The twenty-seventh United Nations’ Conference of Parties (COP27) will be hosted in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, from November 6 to 18, 2022. COP27 comes at a critical time against the backdrop of a global pandemic, high energy prices, the war in Ukraine, and major disruptions to the food supply. As host of COP27, Egypt finds itself on the world stage as a leading voice for the Global South, especially Africa, and Egypt looks to the summit as an opportunity to burnish its international prestige, emphasize its Afro-Arab identity, and position Cairo as a bridge-builder between the Global South and North.
Burnishing Egypt’s International Prestige
Cairo is taking the lead on a critical global issue—climate change, placing Egypt at the center of international diplomacy not only as a representative of Africa and the Middle East but as a representative of the Global South. The last time Cairo was at the center of a major global cause was in 1994, when Egypt hosted the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development discussing immigration, family planning, reproductive health, and education for women. Prominent global leaders attended, such as Pakistan’s prime minister Benazir Bhutto and U.S. vice president Al Gore. COP27 also promises high levels of political and media visibility. Most importantly, Cairo in 2022 is different from Cairo in 1994, when the city was grappling with an Islamist insurgency that took a toll on the Egyptian state and its resources. Cairo in 2022 is looking at COP27 as an opportunity to burnish its regional credentials: even as Saudi Arabia and the UAE gain more visibility in the region and have more financial liberty, Egypt has a distinct advantage—its dual identity as an Afro-Arab nation, with its regional stance in both Africa and the Middle East. As host of COP27, Cairo is also putting on the map its struggle to secure water resources.
Leveraging the Global Spotlight
Egypt’s hosting of COP27 should be seen as a continuation of a recent evolution wherein Cairo is pivoting back to Africa as a hybrid player, pitching itself as a gateway to Africa and a strategic player with a growing footprint on the continent. This pivot started with Egypt’s presidency of the African Union (AU) in 2019, which Cairo used to advance its profile beyond the Nile Basin and North Africa. As president of the AU, Egypt represented the viewpoints of the continent on the world stage at fora such as the UN General Assembly, Munich Security Conference, G7 Summit in France, the G20 Osaka Summit, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, the Russia-Africa summit, and the UK-Africa summit.
After the AU’s presidency transitioned from Egypt to South Africa in February 2020, Cairo continued to increase its integration into the African strategic landscape. From partnering with Ghana to launch Ghana’s national airline to cooperating with Nigeria on countering the terrorist group Boko Haram, and from building Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere dam to pursuing strategic alignment with Sudan, Egypt has sought a multilayered Africa strategy that is focused on deepening diplomatic, economic, medical, security, and defense cooperation. Moreover, Egypt initiated a flurry of military and security pacts with Burundi, Kenya, and Uganda and built diplomatic and economic ties with Djibouti, Rwanda, Senegal, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. Egypt also launched the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development, an Africa-focused platform where Cairo is positing itself as a convener for African “heads of states and governments, leaders from national governments, regional and international organizations and financial institutions, the private sector, and civil society.” Cairo used the Aswan Forum and regular consultative sessions with African counterparts as a policy platform to help unify Africa’s position on “energy access and just energy transition” prior to Egypt’s hosting of COP27.
Expanding this trajectory from a continental stage to a global one, at COP27 Cairo is looking to its presidency of the climate summit as an opportunity to show Egypt’s global leadership on climate change—a defining issue that is becoming more central to global diplomacy and North-South engagement.
Additionally, Egypt hopes to use the spotlight to raise awareness of the double whammy of a climate crisis that it itself faces. Egypt is a water-poor nation and is also facing the dark reality of reduced water supplies from the Nile because of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is expected to impact Egypt’s water share as Cairo depends on the river for more than 90 percent of its water. In his speech to the UN Security Council, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry described the dam as an “existential threat” to Egypt’s water security. Furthermore, Egypt’s North Coast is threatened by rising sea levels. For instance, at COP26, former British prime minister Boris Johnson elaborated on the climate threat to Alexandria, an Egyptian coastal city that might vanish under rising sea levels if global temperatures increase by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit).
An Emerging Energy Partner to the EU
Egypt also hopes to use the summit to showcase Cairo’s solid position as the architect of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The discovery of the Zohr natural gas field—the largest field in the Eastern Mediterranean region—has transformed Egypt into a net gas exporter. To secure its gas interests in the Mediterranean, Cairo established the forum in 2019 alongside Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority as member states and the United States and the European Union as permanent observers. With its geographic centrality and existing coastal liquefaction facilities and pipeline infrastructure, Cairo became a regional gas export hub for Israel and Cyprus—signifying Egypt’s strategic position in Mediterranean geopolitics. With Europe’s current energy crisis in the wake of the Ukraine war, many European leaders are expected to travel to Sharm El Sheikh because of Cairo’s centrality to Europe’s energy security and Egypt’s commitment to export natural gas to Europe to replace Russian gas. Egypt’s position at the heart of gas geopolitics in the Mediterranean Sea means strong relations between Cairo and Brussels.
Building Bridges Between the Global South and North
Cairo will also likely choose to use the summit to continue its strong advocacy for climate equity between Global North and South. In Egypt’s view, Africa should not be compared to the big industrial polluters in Europe, North America, and East Asia, who historically and disproportionately contributed to the climate crisis. Cairo will likely point out that, in 2021 for instance, Europe prioritized ending overseas public finance for fossil fuels, including investment in natural gas, a priority that completely changed in 2022 because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the current energy crisis that is facing Europe. In 2022, the EU designated nuclear power and natural gas as green energy, and the G7 nations rescinded their earlier pledge to end financing for gas projects because of the energy crisis associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The inconsistency between ending the financing of natural gas projects overseas while scaling up the consumption of fossil fuels, including coal, domestically for energy security weakens the EU’s position as a leading force in climate negotiations. This inconsistency has provided an opening for Egypt to present its case for natural gas as green energy in COP27, a case that is a pillar for climate action—ultimately leveraging the Ukraine war to pressure Europe not only to keep making its acceptance of financing natural gas projects overseas more permanent and in line with the Global South’s development goals but also to lobby multilateral organizations to follow the same path as well.
Finding a balance between energy security and climate change is a major priority for Egypt at COP27, where Cairo believes there is a need for realistic goals and commitments by both the Global South and the North. Because of Egypt’s position as a bridge between Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe, Cairo casts itself as a champion to lead efforts that all parties can commit to. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 highlighted Europe’s energy supply vulnerabilities and the need to find alternative suppliers. The continent collectively imported nearly 40 percent of its gas from Russia and is now facing the reality of Moscow cutting off its gas supplies to Europe during the winter, and gas prices have skyrocketed since the invasion. For instance, to substitute Russian gas, Europe’s powerhouse, Germany, is restarting nuclear reactors and increasing its use of coal as a response to the Russian weaponization of its energy supplies to Europe—despite Berlin’s previous opposition following the Fukushima meltdown that fueled the rise of anti-nuclear movement. Backtracking on the previous climate commitments—such as “phase-down of unabated coal power”—that were made at COP26 confirms the Global South’s suspicion that the Global North is only focused on immediate needs following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while denying the Global South the same privileges to benefit from its hydrocarbon reserves.
By hosting COP27 this November, Egypt will be at the center of one of the most urgent challenges in the world—climate change. Cairo is looking at COP27 as an opportunity to show the country’s global leadership on the climate crisis. From the pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and from rising energy prices to the return of great power rivalry, Egypt wants to present itself as a representative of the Global South—by virtue of its complex identity as an Afro-Arab nation and as a gateway to Africa and the Middle East. As its gas partnership with Europe deepens and the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, Egypt will use its presidency of COP27 to lobby Europe and the West to strike a balance between climate action and energy security by supporting permanent investment in natural gas overseas, in line with the Global South’s development goals.