‘There is no environmental justice without a free civic space’: Yasmin Omar on the destruction of green space in Egypt and COP27
At last year’s Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, campaigners stormed the streets in their thousands, some smearing blood over themselves, others taking off their clothes. They were chanting, yelling, all in support of meaningful action for climate change.
“This is the way people express themselves peacefully. However, people in Egypt cannot even express themselves on social media,” says Yasmin Omar, a human rights lawyer and UN Manager at the Committee for Justice. “People cannot even write a post or a tweet because the punishment here is spending unlimited time in Egyptian prisons.”
In November, heads of state, ministers, climate change activists and civil society members will meet in Egypt’s Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, where they will discuss issues critical to tackling the climate emergency. Egypt’s human rights record is a focus. Why has a country with 60,000 political prisoners been chosen to host a summit, where the participation of civil society is paramount?
“As an Egyptian human rights defender, I find it a unique moment to voice these concerns,” says Yasmin.
“However, I think that it’s important to maintain credibility and to maintain that choosing the State that will hold the UN summit should maintain successful and meaningful participation in those discussions. The attack on civil society, as many of us know, did not really start now. It started when President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took power in 2013.”
“It’s not just neglecting to include those who are most experienced in the issue in the conversation,” Yasmin continues. “But if the State is also targeting them for taking on this type of work, for mobilising around environmental or even civil society participation in the environment, that conversation and this atmosphere does not really create successful policies that could address the issue.”
As the conference approaches, Egypt’s own environmental record has come under increased scrutiny, in particular, the building of highways through historic neighbourhoods and the destruction of green spaces. Sisi claims to have built 2,700 new highways over the course of his eight-year rule.
Whilst Egypt has made some attempt at introducing new legislation to protect these green spaces, critics have said it is merely cosmetic. “Like any other attempts, I see it as theatrical, because when we see the increasing razing of green space, it’s not recent necessarily related to development plans,” says Yasmin.
“We haven’t really seen an explanation from the government relating erasing historical green spaces from Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities to development plans, but when it comes to development plans itself, the State has been taking mega development plans and projects that are not necessarily sensitive to the environment or created to enhance the lives of the Egyptian people.”
One of the biggest projects in question is the multi-billion-dollar New Administrative Capital being built fifty kilometres from Cairo on a patch of desert, complete with skyscrapers and a green space twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
Because of the vast expanse of greenery, the government is presenting the new capital as a development which will make Egypt greener. But the plans are not sensitive to the environment, Yasmin says, and neither do they enhance the lives of Egyptian people.
“Look at the waste, energy, water, and it’s not necessary or required for development in this area in Egypt, and not necessarily saving energy resources. We could use these resources to enhance infrastructure to face global warming and increasing grain in the winter, that mainly touches and affects the lives of those who are marginalised, the poorer classes of Egypt,” explains Yasmin.
Farmers are among the top people affected by the destruction of green space, says Yasmin, whilst climate change and global warming are affecting the production of crops in Egypt.
“Egypt is currently heading towards a food emergency because of the decrease in necessary crops. And this is all because we needed to address the issue of climate change years ago, enhancing the infrastructure to help the most marginalised people and to be able to accept the weather changes.”
Earlier this year, the government launched the billion-dollar National Climate Change Strategy, which promises to support a stronger, greener Egyptian economy. “We could serve the environment by working on issues that we already have and stop wasting resources on unnecessary projects,” she says.
“Maybe investors will come and invest here because we don’t have a strong, legal framework that protects the Egyptian people from increasing carbon emissions or from [discharging chemical waste into the] Nile River. There are a lot of practices by businesses that are not addressed and, as I said, the most marginalised people who are on the borders are more affected by it.”
“The national strategy is from now to 2050. There are studies that say that, in even half the time between now and 2050, a city like Alexandria could suffer from the rising water levels. I don’t think the people living in this endangered city are included in the conversation, or that they are being taken into account because they will be forcibly displaced, and they will be in danger.”
As the conference approaches, Yasmin is circulating a petition along with 12 other human rights organisations, calling on the government to release political prisoners, unblock media websites and allow civil society to take part in COP27, without fear of reprisal.
“Because we think that, after COP27 ends and the world is turned away from Egypt, that there will be a severe crackdown on those who participated in the conversation around COP27, or in the event, or even for those who mobilised for better respect for human rights,” she says.
“Addressing the environmental issue requires a holistic approach that puts human rights in the middle of every conversation, and we should send the message that there isn’t environmental justice without human rights. There isn’t environmental justice without free civic space.”
This article was first published at Middle East Monitor on 20 September 2022