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The farce of major events in Egypt and Qatar – Francesca Gnetti

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The farce of major events in Egypt and Qatar – Francesca Gnetti

November 17, 2022 1:47 pm

These weeks in the Middle East two events of global importance are taking place which have some elements in common.

The COP27 international climate conference ends on 18 November in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Two days later the men’s soccer World Cup began in Qatar, the first organized in an Arab country. Although obviously two appointments very distant from each other in terms of topics covered, individuals involved, significance and consequences on people’s lives, both are wrapped in a cloak of tension, nervousness, latent and hidden violence that leads to the absurd. And they illustrate how economic and strategic interests have gained the upper hand, prompting Western countries to forge alliances with authoritarian regimes in the name of national pragmatism, putting aside any hesitation related to human rights and justice.

While world leaders parade in Sharm el Sheikh under the pleased gaze of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who hoped to hide the human rights violations with which his regime is stained under the green patina of environmentalism, between the stands and pavilions the name of Alaa Abdel Fattah rebounds. One of the most attended events of Cop27 was the press conference held by Sanaa Seif on 8 November, to ask for the release of his brother, the protagonist of the 2011 revolution, in prison since 2019 and on hunger strike since 2 April. On the opening day of the summit, Abdel Fattah also launched a thirst strike, as an extreme measure to put pressure on Al Sisi. A week of surreal tug of war ensued: on the one hand Abdel Fattah’s weak body, weakened by seven months in which he only ate one hundred calories a day, but strengthened by the solidarity of many people around the world; on the other, a regime that relies on a capillary military deployment and carefully prepared to avoid any accident during the great event.

Without precedents
For days, nothing was known about Abdel Fattah. Suspicions have circulated that he was force-fed, while the authorities said he underwent unspecified “medical intervention”. His mother Leila Soueif, a mathematician and human rights activist, last saw him on 17 October. Since COP27 began, she has gone every day in front of the Wadi el Natroun prison to ask for proof that her son was still alive. Finally, on November 14, she was given a handwritten letter from Abdel Fattah and dated two days earlier, in which he declares he is fine and has resumed drinking. In another letter dated November 15, Abdel Fattah says he has also put an end to the hunger strike. He also states that he wants to celebrate his birthday with his family during the visit set for November 17 (Abdel Fattah turns 41 on November 18, the day COP27 ends). “Bring a cake”, the letter says. His lawyer Khaled Ali, who hasn’t seen him since March 2020, went to the prison three times for visits for which he had received authorization, but was sent back.

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A demonstration for climate justice and human rights in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, November 12, 2022.

(Sean Gallup, Getty Images)

“Today, for the first time in eight days, I can breathe,” said Sanaa Seif, who remained in Sharm el Sheikh on November 14 to keep attention on the case. And indeed the resonance that she has had is unprecedented. But she didn’t help. Not even pressure from some of the most important heads of state in the world – such as the presidents of France and the United States, Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden, the British premier Rishi Sunak and the German chancellor Olaf Scholz – have managed to convince Al Sisi to release the ‘activist. And so far she has not even served the British citizenship obtained by Abdel Fattah in April, thanks to the fact that her mother was born in London. However, probably no leader has questioned the affairs that link his country to Cairo, including the sale of arms.

Restrictions and security measures
The ambiguities surrounding the case of Alaa Abdel Fattah actually concern the entire COP27 event. In the days leading up to the start of the conference, the authorities arrested dozens of people, including several journalists, and banned all demonstrations. They have also imposed strict security measures in Sharm el Sheikh, including the installation of surveillance cameras on all taxis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported. The registration process to access the so-called green zone where the meetings take place is extremely complicated, an anomaly compared to previous COP meetings in which the public was invited to participate. There were also complaints from some delegates, who said they were spied on by the security forces.

Making it all the more absurd is the fact that the government crackdown in past years has hit Egypt’s environmental movement in particular. It is again HRW to underline that the restrictions that prevent environmental groups from carrying out independent research and activities “violate the right to freedom of assembly and association” and undermine Egypt’s ability to “respect its commitments” on climate and the environment. As if that weren’t enough, the Cop27 location itself is an example of environmental destruction carried out to chase profit. In the past decades Sharm el Sheikh has been distorted to make it one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. In an article published in The Intercept, Naomi Klein, Canadian journalist, writer and activist, and Mohammed Rafi Arefin, of the Center for climate justice of the University of British Columbia, denounce that in Sinai, where COP27 takes place, over the past decade security forces destroyed the land of local Bedouin communities. The damage will be felt for decades.

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Making it all the more absurd is the fact that the government crackdown has hit Egypt’s environmental movement in particular

Fears for the environment and for human rights violations also concern the other major event that is about to open in a Middle Eastern country: the men’s soccer world cup in Qatar. Doha has boasted of wanting to organize the first world cup that should achieve carbon neutrality, but experts are not convinced that it is possible. An Associated Press article points out that in the twelve years leading up to the competition, Qatar had embarked on an unparalleled construction activity. He built seven of the eight stadiums destined for matches, a new subway network, highways, skyscrapers and Lusail, a futuristic city on the east coast, where until ten years ago there was nothing but desert sand. In addition, stadiums will be cooled with an open air conditioning system, the expected 1.2 million fans will be quenched thanks to desalination plants that will make ocean water drinkable and thousands will be housed in nearby Dubai and other Gulf city because there are not enough places in Qatari hotels. They will be flown to see the matches.

However, the organizers claim that the event can also count on some “green” elements: eight hundred new electric buses, six thousand trees, 700 thousand shrubs in nurseries and a new 800 megawatt solar energy plant. They also promise that emissions will be offset by investing in renewable energy projects, which experts say may prove ineffective.

An article in Republik also questions the idea that the stadiums built for the World Cup can be recycled, reconverted and reused, as envisaged in the initial project. The structures have evocative forms: the Education city stadium should recall a traditional female headgear, the Al Thumama a male one, then there is a nomad tent, an ancient bowl, which however could also be a lantern, and a dune of sand, which is also a shield. The material from some stadiums should be used to build new buildings in developing countries, while others should be transformed into hotels or shopping centres. But the costs of carrying out these projects are very high, comments Republik, and many decisions have not yet been taken.

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What is actually uncertain is the success of the whole operation. Qatar has bet heavily on an event that should have sealed its affirmation on the international scene, but the dark maneuvers and the blatant violations of the rights of foreign workers that accompanied it have aroused international condemnations. So much so that there is more and more talk of the opportunity to boycott the sporting event.


A comparison, published in the issue of Internazionale on newsstands from 18 November, reports two opposing opinions on this issue: it is right to decide not to watch the matches on TV to give a signal so that a politically inadequate host country is no longer chosen or environmental? Or is it too late now and it is better for the press to follow the event trying to tell its dark sides? The article published on the cover is also about the World Cup. It is taken up by the German newspaper Die Zeit and traces the history of Qatar to understand how a country that until a few decades ago had only pearls in shells to offer the world managed to obtain such a great weight.

Major events could also serve to hold regimes to their responsibilities, be an opportunity to impose on authoritarian governments respect for the rights of their citizens or foreigners working in their country. But if the political will is lacking, crushed by profit and strategic calculations, then they become just empty showcases. The reflection of a world where business is worth more than people’s lives.

This article is taken from a weekly newsletter that tells what’s happening in the Middle East. You sign up who.

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