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The climate summit is drawing attention to Egypt's poor human rights record


This year's United Nations Climate Conference is quieter than some previous ones. Egypt is hosting the meeting known as COP27 at a seaside resort, which showcases Egypt, but the meeting also draws attention to the country's human rights record. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Past U.N. Climate Conferences have seen crowds of thousands of protesters outside the convention halls shouting for climate action, a way of keeping the pressure on leaders of countries and corporations. This year couldn't be more different. The large, flat expanse outside the conference hall is empty, except for these guys.

YIET LEE: (Singing) Go vegan, go vegan, go. No egg, no meat, no dairy. No, no, no, no, no, no.

SHERLOCK: Yiet Lee is from Singapore, and she's part of a group that's against eating animal products.

LEE: We start from the first day until now.

SHERLOCK: And, I mean, you guys are one of the only people protesting here.

LEE: That's why we say, how come no other activists here? We're surprised.

SHERLOCK: The U.N. rotates the conference, and this year, it was Africa's turn. But Egypt has a long history of stifling dissent, often violently. The country has thousands of political prisoners, and rights groups say dozens of Egyptian environmental activists were arrested after they tried to plan a demonstration to take place during this conference. Here's Richard Pearshouse from Human Rights Watch.

RICHARD PEARSHOUSE: And so essentially, what Egypt is trying to do is to control the international narrative around climate and not allow any space for domestic scrutiny.

SHERLOCK: One event that did draw a big crowd was a human rights panel with the sister of an Egyptian British blogger in jail for almost a decade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the sister of prisoner of conscience, Alaa Abdel El Fattah, whose condition and plight the whole world is worried about. And we are all watching.


SHERLOCK: Egypt has said people raising his case are interfering with their judiciary. Egypt has created a dedicated protest area, as is traditional at these U.N. conferences, but it's extremely hard to find. I eventually do locate it, a small patch of land sandwiched between a highway and a row of metal barriers.

So this small group of people is located, oh, about a 10-minute drive from the conference. The conference center is so far away you couldn't possibly see it.

Seeing journalists arrive, someone organizes the demonstrators, a few dozen people, into a chant.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Climate justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Climate justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Justice now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Justice now.

SHERLOCK: But there's something strange about these protesters. They seem to know little about climate issues, like Taher Salem, a government employee who tells me he's come to welcome world leaders.

TAHER SALEM: We like to come to see all over the people here from all over the world with President el-Sisi.

SHERLOCK: Other conferences, people come to protest. But you are here to support.

SALEM: Yeah, we are here to support the conference.

SHERLOCK: As we speak, I overhear someone warn the group that the journalists can understand Arabic. I ask Salem what he thinks about the reports of arrests of climate activists and if he thinks people are afraid to protest. No, no, no, he tells me, there are no problems in this seaside town, just nice weather.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Sharm El Sheikh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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