In 1990, citizens of Alexandria organized to fight the loss 
of public access to a street in a main downtown square. 
The city had given the street to the World Health Organization for a planned expansion of their local offices. In a landmark case against then-governor Ismail al-Gawsaqi, the citizens’ group, Friends of the Environment and Development-Alexandria (FEDA), argued that city authorities had denied the public’s right to “locational memory” and open space in overcrowded Alexandria. Elderly residents testified in court about their memories of promenades on the street. In a piece of effective political theater, group members sitting in court attached flowers to their lapels and laid flowers on the street outside, to symbolize their mourning of the passing of urban space. The group’s tactics were mocked at first. But in the end, the judge ruled that the allocation of the street for the WHO expansion violated the constitutional principle that “public resources should be used in the public interest.” The WHO announced it would move to Cairo, though the offices are still in Alexandria at present.

In the court of public opinion, the group identified al-Gawsaqi with the city’s decline. They dubbed him “governor of the Corniche” — the 19 kilometer-long boulevard along the Mediterranean that is one of Alexandria’s main tourist attractions — in newspaper articles, implying his neglect of less visible areas. This moniker gained such currency that a well-known journalist asked al-Gawsaqi, “Are you the governor of the Corniche?” during a TV interview. The NGO’s legal victory was the first of its kind against an appointed provincial governor in Egypt (the group is also credited with helping to oust al-Gawsaqi in 1997). It is also an example of how Egyptian environmental NGOs — long presumed to be a domain of the affluent in a society struggling with endemic poverty — have moved to the forefront of efforts to democratize the public sphere. As FEDA’s leader says, the public must participate in urban planning, and city governors must be “educated by advocacy.”

Roots of Environmental Advocacy

Some two dozen environmental organizations engage in a diverse range of activities, from environmental education to community development and anti-poverty work. The evolution of environmental advocacy in Egypt is related to Egypt’s increasing integration into the regional and global political economy. The infitah — the phase of economic liberalization begun in the early 1970s — presaged immense changes in the urban landscapes of Egypt’s two largest cities, Alexandria and Cairo. As Egypt exported labor to the Gulf, workers’ remittances flowed back home, spurring housing construction and consumer demand. Cairo and Alexandria expanded at a pace that outstripped the state’s ability to control the growth or plan for it. As state investment shifted away from public housing, “informal” housing areas multiplied on legally owned agricultural land, in violation of prohibitions against building on precious fertile soil. Large apartment blocks sprang up in established areas, often in violation of zoning codes. Uncontrolled growth overtaxed infrastructure and reduced open space, creating a general sense of decline in the livability of both cities.

Egypt’s Environmental Action Plan

Encouraged by the World Bank to explore “debt-for-nature swaps,” Egypt drafted its first Environmental Action Plan in 1992. A comprehensive environmental law passed in 1994 expanded the mandate of Egypt’s environmental agency, and created a sub-ministerial portfolio for environmental affairs, currently held by the popular Nadia Makram Ebeid. While the environmental agency is weak, and defers to powerful ministries whose jurisdictions impinge on environmental matters (the Ministry of Petroleum led the switch to lead-free gas, for instance), government environmental initiatives have achieved wide visibility. Ramadan TV programs and state newspapers sound environmental themes. Further, the agency has three NGO representatives on its board, and activists can wield new legal instruments associated with the 1994 law, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

In Alexandria, new governor ‘Abd al-Salam Mahgoub has widened the Corniche, established new pedestrian zones and started a sewage treatment project to stop dumping of wastewater into the Mediterranean. However, the private sector has emerged as another major player lacking accountability to the public in urban planning. In 1999, FEDA — whose mostly professional and middle-class membership stands at over 400, half of whom are women — filed two cases against major development projects because the investors failed to conduct an EIA. The group hopes thereby to prod future investors into performing EIAs before beginning a project, a normally unenforced provision of the 1994 law. Taking on the governorate and private capital at once, the association is monitoring companies given concessions to manage neglected city parks. This year, they filed a complaint asserting the infringement of public rights to green space by a tourist development plan.

Lingering Clouds

The Alexandria group’s success demonstrates the inability of the state to monopolize the environmental agenda. Environmental activist groups in Egypt are slowly opening avenues for new modes of advocacy, even while the government impedes most channels of public participation. In 1999, the government pushed its notorious NGO law — which forbade NGOs to engage in “political” work, among other things — through Parliament. The state subsequently blocked one environmental advocacy group from accepting funding from a foreign donor. On June 3, 2000, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled the new law unconstitutional, but the fight is far from over.

Last fall an acrid cloud of smog lingered over Cairo for nearly two weeks. As Makram Ebeid scrambled to blame, among others, peasants burning rice chaff and the potters’ kilns in Old Cairo for the “black cloud,” some observers sensed that considerable public anger at the government might strengthen the environmental agency in its fight against air pollution. The Cairo governorate turned off the potters’ electricity, escalating its campaign to evict them from Old Cairo’s tourist area. These artisans, who also happened to stand in the way of tourist development plans, paid the immediate price for the smog. A scientific report issued several months later ascribed the “black cloud” to wider meteorological conditions, combined with smoke from burning agricultural refuse, car exhaust and factory emissions. Environmental activists face an uphill battle to force government action on Cairene air pollution and the many other types of environmental degradation that affect all Egyptians.

How to cite this article:

Jennifer Bell "Egyptian Environmental Activists’ Uphill Battle," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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