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Cop27 in Egypt: Five times things didn't go to plan this week

From a smartphone app that 'spies' on participants, to an Egyptian MP being escorted out for heckling, and sewage flowing around the event - how the climate summit grabbed headlines so far
Attendees argue with Egyptian MP Amr Darwish as he interrupts a press conference attended by Sanaa Seif, sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah, on the sidelines of Cop27, 8 November 2022 (AFP)
Attendees argue with Egyptian MP Amr Darwish as he interrupts a press conference attended by Sanaa Seif, sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah, on the sidelines of Cop27, 8 November 2022 (AFP)

Phone app seen as spyware, websites blocked

Cybersecurity experts and participants at Cop27 were startled at the beginning of the summit by an intrusive smartphone application developed by the Egyptian government as a gateway to the summit but perceived as potential spyware. 

Human Rights Watch Egypt researcher Amr Magdi told Middle East Eye that attendees are required to download the official app, which requests private information from the user and is able to access their phone camera, microphone, Bluetooth, and location data.

"The government can definitely use it if they want... to spy on people," Magdi said. 

Following reports on the app, western delegates at the summit have been warned not to download it for fear of its ability to hack their phones and personal data.

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The app has so far been downloaded by more than 5,000 participants (out of a total 44,000). 

Meanwhile, on the third day of the summit, participants complained that the wifi blocks access to a number of rights groups and news websites, particularly those critical of the Egyptian government.

Blocked sites included news outlet Mada Masr, blogging site Medium and Qatari media network Al Jazeera.

Human Rights Watch also reportedly had its website blocked, despite the fact it was hosting a panel discussion at the conference.

HRW and Mada Masr reported a day after the outcry that their websites were unblocked, in an unprecedented development after five years of being blocked. It remains unclear whether they will remain accessible after the conference.

World leaders call for the release of Alaa Abdel-Fattah

Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the detained Egyptian-British political activist and writer, escalated his hunger strike and gave up drinking water at the beginning of the summit to put pressure on Egypt to release him during the international event.

Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif, the activist’s sister, took part in the event to shed light on his ordeal and campaign for his release. The campaign has prompted world leaders participating in the summit to show their support for Abd el-Fattah and call on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to intervene to secure his release.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had written to the family of the jailed activist ahead of attending Cop27, saying his government is committed to his release.

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"We are totally committed to resolving your brother's case," Sunak told Sanaa Seif in a letter on the eve of the summit. "He remains a priority for the British government, both as a human rights defender and as a British national.

Similarly, former British prime minister Boris Johnson said the activist’s continued detention is “a very sad case”.

“As a dual UK national, it is my strong belief that he should be released and should be given consular access,” he said during a panel.  

The UN rights chief Volker Turk on Tuesday also said Abd el-Fattah needed to be released, warning his life was "in great danger".

Later on Tuesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also chimed in with calls for the activist's release.

"There must be a decision - his release must be possible - so that this hunger strike does not end in death," he said, adding the situation was "very depressing" and "we should be afraid that this could lead to dreadful consequences".

Climate and human rights activists denied access to summit

Egyptian security forces detained Indian climate activist Ajit Rajagopal a week ahead of Cop27 as he was planning to walk 260km from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh to highlight the challenges of climate change.

Rajagopal’s lawyer and friend, Makarios Lahzy, told Middle East Eye that he was interrogated and also detained when he went to see his client at the police checkpoint where he was stopped.

Security officials confiscated his phone and whisked him away to a local police station, he said.

"They asked me, what do you do professionally, and what's your relation to this environmental activist?" Lahzy told MEE.

Rajagopal had been holding a banner that read "March For Our Planet", in reference to a caravan-foot, march-style mobilisation that set off within Africa and spread globally.

After being treated like "criminals" for more than 24 hours, the pair were finally released.

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Meanwhile, Ugandan environmental activist Nyombi Morris said he and other African climate justice campaigners were effectively denied participation at the summit due to the tight security restrictions. 

"I am watching online because our 'observers' badges don't allow us to enter," he told AFP on the second day of the summit.

"I'm like 'so, why are we here?'"

The founder of the Earth Volunteers climate justice NGO, Morris said his dreams of an “African Cop” were shattered when he saw the security measures at the airport.

"I was so happy when they announced that Cop27 would be in Africa," said Morris, who founded the Earth Volunteers youth organisation to campaign for "climate justice".

"I thought maybe I would get a chance to be in the room where the negotiations are taking place."

Instead, "with the questions we received at the airport, it will not be easy for us to continue with our plan", the 24-year-old said.

On Thursday, the fifth day of Cop27, the Italian human rights defender Giorgio Caracciolo was denied entry into Egypt to attend an event at the summit.

The Middle East and North Africa regional manager for DIGNITY (Danish Institute Against Torture), Caracciolo was travelling with a valid visa and accreditation to attend as an NGO representative.

“Out of all the human rights defenders that were allowed in the country these days (just these days) why not me? Is it because the organisation I represent focuses on the most intimate tools used by the regime, that is torture and violence?” Caracciolo asked. 

Egyptian MP forced to leave the conference room

One of the most dramatic moments in the first week of Cop27 was when an Egyptian MP was escorted by security out of a hall at the climate conference after heckling speaker Sanaa Seif, sister of imprisoned activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah.

Amr Darwish, a pro-government parliamentarian, was captured on video grabbing a microphone and assailing Seif and other speakers in Arabic before security intervened.

"You are here on Egyptian land, don't touch me," he shouted in English at the security guard.

Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, could also be heard in the video shouting "freedom of speech" at Darwish.

Sewage flows through the summit centre

On Wednesday, the fourth day of the conference, a stream of foul-smelling sewage was seen flowing at one summit centre.

The leak appeared to have happened after a sewage pipe burst near the conference’s Blue Zone, according to multiple reports. 

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