rule until 2030.

During his time, the state has accumulated vast powers to control and close civil society organisations (CSOs) – including environmental groups. Protests are severely restricted, brutal, sometimes lethal, force is used against them and those who organise protests are liable to prosecution. Activists are subject to criminalisation, detention, imprisonment, torture and other forms of mistreatment.

Among Egypt’s many imprisoned activists is British-Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah. Alaa was jailed in December 2021 on a five-year sentence for sharing a Facebook post denouncing abuses of imprisoned activists. He’s currently on hunger strike.

Voices from the frontline: Mona Seif

In a recent family visit, Alaa handed my mother and sister a new list of demands concerning the situation of all prisoners and political prisoners, arguing that there is no room for ‘individual salvation’. He now demands the release of all those detained or imprisoned in national state security detention facilities and headquarters after exceeding the two-year maximum pretrial detention period, as well as all people imprisoned for expressing their ideas, convicted for political reasons, or tried by emergency courts.

The Egyptian regime has released only 500 detainees over the past few months. But there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt.

The recent releases are part of the regime’s international public relations strategy in response to concerns expressed by the international community about the deteriorating human rights situation. The authorities claim they are opening a new chapter in their relationship with domestic civil society, the opposition and the international community.

But this is far from the truth. They are not willing to do the bare minimum. Alaa’s case makes clear that the regime is not serious about resolving the situation of political prisoners.

The reality is that most governments don’t care what the ruling regime is doing in Egypt. They are willing to turn a blind eye to El-Sisi’s atrocities because he fits into regional arrangements and is easily brought into mega business deals and arms deals that involve a lot of money. Who cares how big a debt he is accumulating on the shoulders of Egyptian people.

This is all working very well in the run-up to COP27, which the Egyptian regime is clearly using as a whitewashing PR stunt. In doing this, they are being assisted not just by the Gulf countries, which was to be expected, but by many western governments.


Mona Seif is an Egyptian activist campaigning for the release of her brother Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Civil society is trying to use Egypt’s hosting of COP27 as an opportunity to raise awareness of Alaa’s plight – and those of Egypt’s many more prisoners of conscience. In the months before COP27, the government sought to improve its image by releasing around 500 political prisoners. But thousands still languish in jail, often in dire conditions.

A PR opportunity for Egypt

It’s a rare dictator who doesn’t crave international prestige. COP27 gives el-Sisi a precious platform to present himself as a legitimate and respectable leader and to masquerade as a spokesperson of the global south. It offers him priceless photo opportunities – with presidents, business leaders and other high-profile figures – while offering few concessions in return.

The military remains Egypt’s dominant force and el-Sisi is secure in power. The next election in 2024 won’t offer people any vehicle to challenge him.

He also has powerful international supporters: the USA and other western states have long been prepared to overlook Egypt’s human rights violations because they see the country as playing a strategic regional role. They see authoritarian rule as a price worth paying for the prevention of terrorism and find in el-Sisi a willing business partner, including for arms sales.

The reality is that most governments don’t care what the ruling regime is doing in Egypt. They are willing to turn a blind eye to El-Sisi’s atrocities because he fits into regional arrangements and is easily brought into mega business deals and arms deals that involve a lot of money.


Western governments are currently falling over themselves to talk up their ‘green’ investments in Egypt. The release of a relatively small proportion of political prisoners offers enough of a sop to be able to say their engagement is having a positive impact on human rights.

Voices from the frontline: Ahmed Samih

El-Sisi is desperate for international attention and respect ahead of the presidential election but hasn’t so far gained any. Under his presidency, Egypt hasn’t hosted an international event since the 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference.

Hosting COP27 is an excellent opportunity for his regime to whitewash its international reputation without opening up its closed civic space. El-Sisi was eager to host COP27 because the climate summit’s outcomes are not binding, so being the host won’t put his government under pressure to adopt the resulting recommendations, and Egypt even stands to benefit from international investment in its renewable energies sector.

The only potential issue is posed by international environmental activists who will likely protest, which is why the Egyptian government chose Sharm el-Sheik, a geographic location where protests can easily be contained by security forces.

For it to profit the most off COP27, the Egyptian government needs to bring as many global leaders as possible to Sharm el-Sheikh. To prevent this happening, there is a need for a broad connected campaign led by Arab and international advocates to raise awareness about the human rights situation in Egypt. Sadly, I am not aware of any significant coordination efforts between human rights and environmental activists, Egyptian or otherwise, inside Egypt or abroad, in the run-up to COP27.


Ahmed Samih is the co-founder of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies.

A closed COP

Ahead of COP27, Egypt’s government is indicating that it wants the show but not the substance. It has faced international calls to ensure it opens up space for civil society around the summit – including to enable civil society to protest, express dissent and demand greater ambition. But it looks like this is going to be the least accessible COP summit in a long time.

The venue, a convention centre in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort on the Red Sea, could scarcely be any less accessible. It’s surrounded by barriers and can only be reached by air or, if by road, by navigating numerous checkpoints. Anyone who isn’t accredited has no prospect of simply turning up and joining a protest outside the conference venue.

There will be a specific designated protest space, described as ‘adjacent to’ the conference venue – but this will keep protesters away from the delegations they want to reach. People may be fearful of protesting in a government-managed space while attempts at protesting anywhere else may be repressed. Given their experience, many are dubious about the idea the government will respect protests and anticipate heavy-handed treatment.

There’s a troubling precedent. When Sharm el-Sheikh hosted the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights meeting in 2019, civil society activists in attendance – people used to participating in such meetings – reported restrictions against holding events and an unprecedented level of intimidation and surveillance from Egyptian officials.

Already almost 70 people have been arrested ahead of the summit for calling for protests on 11 November, which falls during the summit. Indian activist Ajit Rajagopal was arrested shortly after beginning a solo protest walk from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh.

These aren’t the only problems. Accredited CSOs can enter the convention centre’s ‘blue zone’, an area with access to delegations where CSOs and others can host displays and hold events. But they were recently told the zone would be closed on 7 November, one of the two high-level days when many world leaders are present, limiting the opportunities for influence. Many government and business leaders took part in events in the blue zone at COP26.

Domestic civil society faces particular challenges. Several Egyptian CSOs have complained they are being kept away. They claim the government secretly screened Egyptian CSOs when determining which could apply for a special one-off observer status accreditation and excluded CSOs critical of the government. All those denied the opportunity to register have faced years of government attacks. Among those not able to attend are the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, which had hoped to use its presence to defend the rights of anyone detained for protesting.

With only one Egyptian CSO permanently registered to attend COP summits, this means the UN effectively let the government handpick much of the domestic civil society in attendance.

Voices from the frontline: Ayisha Siddiqa

Having people from the global south and members of Indigenous communities participate in climate talks is very important not just because they are the most affected by climate change but also because they are the main drivers of ambition for climate commitments.

Civil society doesn’t only offer diversity – it also offers the tools, the language and the practical lens to push all of this forward. At the end of the day, every decision made in COPs affects everyone. Our lives are on the line so we should have a say. It is not only our right but also our duty to protect the earth. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks.

COP27 has been labelled as the ‘African COP’ and one would think that African environmental organisations and activists would be given a platform to participate freely and make their voices heard. This unfortunately has not been the case: we have already seen a number of young Africans being prevented from attending. Most of them have been denied accreditation while many others don’t have the funding to attend.

Holding a COP in a country with closed civic space such as Egypt is unacceptable and should not have happened. I have no idea how anybody could think a conference like this could be held in such a restricted environment.

The situation we are now in is the responsibility of both the UN and the African governments that nominated Egypt to host COP27. They have let it become a big circus with states bidding to host the conference so they can get money from tourism without caring the least about the crisis at hand and the policies needed to tackle it.


Ayisha Siddiqa is the founder of Polluters Out.

The activists’ dilemma

The suspicion is that the only domestic CSOs able to access COP27 will be those that don’t criticise the government. The Egyptian government can then use these to promote a false image of its willingness to tolerate and partner with civil society.

Among the domestic civil society allowed to take part are no doubt genuine environmental CSOs working on local environmental projects – an important part of the multifaceted response needed to combat climate change. Environmental CSOs report having recently seen greater willingness on the part of the government to allow then to work and engage in dialogue, which has enabled the government to position itself as a champion of global south climate demands. Such CSOs are opening themselves up to the charge that they are being co-opted by the dictatorship, as are the young climate leaders the government is pushing into the spotlight.

Those being invited by the Egyptian government are broadly those whose work doesn’t bring them into any confrontation with governmental and economic power. Even when they have a position on more controversial issues such as the impacts of infrastructure development and the tourism industry, they may be unwilling to raise these for fear of retaliation by the government once the COP27 spotlight has faded.

The danger here is of presenting the climate crisis as something purely amenable to technocratic fixes: a problem that can be addressed through projects, without taking account of the vast economic and political power disparities and human rights deficits that lie at the heart of the crisis. The government has claimed those accredited from Egypt have been invited because they have ‘climate change expertise’. But climate change, as a social justice and human rights crisis, can’t be the province of a select band of ‘expert’ organisations.

Some large CSOs have also faced criticism of underplaying the human rights situation in Egypt. Greenpeace has been accused of being reluctant to call out Egypt’s appalling human rights record out of fear it could imperil its access at COP27. Egyptian environmental groups are similarly said to have been hesitant about supporting calls for the release of political prisoners.

Concern for the safety of the staff of domestic environmental CSOs – and international environmental groups with staff in Egypt – is understandable. CSOs may well want to focus on ensuring they work to secure the strongest possible commitments at COP27, with other issues seen as a distraction from the crisis. But this risks playing to the dangerous notion that climate action can be separated from human rights. Large international CSOs in particular have the ability to both push for climate progress at COP27 and make clear that the Egyptian government’s repression of civic space is a barrier to climate action.

All these dilemmas and trade-offs are avoidable: they come down to the decision to hold COP27 in a country with closed civic space. It calls into question whether the UN’s climate change secretariat understands the dynamics of how such meetings should work and what civil society’s role must be.

Climate action won’t come from the government commitments alone. Constant pressure is needed, including during summits, to push for ambitious commitments, and afterwards, to hold governments accountable for the commitments they have made.

The problem of Egypt hosting COP27 goes beyond the meeting itself. The summit host is expected to play a key role in climate leadership, domestically and internationally, since it retains the chair until the next COP. But insulated from civil society pressure, Egypt’s NDC is unambitious, falling far short of any claims to leadership. At the same time, the Egyptian government is ploughing ahead with huge infrastructure projects, including the construction of a grandiose new administrative capital. During COP27, it can unveil whatever eye-catching pledges it wishes – knowing it will face precious little scrutiny about following up on them.

To encourage ambitious climate action, the UN needs to hold its important meetings in countries where civil society is free to act. But there’s no sign the lesson is being learned. COP28 will be held in another country with closed civic space: the United Arab Emirates. This can only continue to defer the pressure at a time when the need for action has never been more urgent.

Urgent action needed

That part of civil society that can be present and vocal will hope to focus on some key areas where progress is most needed – including climate financing.

Global north states still aren’t meeting the commitment they made in 2009 to provide US$100 billion a year in climate financing to help global south states both cut their emissions – known as mitigation – and deal with the current and future impacts of climate change – known as adaptation. What funding has been committed has tended to focus on mitigation rather than adaptation.

Voices from the frontline: Tariq Al-Olaimy

COP27 must raise the call of climate justice for the most vulnerable, and also the least responsible for climate change: the people in Africa, in the South-west Asia and North Africa region, and on small islands, among others.

All small island states together only received US$1.5 billion in climate finance between 2016 and 2020. In the same period, 22 small island developing states paid more than US$26 billion to their external creditors – almost 18 times as much. Climate justice requires debt cancellation, reparations and non-debt climate finance for small island developing states.

To truly scale mitigation ambition, it is important that governments don’t just negotiate the text and numbers of pledges but negotiate the very system within which we implement climate action. We need degrowth of the most ecologically harmful sectors of our economy, a global and just transition and transformation towards a post-growth economy.

In a context characterised by short-term political calculations we are completely missing the need for urgent and radical change. I do not expect COP27 to address all this. But there are still some issues that could be meaningfully advanced – in particular, the establishment of the basis for the operationalisation of a Loss and Damage Finance Facility, the details of which could be finalised at COP28 next year.


Tariq Al-Olaimy is a Bahraini social entrepreneur and managing director of 3BL Associates.

The clear civil society ask is for states to meet the climate financing target and the commitment made to COP26 to double funding for adaptation by 2025 – and to quickly get the money to where it can make a difference,

This needs to come with greater political commitment to support adaptation plans, an acknowledgement that adaptation needs to be community-led rather than top-down and the setting of clear adaptation targets. Another year of deadly extreme weather in country after country should have made the need for this apparent.

Until progress is made, civil society and global south states will continue to point to the inherent injustice of climate change: global north countries have done the most to cause it through industrialisation, which combined with colonialism is the foundation of current global wealth and power inequalities. Now global south countries are being asked to pursue a different path. The least wealthy nations can do is help pay for it.

Currently the fuel crisis means global north states are pleading poverty. Some limited windfall taxes have been imposed on record fossil fuel profits, but the fossil fuel giants have been adept at avoiding them, and this remains an underdeveloped area for potential climate funding.

Voices from the frontline: Sohanur Rahman

In the run-up to COP27, our major priority is loss and damage financing. Before we can pursue adaptation, we have to support communities with loss and damage. We are not asking developed countries for charity or debt, but for reparations for their historical responsibility in this climate crisis.

In 2019, developed countries pledged US$100 billion towards adaptation and mitigation but they are not disbursing this. Everything at this point is theoretical – no practical mechanism has been put in place to ensure the money is paid up. And when the funds finally come, we would like to see a 50/50 split between adaptation and mitigation, because both require equal efforts. Finally, we would like to see the financing of locally led adaptation addressed at COP27. Communities should be given a platform to develop and implement solutions that will work for them, rather than implementing universal strategies that don’t fit everybody.

This COP should be one where the focus shifts to implementation. We no longer want to hear promises that will remain unfulfilled. We want action towards solving our problems.

Because the current systems are failing, civil society must advocate for systemic change. To achieve such transformative change, we must be united. Those joining COP27 should use the platform to advocate for change; those observing from home countries should mobilise in their own countries to highlight the crisis we are in. We must all put pressure on decision-makers to deliver on their promises. COP27 will only bring a breakthrough if civil society is allowed to participate without any restrictions and a decision is made to start paying out climate reparations.


Sohanur Rahman is executive coordinator of YouthNet for Climate Justice.

Civil society and global south states will also be looking for much-delayed real progress on the contested issue of loss and damage financing – compensation for the impacts of climate change, to be paid by the states that have most caused climate change to those suffering the greatest harm.

Global north states have long refused to move, in part because they fear opening up a bigger conversation about reparations for colonial crimes. But time and again it’s been made clear that the most powerful states can’t simply expect global south states to cut their emissions and adapt to climate change without greater financial support – including on loss and damage.

A small step forward came at COP26, which established a three-year dialogue on the issue. The government of Denmark has since broken the ice by committing a sum of US$13 million for loss and damage funding: a small contribution given the size of the task, but potentially a key step in normalising the idea. Significant further moves need to come at COP27, which should at least agree to develop a plan.

Voices from the frontline: Chibeze Ezekiel

Climate finance is still an outstanding issue. There should be a clear understanding of how the mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change will be rolled out. Global leaders must provide communities with resources to adapt to climate change and assist them with mitigation plans. All of this will only be possible if adequate climate finance is provided.

Another priority is loss and damage. We are aware that vulnerable people and those living in underdeveloped communities are the ones suffering the most as a result of climate change. Many people have lost their homes, land and source of livelihood, and it is only fair they are compensated for the irreparable damage caused to them.

Energy transition, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies, is also an issue we expect to see discussed. Especially since there are industrialising ambitions in Africa, it will be interesting to see how leaders plan to make energy available and affordable during this transition. Africa has plenty of resources such as wind, solar and hydro, but its progress towards renewable energies has been very slow. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, only two per cent of global investment in renewable energies is invested in Africa, and only three per cent of jobs in the continent are in the sector. We want to know how global leaders plan to use their resources to help Africa with its energy transition.


Chibeze Ezekiel is coordinator of the Strategic Youth Network for Development, Ghana.

Several states are reacting to current high prices by advancing plans to exploit more untapped fossil fuels reserves. For global south states with unexploited reserves, current high prices offer a powerful incentive to extract them. Some African states have urged that while global north should focus on making deep emissions cuts, global south states should be free to drill for more oil and gas. Meanwhile, the US government continues to provide huge levels of funding for fossil fuel projects, particularly in Africa.

An approach rooted in human rights would make this impossible. If the current trajectory continues and fossil fuel keeps coming out of the ground, the communities with the least power – including many people in the global south – will experience the worst harm.

Much more ambition on emissions cuts is needed. Egypt isn’t the only country to submit a disappointing NDC. The current COP chair, the UK, has handed in an NDC that is no more ambitious than its previous version. It’s a similar story from major states such as China and India: NDCs have been refined with added details, but with no higher ambition.

If states really want to show they’re serious about acting on the crisis, at COP27 they should commit to no new fossil fuel projects, and ceasing the financing that enables them.

This COP should be one where the focus shifts to implementation. We no longer want to hear promises that will remain unfulfilled. We want action towards solving our problems.


What COP27 doesn’t need are the kind of glossy presentations and highly choreographed announcements that characterised COP26. COP27 needs to keep it real and shift the focus – from PR and promises to actual implementation that delivers action in the here and now. Civil society may be less able to speak up than usual, but there are billions of reasons – the lives of people now, and in the future – to heed civil society’s call.


  • The Egyptian government should release all political prisoners and guarantee to respect the right to speak out, protest and participate in civil society, during and after COP27.
  • Global north states should commit to a plan to develop a loss and damage funding mechanism and meet promises on funding for mitigation and adaptation.
  • The UN should ensure that future climate summits are held in countries where civil society has more freedom to organise, including to protest during meetings.
All quotations are edited interview extracts. Please visit our COP27 interview series for the full versions.

Cover photo by Reuters/Sayed Sheasha via Gallo Images