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Nowhere to hide from Egypt's security state at COP27

Nowhere to hide from Egypt's security state at COP27
7 min read
17 November, 2022
Analysis: Egypt's security apparatus infiltrates every corner of the COP27 summit, from mass surveillance and digital tracking to camouflaged regime operators, and the worst is yet to come.

A few days before the United Nations Climate Conference, COP27, commenced at Egypt’s resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, security analysts, including myself, began to warn attendees from all around the world of the serious security threats they were likely to encounter during the global summit.

Such warnings weren’t out of intuition, but rather the result of more than a decade of working on Egypt’s security affairs and experiencing first-hand how ruthless the Egyptian authorities are in pursuing and intimidating anyone they deem “unwanted.” For Egypt’s regime, “anyone critical or calling for reform is a threat, not just unwanted”.

Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, it didn’t take long into the global event for unsettling indicators of Egypt’s ruthless securitisation of the conference to appear.

On 8 November, prominent activist Sanaa Seif, sister of imprisoned British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah who escalated his seven-month-long hunger strike into a water strike during the conference, sat on two panels alongside the top officers of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and others.

Seif’s sessions, hosted by international bodies publicly and collectively advocating for Abdel Fattah’s release, were described by attendees as the most crowded events that took place at COP27.

During her first appearance, Seif was heckled by Egyptian member of parliament Amr Darwish before he was expelled by the venue’s security personnel. Hours later, during her second appearance, she was confronted once again by Nehad Abulkomsan, a well-known regime loyalist, TV presenter, and member of Egypt’s infamous National Council for Human Rights.

While such interruptions might be viewed as spontaneous, individual interactions, they are in reality representative of Egypt’s camouflaged security presence all over COP27.

Since the rise of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in 2014, Egypt’s parliament has become entirely dominated by the security apparatus, namely the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), who literally pick, choose, and vet who gets to run for parliament, let alone who actually becomes a parliamentarian.

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In the case of Darwish, he certainly fit the criteria, and therefore became a member of parliament as well as occupying other positions within regime-controlled entities.

The case of Nehad Abulkomsan isn’t any different. Akin to the parliament’s upper and lower houses, Egypt’s media sphere has become overwhelmingly dominated by the security apparatus, this time through the direct takeovers of newspapers, publishing houses, and television networks by companies owned and operated by the intelligence directorate and other state institutions.

Abulkomsan and Darwish, despite how it was made to seem, didn’t coincidentally stumble into COP27.

Hours later, both regime operators confirmed the rising concerns over the true nature of their presence. Darwish published several photos taken through spying on activists attending COP27 and revealing private content on their phones, while Abulkomsan led a smear campaign against Sanaa Seif and her family and filed complaints against the organisers of the session she appeared at.

Egyptian security forces stand guard as climate activists stage a protest during the COP27 climate conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on 12 November 2022. [Getty]

President Sisi himself isn’t far from the scandals unfolding on the ground. He was the military’s spy chief, head of the Egyptian Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Directorate, while his sons, Mahmoud and Hassan, are currently officers of the GID, working directly under Sisi’s right-hand man and chief of the GID since 2018, Abbas Kamel.

Egypt’s regime might not have deployed a platoon of heavily armed police and army personnel at COP27, but it certainly did mobilise a division of civilian operators, bearing various titles, and reporting directly to the security authorities.

Meanwhile, the electronic devices of anyone attending COP27 are at serious risk of being compromised by Egypt’s security apparatus. In the weeks leading up to the conference, Egypt announced a phone application that would help attendees navigate the conference, but signing up to this application required a long list of personal and contact information in addition to permissions to location tracking and access to device contents.

The application was immediately flagged by surveillance and digital privacy experts as an intrusive software and warned that anyone who did download the application should consider their devices to be compromised.

But the bigger question that triggers more concerns is: given its total control over such infrastructure, is Egypt capable of casting a net and infiltrating any and all devices connected to the network across COP27 and the city of Sharm el-Sheikh?

There is no easy answer. For the entire country of 100 million, the theoretical possibility has been limited by serious financial and logistical restraints. However, in the case of a smaller target population, such as the few thousand COP27 attendees confined to a limited geographic area, the likelihood of mass surveillance becomes much higher.

Attendees are already connected to an infrastructure under the full control of a paranoid regime known for its deployment of highly sophisticated security and military technologies to target civilian masses. In fact, given the past decade of crimes and violations committed by Egypt’s regime, this should be expected.

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A few days before COP27 began, President Sisi made a lengthy phone call to one of Egypt’s most-watched live talk shows, during which he referred directly to his time as chief of military intelligence, saying “I know what everyone does”.

The physical and virtual safety of those who engage with COP27 is a concern that will not cease anytime soon, but will continue long after the conference is over.

For Egypt’s regime, this conference provided an opportunity to update its database of civil society targets. The thousands who physically arrived in Egypt were fully screened at its airports and were subject to an unknown extent of surveillance during their stay in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egypt’s relentless targeting of activists and members of non-governmental organisations around the world isn’t at all subtle. Last week, prominent Italian activist and campaigner Giorgio Caracciolo was denied entry to Egypt and expelled despite arriving on a valid visa and accreditation to attend COP27.

Egyptian police secure the area of Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre during the COP27 climate conference, on 11 November 2022. [Getty]

Those who remain in Egypt after COP27, especially the Egyptian activists and members of civil society, are facing another level of nightmarish risk and are bracing for a hostile wave of crackdowns once the conference comes to an end and the international spotlight on Egypt dims. Egypt already has more than 60,000 political prisoners.

Signals of the regime’s preparations for this crackdown have already begun appearing regardless of the scandals it creates. Seif, who was formerly imprisoned in Egypt, is becoming a clear target of the regime and its loyalists.

Her decision to attend COP27 to advocate for her brother Alaa Abdel Fattah, and the amount of media attention she garnered, has put her and her family in the crosshairs of the state-controlled media and press, court cases filed by regime loyalists, and droves of online accounts that operate in sync to smear regime opponents.

Even those who are in exile weren’t spared. Egyptian scholar and researcher Saif Alislam Eid wrote on his social media accounts that a police force raided his family home, terrorising his mother and destroying the house contents.

The UN Climate Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh will wrap up tomorrow, and those who remain in Egypt, such as Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who appeared alongside Seif during the conference sessions and who has been under a travel ban for over seven years, and many others, will be confronting yet another phase of rabid oppression.

COP27 presented a tremendous opportunity for Egypt’s true voice to be heard, but for many, there is a heavy price to be paid.

Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist and author who lived in Cairo until 2015. He currently lives in London where he pursues research on Egyptian political, security, and military affairs, and studies at King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department. He is the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare (2015), which was banned in Egypt soon after publication.

Follow him on Twitter: @mmsabry