“This is a circus or a charade in order to greenwash the Egyptian military dictatorship”

Interview with Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy about next month’s climate summit in the “Las Vegas of Egypt”


Hi Hossam, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. Could you start by introducing yourself? Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hossam el-Hamalawy. I’m an Egyptian journalist, and a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, which is one of Egypt’s left-wing organizations. Originally I was a photojournalist who had to document the Egyptian revolution, and was involved in the labour movement back home. 

I’m currently based in Berlin, that’s where I reside now. This is where I’m doing my PhD on the Egyptian security services, and their role in the counter revolution.

Today we want to talk about the COP27 climate summit, which is starting on November 6, in Sharm el-Sheikh. Given the state of the environment, isn’t it a good idea that people are coming together and talking about stopping climate change?

In an abstract term, this sounds very nice and very attractive. In concrete terms, and in reality, this is a circus or a charade in order to greenwash the Egyptian military dictatorship. 

Egypt is currently led by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former Minister of Defence. In 2013, Sisi led a military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, he has been ruling that country with an iron fist. We have thousands of political prisoners and pre-trial detainees, and dissent from all shades has been crushed brutally by his security services. 

…this is being marketed abroad as empowering the Global South. But what you’re doing is simply empowering and giving political capital to a military dictatorship…

Sisi suffered for a very short period of time following the coup, with some sort of diplomatic boycott, which did not really last for long. Usually the easiest way to do business with the industrial West, if you’re a military dictator, is to simply take off your uniform, and you organize some kind of “election”. Once you’re dressed in a civilian suit, they start dealing with you  again. This is what Sisi did.

COP27 is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, which is the Las Vegas of Egypt. It’s a touristic area by the Red Sea which is mainly for international tourists and well-to-do Egyptians. In order to  even get into Sinai, ordinary Egyptians have to have special permits. It’s not a free movement area. 

Usually Egyptians who cross the Suez Canal to Sinai are vetted by the police. If you’re not middle or upper middle class, if you look poor, then you must present a reason why you’re going to Sinai along with permits for work or  accommodation. If you can’t provide these, you’re not allowed to go to these areas. 

While he has been inviting climate change activists to come to Egypt, Sisi has been embarking on a war on greenery. He’s been chopping down trees in a methodical manner, all throughout Cairo and the other urban centres. He is doing this to extend and widen streets, to allow military and armoured vehicles to move more easily, in order to quell any future uprisings. This also facilitates traffic to his newly secluded administrative capital. 

COP27 is being held in an Egypt where political prisoners are languishing in jail, where Egyptian environmental activists are not allowed to attend, where indigenous tribesmen from Sinai, who have long been prosecuted and marginalized, are not given a voice. 

By the way, a joint statement has been issued by Egyptian human rights activists demanding a platform and a voice at the conference for the local Sinai people who’ve been subjected to Sisi’s dirty war during his counterinsurgency, and who have been subjected to forceful evictions. But such calls have fallen on deaf ears, as you can imagine. 

So this is being marketed abroad as empowering the Global South. But what you’re doing is simply empowering and giving political capital to a military dictatorship, that is destroying the environment.

If the Egyptian environmental activists are not going to be at COP27, who will be there representing Egypt?

There will definitely be government officials, as well as youth who have been hand picked by the security services to represent the regime. They will be rebranded as NGO activists, environmental experts and what have you, but there won’t be any serious campaign or from Egyptian civil society.

In the context of a conference… a few kilometres to the South of an ongoing war against the local indigenous tribes, thinking that you can further your environmental cause in this setting, means that you are simply lying to yourself, and to the public

What does normalization mean concretely for the Sisi dictatorship? What did he gain from COP27?

It gains more political capital, which means that he can buy more arms from the West. He can expect diplomatic support from the different players when it comes to shielding his regime officials from prosecution abroad. It helps him avoid the UN related moves to either denounce the human rights record or punish his regime.

Let’s look at the reaction of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Berlin. They will agree with everything that you say about the Sisi dictatorship, and about political prisoners. But they are saying that they are coming under pressure from their groups in the Global South, in particular in Africa, who argue: if this summit doesn’t happen, then we’ll have more Pakistans. Western countries will be able to ignore the voice of the Global South even more. Do you think this is a legitimate point of view?

No, I don’t. You can’t save the environment in one place if you’re destroying it in another.  Empowering local military dictators in the Global South, and letting them get away with crimes is not going to help your environmental cause. In the context of a conference organized in Las Vegas, a few kilometres to the South of an ongoing war against the local indigenous tribes, thinking that you can further your environmental cause in this setting, means that you are simply lying to yourself, and to the public. And this is not the leftist solidarity that we would expect from our partners.

Moving from the Left to the German government. The Germans now have a Green foreign minister, who I guess will be at COP27. And Germany is one of Egypt’s major trading partners. Do you think that the new German Red-Green-Yellow government will be able to force change from Sisi either on environmental matters or around repression?

I honestly don’t think so. There is a long track record of the German state eventually accommodating military dictatorships as long as they do business deals with them. Every now and then there might be some concerns raised about political prisoners, or high profile detainees which Egypt may use to score some PR victory. But other than that, I don’t really expect any substantial change in German foreign policy.

Let’s talk about one of those prisoners. Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who’s perhaps the best known Egyptian political prisoner. There is a free Alaa campaign in Berlin, which has already organized some protests at the British Embassy. What’s the situation with Alaa now? What help is he receiving?

Alaa is entering the 200th day of his hunger strike. And the only thing we can do to help him is to create as much noise as possible around his cause, hoping that by pressuring the Egyptian regime into some PR scandal, we can secure the release of Alaa and maybe a number of other hostages that the regime has in there.

Alaa’s health is in a very fragile situation. He has been kept in solitary confinement for a very long time. At this point, many say that his imprisonment is more or less a personal vendetta by Sisi himself who is offended and insulted by Alaa’s family who have been central to the activism around and before the revolution.

Do you think that COP 27 offers opportunities for our side to raise Alaa’s case and to put Sisi under pressure?

Maybe, but not necessarily by going to Sharm el-Sheikh and thinking that you can voice such demands there, but by boycotting it and by exploiting the media attention so as to raise as many issues related to human rights as possible in the current situation.

If you don’t support people attending COP27, what is your alternative?  

When it comes to saving the environment, I think that everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room, which is called capitalism. If German activists want to save the environment, then they should campaign and organize against their own government and its own policies. 

When it comes to coal use and helping the transition into non fossil fuel as soon as possible, your fight is local. As for us in Egypt, the solidarity that you can give us is, at least, to not empower our own regime. This is number one. Number two, hold protests in front of Egyptian embassies and consulates around the world with pictures of political prisoners, demanding their immediate release.

How can people reading this interview get involved in protests around COP27? Where can they go? How can they find out what’s happening?

I usually follow two links. One is the Egypt solidarity website. And the other one is called cop civic space. Follow the news via those two links to get involved. You can also follow the Free Alaa campaign in Berlin.

Thanks Hossam. Good luck in your future work