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Why Egypt’s foreign intelligence service benefits from the World Climate Conference

Megatrends spotlight 2022 16, 18.10.2022

In Egypt, preparations for this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) are in full swing. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Stephan Roll (SWP) explains the role of Egypt’s foreign intelligence service in its implementation and what this means for the authoritarian regime under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Between November 6th and 18th, the 27th UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) will be held in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. Up to 30,000 participants from all over the world, including over 90 heads of state, will convene in an attempt to produce solutions to the global climate crisis.

For Egypt’s authoritarian leadership under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the COP27 is above all an opportunity to present itself as an indispensable partner in tackling global problems. In view of the country’s economic crisis, it is trying to bring the issue of climate financing, which is also seen as a priority by many other African states, to the top of the agenda.

Regardless, one actor within Egypt’s ruling system is likely to especially benefit from the mega-event: the General Intelligence Service (GIS).

Pulling strings behind the scenes

Officially, the GIS will not play a role in the climate conference. The Egyptian organiser of the event is a specific committee headed by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly that was convened for this purpose alone. In addition to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, who holds the presidency of the conference, IMF Executive Director Mahmoud Mohieldin, who has been appointed “Climate Champion”, and Egypt’s Special Representative of the COP27 President, Ambassador Wael Aboulmagd, will be the most prominent Egyptian figures to appear publicly in connection with the conference.

Behind the scenes, however, the GIS is pulling the strings. This is suggested by reports from various non-governmental organisations, which criticize the Egyptian government’s considerable harassment of their peers. Voices critical of the government were deliberately excluded from the conference, and the GIS is likely to play a special role in this silencing. The Service has strong technical capabilities that are used to monitor Egyptian diaspora as well as domestic civil society. Above all, the venue, the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center (SHICC), evinces similar conclusions; indeed, the conference complex apparently belongs to none other than the GIS itself.

An intelligence service conference centre

The publications of construction companies provide insight into the ownership of the SHICC. It was built by the Naama Golf & Touristic Investment Company in 2006, which at the time was one of the entities owned by well-known Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem. Over the course of criminal investigations against Salem, who was also a close friend of former President Husni Mubarak, the company was nationalised in 2016. However, the conference centre was not transferred to the Egypt Expo and Convention Authority. Rather, in 2017, the GIS emerged as its new owner and commissioned extensive expansion of the facility.

The SHICC was thus expanded into one of the largest conference centres in the Middle East. Since then, it has been operated by Global Conference Management (GCM), an opaque event company which also organises logistics for the COP27. Ultimately, the event could generate considerable income for the foreign intelligence service, and not just by operating the conference space. Participants have complained about exorbitant accommodation prices, and these hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh apparently have to transfer a considerable portion of their profits to the organisers of the COP27.

Intelligence service subsuming the media sector

Aside from being engaged in conference logistics, the GIS is also heavily involved in media coverage of the event. In recent years, the GIS has successively taken control over various private media companies in the country and merged them under the holding company United Media Services (UMS). UMS subsumes popular satellite broadcasters such as CBC and ON as well as high-circulation print media such as the daily newspaper Al Youm Al Sabea (Youm7). Through these outlets, the foreign intelligence service exerts significant influence over domestic reporting, also in the context of the climate conference. For example, in such media, human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch are denigrated as the mouthpieces of terrorists.

The COP27 is a welcome opportunity for the GIS to further expand its media activities. With financial support from Saudi Arabia, UMS’s news segments are to be expanded, and not only locally. They aim to reach a regional, if not international audience similar to that of the two large Arab news channels al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Government positions could be disseminated outside of Egypt and avoid and counter potential international criticism including condemnations of the country’s disastrous human rights situation. A new news channel, “Al-Qahera News”, will launch in time for COP27. Apparently, officials want to capitalise on the international attention being paid to the climate conference and establish the new station as quickly as possible.

Increasing importance of the GIS within Sisi’s regime

The fact that Egypt’s foreign intelligence service, of all things, could profit from the Climate Change Conference not only shows how authoritarian regimes are adept at using major international events for their own purposes but also how Egypt’s ruling regime is shifting.

At the beginning of his presidency, Sisi apparently had a rocky relationship with the GIS. As the former head of military intelligence, his power base relied exclusively with the armed forces. However, with the appointment of his then bureau chief Abbas Kamel as intelligence chief in 2018, the GIS’s political clout was visibly upgraded. Kamel is considered the president’s closest confidant, with media reports even referring to him as Sisi’s “shadow”. The president’s eldest son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, also seems to have risen quickly among the ranks within the agency.

Through this personnel change, the president entrusted the GIS with more and more tasks related to consolidating his rule, utilizing the Service to boost his independence from the country’s powerful military leadership. Already in 2019, the service was instrumental in preparing the constitutional referendum that allowed Sisi to extend his term in office. Since spring of this year, it has also been involved in the organisation of the “National Dialogue”, which, according to critics, simulates political participation rather than implementing any real reforms. In addition, parliamentary decree granted the Service far-reaching powers to establish its own economic enterprises, a privilege that was previously reserved for the military within the state apparatus. Its activities in the context of the COP27 are now a further indication that the GIS has gradually expanded to become a main instrument for exercising presidential power.

Dr. Stephan Roll heads the Africa and Middle East Division at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik / German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).