Cairo — a city home to upwards of 14 million inhabitants — is known to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. Although measures of pollutants in some places in Cairo exceed internationally recognized standards, popular collective action organized around environmental issues is rare. The case of ‘Izbat Makkawi, an industrial area in northern Cairo, and the successful struggle of the residents there to close local lead smelting factories is a reference point regarding possible forms of popular organizing in response to environmental pollution and sheds light on the limits and merits of community participation as experienced within the wider political context in Egypt.
A low-income urban industrial area, ‘Izbat Makkawi was originally an agricultural village in the outskirts of the Qalyoubiyya governorate. In the 1920s, it witnessed an influx of people seeking low-income informal housing. During the 1950s and 1960s, small industrial workshops began to appear in the area. Today, remnants of the village — its maze-like, narrow unpaved alleyways, food vendors peddling from their donkey carts, garbage heaps and animals — merge with large industrial factories that have sprung up in the area. Air pollution has been but one of the negative impacts of this misguided and unplanned development process.
As early as 1968, inhabitants filed individual complaints against one of the lead smelters in the area. After the smelter was closed for two months, the owner reached an agreement with the authorities to raise the smokestack so that emitted smoke would be carried further away from nearby houses. By the mid 1970s, the smelter extended its operation to three shifts a day, almost non-stop, using four stacks. The factory smelted up 24 tons of lead daily, 16 tons of which were emitted into the surrounding environment in the form of black smoke laden with lead oxides and other pollutants. The problem was intensified by ‘Izbat Makkawi’s downwind location. As one community member remembers, “If you spat, your saliva would be mixed with lead.” Environmental pollution in the area caused severe health problems, including respiratory tract problems, cancer, stunted physical and mental growth, and in some cases even death.
In reaction to this situation, a group of volunteers from the neighborhood was formed in 1989 to close down the lead smelters in the area. The organizer of this community protest movement and its unofficial leader was imprisoned in 1971 for two years due to his involvement in a left, underground movement against the regime of the late President Sadat. The core organizers of the community protest identified with Nasserist beliefs. Many were members of the old socialist party or, as young men, were enlisted into Nasserist youth organizations. The political history of the community members provided a unifying frame of reference for organizing protests against the lead smelters.
Collective action was facilitated by the fact that, as one leader of the movement describes, “In times of need or crisis, we all become one. Having witnessed several deaths in their community, people were already aware of the dangers of the lead smelters. All they needed was for someone to pull these efforts together; someone to lead them forward.”
Living in the same neighborhood enabled them to meet informally in the mosque after prayers, in coffee shops or on special occasions where possible actions and the latest developments could be discussed. It was decided from the start to adopt a peaceful strategy to communicate their complaints to the officials by filing official protests and enlisting the media to propagate their case to the general public and officials alike.
Throughout the struggle, various actors appeared on the scene. Both members of the People’s Assembly for the area — one representing the ruling National Democratic Party and the other representing the leftist Tagammu‘ party — became involved in the struggle. They wrote a report on the hazardous effects the smelters posed to the community which was presented at the parliamentary discussions of the then new environmental law. Their involvement, however, was regarded by many in the protest movement as a ploy aimed at winning more votes for the coming elections. A newly established health center (that began operating in 1992) — aimed at establishing an alternative health care system based on preventive as well as on curative services — found ‘Izbat Makkawi to be fertile ground for achieving these goals. Doctors at the center concentrated on providing the community members with “scientific” evidence of the negative health effects of the lead smelters through a series of soil, blood and air quality tests. In addition to this, popular perceptions and awareness of the environmental hazards of lead smelters were formed by the everyday experience of the residents. Such awareness, at its peak, was crystallized by the death of several members of the community.
The initial idea of filing a law suit against the governorate for granting permits for these smelters to operate in a residential area — neglecting industrial safety measures and codes for health standards which regulate the operation of these industrial outlets — was seen as tedious and without the possibility of obtaining any results in the immediate future. To justify their demands, the community members made use of an existing law that prohibits the operation of industrial outlets which prove to be affecting the public health or safety of those living in residential areas.
As knowledge of environmental issues expanded, the phrase “environmental pollution” became part of their language of protest for the first time. As a result, the problem was no longer confined to the local level — an owner who is not complying with industrial safety measures — but became regarded as an issue of public interest.
Stressing the point that these smelters were the source of environmental pollution and ill health in the area, protest letters were signed by community members and then sent to officials such as the prime minister, the president, the minister of interior, the minister of environment, the governor of Cairo, the head of the People’s Assembly, the minister of justice and the minister of local administration.
After government officials failed to respond seriously to these protests, community members decided to take the battle onto the pages of newspapers and broadcast media. Stories focusing on the plight of ‘Izbat Makkawi quickly became an issue of interest to the broader public in Cairo especially because it fed into the public debate on a new environment law that was being prepared and discussed at that time. In addition to one television program and two radio programs, a series of articles written by and interviews with community members appeared in both government and opposition publications.
Several ideas for possible actions were debated during the course of the protests. One suggestion was to stand in front of the entrance to one of the smelters to get the attention of the police who would be forced to investigate this action. Community members refrained from doing this for fear that the police might resort to the emergency law and interpret their peaceful act as jeopardizing public safety and retaliate by jailing the participants.
Movement members decided to appeal to foreign governments with the hope that they would put pressure on their Egyptian counterpart to take more serious measures in stopping environmental pollution. When it became known that the German government had a specialized aid program directed toward environmental protection in Egypt, newspaper articles, pictures of sick children, medical reports and copies of the closure orders were prepared to be sent to Germany — an action to be taken only as a last resort. The documents were never sent.
The collective protests to close down the smelters were met with more than six closure orders from the government. None of them, however, were effectively implemented. The executive body justified its non-implementation of the orders on the grounds that 200 workers would lose their source of income and the governorate would be unable to provide an alternative location for these factories. Documents from the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs subsequently proved that only seven workers were legally registered in one of the factories. Moreover, the government’s closure order did not oblige the governorate to provide the smelters with an area of land upon which to relocate their operations. In March 1994, work at the smelters was finally terminated when a third memo to cut off the electricity and water supplies to the smelters was issued from the governorate.
The collective action of the community had overcome several obstacles. At the local level, bureaucracy was the first impediment. While smoke poisoning from the lead smelters continued on a daily basis, protest letters took months to circulate from one government department to the other. At the same time, the owners of one of the lead smelters tried, in vain, to bribe the leader of the movement and thereby coopt any further collective protest. Likewise, local officials were bribed to obstruct and delay the implementation of closure orders. Nevertheless, efforts to close down the smelter were successful largely because the demands did not constitute a threat to the formal power or interests of the state.
By choosing to follow legal and peaceful means in communicating their demands to officials, collective participation acted as a buffer against other possible acts of destruction and violence. While authentic collective action and participation must take place on the grassroots level, its success is largely dependent upon the responsiveness and tolerance of the state. In the case of ‘Izbat Makkawi, through community mobilization, residents effectively shifted the existing power structures on the micro-level of the community in order to reclaim control over their public space and mobilize around attempts to terminate the work of the lead smelting factories.