An increase in media attention paid to environmental pollution, and a 1994 USAID report on environmental risk assessment in Cairo, [1] reflect and have engendered a growing concern for the environment in Cairo. While grassroots political action is rare, [2] there is an awareness among the general population of issues of environmental pollution. While responses to environmental pollution have ranged from the creation of ad hoc social movements and voluntary associations to individual actions in cooperation with neighbors or fellow workers, these techniques have yet to have much impact.

The following is a summary of research [3] that investigates the “objective” realities of environmental pollution in the context of the perceptions and social responses of the population (the subjective or social reconstructions of that reality). To understand the likelihood and conditions necessary for a community-based approach to sustained development, we examine the level of social awareness of environmental problems and the connection between the physical conditions, the social perceptions of those conditions and the “social responses” or mechanisms available for expressing any community-based response to environmental “change.” [4]

The research is based primarily upon participant observation, focus groups, surveys, interviews with key officials and the measurement of potential hazards in the environment, especially with regard to air, water and noise. These methods have been used in four research sites chosen to represent a range of experience. Kafr al-‘Ilw (Helwan), formerly a village, is now a working-class residential area; Dar al-Salam (South Cairo) is a new and informal urban area; Sayyida Zaynab (Central Cairo) is an older inner-city neighborhood; and Abkhas is a farming village in Minufiyya in the Nile delta area north of Cairo. [5]

Popular Perceptions

While there is an interest in and concern about the environment (bi’a) — perceived generally by those surveyed as their social as well as physical surroundings — only a few equate the environment directly with pollution (talawwuth). One farmer from Abkhas distinguished the two: “I have no problems with bi’a since I have good relations with my neighbors, but I have a real problem with talawwuth.” For some, bi’a means specifically a bad social environment. This may explain why although an overwhelming (95 percent) majority see environmental pollution as a major problem, they are, nevertheless, generally optimistic (80 percent) about the environment. The media, especially TV, plays an important role in shaping these popular understandings. [6]

In contrast to a survey in the US according to which most respondents equate the environment with nature, [7] in Egypt, pollution is seen essentially as a health issue directly related to cleanliness. This focus on cleanliness thus establishes moral boundaries between the clean and the unclean and the various attendant social categories. [8]

As in the USAID report, concern expressed by those surveyed focused largely on garbage and other waste disposal issues. Air and water pollution were noted in their more visible aspects (dust and turbid water), while more concern was expressed for the health effects of air than of water or noise pollution. Issues such as global warming, nuclear radiation and the depletion of the ozone layer attracted very little attention. Respondents seemed largely unaware of lead pollution, though it is considered by experts to pose a serious environmental threat in Cairo. In terms of importance, those surveyed ranked environmental pollution as equal to poverty and economic inflation (money issues) at the top of a list of concerns. They outranked family affairs, population increase, accidental death, war and crime, in that order. [9]


While less than half of the respondents had heard of the new 1995 environmental law, over two thirds knew of the earlier law against public dumping of garbage. Though only a handful knew of any private organization for the protection of the environment, among the 102 people who said they knew of such an organization, most clearly identified was the Green Party (22 citations — all from the three sites in Cairo). Though none were members of any of these organizations, more than two thirds said they would consider joining.

Generally, those surveyed saw the local government councils and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) as equally responsible for dealing with the environment. Consistent with other results, Abkhas residents were the most likely to identify the local councils, and the least likely to identify the EEAA in this role. Political parties and non-governmental organizations were rarely mentioned. [10]

When asked what they themselves should do about environmental risk (multiple answers possible), nearly all cited such actions as cleaning the streets and stressed the need to avoid throwing water in the streets. These answers are consistent with the perceived link between pollution and rubbish. Less than a quarter thought that avoiding noisemaking was important, while somewhat fewer said people should avoid smoking when it bothers others. These figures were all much higher in the three urban sites than in Abkhas. Only a tiny handful, around 1 percent at each site, thought they should complain to the authorities, create pressure groups or create awareness programs.

In terms of popular perceptions, a very clear syllogism emerges from our research. While the poor tend to blame each other, those in upper middle class areas (e.g., in Maadi where additional data was collected) tend to blame the poor. The syllogism, therefore, is that pollution is dirt; the poor are dirty; therefore the poor cause pollution. While there is a reluctance to pressure or criticize neighbors who may be adding to the problem, many feel there is no one to whom they can turn for help in dealing with pollution problems. Although the government is not held responsible for creating pollution, respondents felt that the government should do more to maintain a clean environment.


What kind of activism can be found at the grassroots level given these popular perceptions? Since concern is highest for garbage and sewage removal, there are many instances of local cooperation among neighbors to improve street cleanliness (keeping a street clean, installing street lighting, organizing a connection to a sewage system, preventing unlawful construction and so on). Recently in Dar al-Salam, after installation of a new sewage system, neighbors worked together to level streets and plant trees, now that flooding by sewage is no longer a threat. [11] Others have planted trees and tried to create mini-parks in areas such as Sayyida Zaynab, but without much long-term success. Occasionally, neighbors have banded together to pay a garbage collector to remove garbage. These arrangements, however, are precarious: Either the garbage collector is not reliable, or the fees are too high to maintain any long-term program. [12] These informal efforts are usually “contingent” and cease after achieving the initial goal. Notably, “solving a problem ourselves” is cited as a solution by less than a tenth of our survey respondents. We have no examples of successful local organizing for long-term solutions to the solid waste disposal problem.

When there are severe local problems, such as in the case of the cement plant and its dust pollution in Kafr al-‘Ilw, other strategies have been implemented. [13] When the cement plant managers refused to use filters that would cut down on the amount of dust, community activists in Kafr al-‘Ilw contacted various newspapers and other publications, as well as television, to publicize their case. While residents have attempted to lobby high government officials, including the former minister of religious affairs, who represents the area in Parliament, many are unwilling to sign petitions for fear of reprisals. A local lawyer has been trying since 1988 to use court cases to clean up the cement plants, so far without result. [14]

The residents of ‘Izbat Makkawi, north of central Cairo, began a campaign to close down a major lead smelter in their midst that was significantly adding to atmospheric lead. [15] Using similar techniques of lobbying officials by bringing their situation to the attention of the media, they also received the attention of the larger public.

Of our four communities, Abkhas was able to introduce environmental issues into the 1995 election most successfully. [16] In Kafr al-‘Ilw, previous experience with members of Parliament left many residents skeptical. Local politics in Sayyida Zaynab are dominated by the speaker of Parliament. Residents of Dar al-Salam seemed least involved in the elections, due mainly to the fact that many of them vote in their original towns outside this community of immigrants.

Outside agencies — a combination of the Egyptian government, foreign donors and Egyptian NGOs — typically stress the need for awareness. As the research suggests, the issue, however, is not solely one of awareness. In general, Egyptians in both rural and urban areas are aware of the major environmental problems. Unfortunately, they do not see the solution as lying in their hands. Thus, recognition or awareness of the problem — whether from direct observation (garbage in the streets), media exposure or various “awareness” campaigns — cannot, by itself, generate grassroots activism on environmental issues.


[1] The USAID report, Comparing Environmental Health Risks in Cairo, Egypt (Cairo, September 1994), identifies the highest risks (defined in terms of an increase in morbidity or mortality) as relating to particulate matter air pollution, lead used in all media and microbiological diseases from environmental causes. Other risks come from microbial food contamination, various forms of air pollution (ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide), drinking water contamination, solid and hazardous wastes and so on. See excerpts from this report on page 24 of this issue.
[2] Nader Fergany, Egyptians and Politics: Analysis of an Opinion Poll (Cairo: al-Mishkat and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 1995), p. 37.
[3] For a full report on the quantitative results of this survey, see Nicholas S. Hopkins and Sohair Mehanna, “A Social Response to Environmental Change in Urban and Rural Egypt,’ a paper presented at the Arab Regional Population Conference, Cairo, December 1996. This research was funded by the International Development Research Centre of Ottawa, Canada.
[4] “Social responses” include culturally constructed understandings and perceptions as well as the social actions that may spring from them. “Environmental change” refers to degradation, e.g., pollution and the emergence of environmental hazards.
[5] A sample of 2,266 respondents were drawn equally from the four sites; 48.9 percent of these were female and 51.1 percent male; 19.1 percent were 25 years old and under; 29.2 percent were between the ages of 26 and 35; 24.4 percent were between the ages of 36 and 45 and 28.2 percent were 46 years old or older. The median age was 36 years old. The educational status of the group was bipolar. Of those surveyed, 27.1 percent were illiterate, 16.7 percent could both read and write. At the other extreme, 15.8 percent were enrolled in or had completed post-secondary education, 18.4 percent had completed technical school, and 5.9 percent had completed secondary school, 16.2 percent had completed primary or preparatory school. Kafr al-‘Ilw was chosen because it was environmentally impacted through a nearby cement plant and other industries, mostly public-sector, while the others were chosen for the absence of any dramatic source of pollution.
[6] Nicholas S. Hopkins, Sohair Mehanna, Tamer Abdel Kader, Noha Abu Gazia, Samer al-Karanshawy and Inas Tewfik, “Pollution and People in Cairo” in Salwa Sharawi Gomaa, “Environmental Threats in Egypt: Perceptions and Actions” Cairo Papers in Social Science 17/4 (Cairo: American University in Cairo, 1994).
[7] Willett Kempton, James S. Boster and Jennifer A. Hartley, Environmental Values in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).
[8] Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982).
[9] On the other hand, in a survey of “Egypt’s problems” reported by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, environment and pollution were not even mentioned. In that study, popular perceptions of Egypt’s problems were ranked as inflation and low incomes, then housing, terrorism, unemployment, overpopulation, declining morality and corruption. See Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “State, Women and Civil Society: An Evaluation of Egypt’s Population Policy” in Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer, ed., Family, Gender and Population in the Middle East: Policies in Context (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995).
[10] Over two thirds (71.2 percent) said they would not go to anyone if they had an environmental problem. The leading answer among the remaining 28.8 percent was to appeal to a government office of some sort (district office, municipal office, local council, sewage authority, sewage company, government office in general, or — and only in Abkhas — the police station). Only 8.1 percent said that residents should “solve it themselves.” Residents of Abkhas were least likely to say they would go somewhere for help, with the three urban areas about the same. Women expressed more powerlessness in this regard (they mentioned “no one” by 78.2 percent to 64.5 percent of men); conversely they were less likely to appeal to the government, but as likely to think that the problem could be solved locally.
[11] In some areas of Cairo and Egypt, under pressure from USAID and other donors, residents must pay for a hookup to a sewage system. Officials rightly argue that without a sewage system, residents would have to pay to have their cesspits emptied. Other officials argue that “the Egyptian citizen should not be burdened more.” See Mariz Tadros. “Sewage Siege,” al-Ahram Weekly, May 30, 1996.
[12] Tekce, Oldham and Shorter report that regular garbage collection is one of the successes in Manshiyat Nasir, which is located next to one of the big settlements of garbage collectors (zabbalin). See Belgin Tekce, Linda Oldham and Frederic C. Shorter, A Place to Live: Families and Child Health in a Cairo Neighborhood (Cairo: AUC Press. 1994), p. 36.
[13] Due to its effect on agriculture and air pollution in general, cement dust has been recognized as a problem since the 1960s. See Hani Fakhouri, Kafr al-Elow: An Egyptian Village in Transition (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1972), p. 45.
[14] Sherine Nasr and Reem Leila, “Lawyer Battles Cement Plants” al-Ahram Weekly, September 12, 1996.
[15] On this story, see Khaled Kamel, “A Tale of Two Factories” in Salwa Sharawi Gomaa, ed., “Environmental Threats in Egypt: Perceptions and Actions,” Cairo Papers in Social Science 17/4 (1994); and Inas Tewfik, “Community Participation and Environmental Change: Mobilization in a Cairo Neighborhood,” unpublished M.A. thesis, American University in Cairo, 1996.
[16] In the village of Abkhas, government neglect led villagers to support an opposition candidate in the first round of the 1995 elections. Villagers were able to collect funds during this election which they are using to upgrade an agricultural cooperative, a community development association with income generating projects for women and a youth center.

How to cite this article:

Sohair Mehanna, Nicholas Hopkins "Pollution, Popular Perceptions and Grassroots Environmental Activism," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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