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MEP_COP26
Wael Aboulmagd and Yasmine Fouad, Minister of Environment, Egypt

In November, the world’s marquee climate conference will come to one of its fastest warming regions. Over roughly two weeks, global leaders, businesspeople, and, in theory, civil society organizations, will negotiate and schmooze along the shores of the Red Sea at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. After a rather mixed outcome of last year’s COP 26 in Glasgow – and even more chilling IPCC report releases since then, global environmentalists are counting on this year’s COP 27 to produce the kinds of game-changing, emissions-cutting measures that climate risks so desperately demand.  

Though global in scope, this gathering is a big deal for the Egyptian hosts and their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As the first of two consecutive COPs in MENA, with COP 28 planned for the United Arab Emirates, it could provide the impetus to accelerate action against threats that will – and, indeed, already are – battering the region more than most. A recent EU agency paper grimly reinforces how this part of the world is both uniquely vulnerable to climate change and uniquely ill-prepared.  

Here, for the first time in a while, is an opportunity to connect climate action to broader economic and security priorities in MENA. 

Furthermore, with the Middle East lagging on climate action in large part due to the indifference of its senior officialdom, this COP could provide the kind of pomp-heavy mega-platform needed to convince these men (and few women) of the need to act. Although climate and environment now feature at most Middle East-related gatherings, they’re often granted graveyard slots and struggle to attract significant interest. Here, for the first time in a while, is an opportunity to connect climate action to broader economic and security priorities in MENA. 

But for environmental civil society in Egypt and the wider region, this COP arguably carries an even greater significance than it does for the states themselves. Starved of funding despite the omnipresence of climate and environmental threats, often deprived of willing or empowered government interlocutors, and sometimes targeted by security services, these organizations have had little chance to contribute meaningfully to decision-making in much of the region. There’s an argument to be made that these crises have deepened as a direct result of the sidelining of many of those who are best placed to address them. If MENA’s environmental community is to play a consequential role in stifling some of the worst climate fallouts, this might be their – and by extension, perhaps, the region’s residents’, last best chance.  

Activists and conservationists across MENA are acutely aware of this, and many of them are girding for action. They’ve harnessed the COP news hook to escalate campaigns in media and bolster their profiles – to good effect in places. From Tangier to Tehran, there are generally more environment-focused journalists and more environmental news segments. To be fair, some of them are superficial, and, in Egypt at least, largely drowned out by Cairo’s own pre-conference scene-setting. Staid state-owned newspapers and TV channels are awash with reports of tree planting initiatives of dubious value.  

MENA environmentalists’ priorities align most closely with those of regional states when it comes to lobbying for increased adaptation finance for the region. Consequently, this is an area where they hope to directly influence proceedings. In Glasgow, Global South delegates upped their demands for rich country funding to offset the ‘loss and damage’ from extreme weather events – and that pressure is likely to grow in Egypt. But many states lack both the capacity and expertise to access or negotiate for funding, or even fully participate at COP. By advocating on their behalf as well, MENA environmentalists are positioning themselves to champion climate-vulnerable communities at large. 

Officials from poor states seem to approve. “Quite honestly, we need help,” said one climate negotiator from an East African country that’s often struggled to deploy more than a few delegates to COPs. “So the more we get from civil society the better.” 

Across much of the region, environmental protection has long been perceived as an unaffordable luxury amid conflict and economic crises.

Most importantly, after years in the wilderness, many of these organizations are hoping to use this ‘hometown’ COP to establish and deepen ties with senior regional officials and international environmentalists. Across much of the region, environmental protection has long been perceived as an unaffordable luxury amid conflict and economic crises, a narrative that’s fueled paltry public and private contributions to “green” concerns. Relatedly, climate action has been cast as the exclusive responsibility of the Western and East Asian countries who largely created the problem. In this political climate of relative disinterest and hence limited cash, MENA environmentalism has been reduced to such penury that veteran activists think it might be the most cash-strapped movement of its kind in the world. According to a survey of Mediterranean civil society conducted by the Mediterranean Dialogue for Rights and Equality, environmental NGOs in North Africa and the Levant have smaller budgets, fewer staff, and fewer projects than any other form of civil society. Now, with this renewed opportunity to illustrate their importance, they hope to finally secure the resources to maximize their role, particularly after the COP roadshow departs. 

“This is already putting pressure on the Egyptian government to wedge open some space for civil society,” one veteran Cairo environmentalist said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “We just need much more and we need it to last.” 

If regional states need any reminder of the benefits that empowered environmental groups can yield, they could do worse than to look at the likes of EcoPeace Middle East, a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian group, which has spearheaded vital and mutually beneficial cross-border water-sharing agreements, and Egypt’s own HEPCA. Fearful of the impact of inadequate trash disposal, among other problems, this Red Sea-focused NGO convinced local authorities of the economic benefits of reworking its waste management practices. In doing so, it has helped maintain the Hurghada area’s pristine beaches and reefs, and, by extension, its all-important tourism sector.  

Across the region, hundreds of environmentalists have subsequently been threatened into silence, pushed into exile, imprisoned, or worse.  

Yet this opportunity, this moment in the sun, comes with considerable peril, too – in large part precisely because of the enhanced spotlight it will bring. Although environmental consciousness remains insufficient among many officials, some are slowly waking to the environment’s destabilizing potential. However, in a number of authoritarian states, like Iran, that improved understanding of the problem and of its capacity to rally otherwise hostile political constituencies has merely sparked a brutal backlash against environmental civil society. Across the region, hundreds of environmentalists have subsequently been threatened into silence, pushed into exile, imprisoned, or worse.  

This COP consequently brings environmentalists to something of an impasse. Do too little and they risk wasting this golden chance. Make too much ‘noise’ and they’ll invite unwanted, and potentially dangerous, scrutiny. The very nature of COPs, with their histories of vocal protests and intense environmentalist pressure on prevaricating delegates, along with this year’s choice of venue, has only added to NGO fears. 

In interviews with a dozen environmentalists from across MENA, most of them expressed ambivalence about holding the COP in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and one that’s intensely vulnerable to climate change. Cairo has crushed independent civil society, and its security services aren’t likely to look kindly on these organizations embarrassing them in front of the world’s media, even if the blowback isn’t immediate. (Egyptian organizations, which are particularly cash-strapped due to bans on foreign funding, were very under-represented in the Mediterranean Dialogue survey, unwilling, it seems, to even participate for fear of consequences.)  

That uncertainty has been compounded by the nature of Sharm el-Sheikh, a heavily securitized resort with one major road in and out, easily policed spaces, and, apparently, hotels that are required to charge rates that might push the entire COP beyond some organizations’ means, particularly those from poorer countries. Two-star hotels must charge no less than $120 per night during the conference, a big increase on normal rates, and a move that casts doubt on the Egyptian government’s desire to incorporate civil society or poorer states in general. Activists are also primed for ‘astroturfed’ protests in which state-affiliated NGOs demonstrate near the convention center to deliver the impression of an independent local civil society. 

For what it’s worth, global climate experts say that Egypt was likely awarded COP 27 because of its well-regarded environment minister, ability to host an event of this magnitude, and energetic lobbying by its diplomats. 

Activists point out that many of the most engaging global climate protests are now largely unmoored from major gatherings.

But despite these daunting challenges, environmentalists are largely sanguine about their prospects of threading the needle between irrelevance and danger. Most of them acknowledge the impossibility of any kind of ‘in-your-face’ demonstration in Sharm, certainly on the part of local or perhaps regional civil society. This need not be a devastating setback, though. Activists point out that many of the most engaging global climate protests, like Fridays for Future, are now largely unmoored from major gatherings. Others have raised the possibility of a kind of parallel civil society-led COP elsewhere.  

These activists are acutely aware, too, that there are certain topics which they’ll simply have to skirt. Fossil fuels are likely to be a serious bone of contention at this COP (as at previous events), but in Sharm they might be particularly politically sensitive given divisions between the energy-producing Gulf states, who dominate the Arab climate group, non-producers across the Global South, and Cairo’s desire to prevent those tensions from spilling into the open. Here, too, regional environmentalists aren’t too concerned. For the most part, they feel the onus for fossil fuel use reduction falls on their rich country consumers.  

Ultimately, though, if host country Egypt wants to try and make a success of this COP (and on that the general verdict is still out), then MENA environmentalists are somewhat hopeful that regional powers-that-be will recognize the need to allow genuine environmental expertise to come in from the cold. It’s a heavily caveated, low bar for ‘success.’ But after a decade of death by neglect in some places and relentless pressure in others, that might be as much as they can hope for. 

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

This article was originally published by the New Security Beat, a blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program.

About the Author

Peter Schwartzein

Peter Schwartzstein

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more