Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

A campaign opposing coal imports would seem unlikely to attract much attention given the political upheavals and deepening social polarization that Egyptians have witnessed over the past three years. Yet since 2012, a loose coalition of environmental and human rights activists, government officials and voluntary organizations have led a sustained campaign to contest the government’s decision to import coal to supply Egypt’s cement plants. Making use of new and old media, and drawing upon the “Tahrir networks” forged in street protest, the anti-coal coalition challenged government and business assertions that importing coal was the only way to meet Egypt’s energy needs.

Activism against coal resonates with widespread concerns about pollution and the privileged treatment of big business, given that well-connected businessmen and foreign executives are seen to pay little for local labor and energy but sell cement on the Egyptian market at high international prices. Anti-coal activists also mobilized public support by linking closed cabinet sessions on coal policy to the revolutionary struggle for transparent and accountable government. With small and fragmented numbers, the anti-coal campaign is unlikely to prevent the Egyptian government from importing coal to support the cement industry. The campaign was, however, able to influence media coverage and official discourse on energy issues, framing government policy on energy in terms of popular concerns about social justice and corruption.

Egypt’s Energy Dilemma

Reversing its traditional role as an energy exporter, Egypt now finds itself facing shortages of natural gas for domestic consumption. The Arab world’s most populous nation was once Africa’s second largest producer of natural gas and fifth largest producer of oil. Egypt’s hydrocarbon sector has long been a critical source of foreign currency and a key target of foreign direct investment. Net energy exports averaged $4 billionbetween 2004 and 2010. [1]

More than 95 percent of Egypt’s energy needs are met using oil and gas. According to the World Bank, Egypt's primary energy supply has grown about 56 percent over the last decade, but consumption increased by 72 percent between 1998 and 2008. [2] The demand for electricity is growing at an estimated rate of 1,500 to 2,000 megawatts a year. [3]

Egypt’s energy troubles stem in large part from an ineffective policy framework and an extensive subsidy system that consumes more than a fifth of the state’s budget expenditures. Partly as a result of state subsidies, energy demand across the Middle East and North Africa has grown at a faster rate than supply. [4] Distorted and fragmented energy policies have contributed to economic disruption and underpriced energy for decades. Prices for fossil fuels in Egypt are among the lowest in the world, which exacerbates the country’s trade imbalance and budget deficit. The International Monetary Fund estimates Egypt’s energy subsidies amount to three times what the country spends on education and seven times its expenditure on health. [5]

Under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the Egyptian government has repeatedly announced plans to scale back energy subsidies. Policy changes have been adopted slowly and inconsistently, out of concern that reducing energy subsidies will produce political unrest and adversely affect low-income groups, including farmers who rely on diesel pumps to irrigate their fields, the transportation sector and the large-scale informal economy. According to a 2005 household survey, however, 57 percent of energy subsidies went to households with income in the top two quintiles. [6] In 2004, the government announced a plan to phase out natural gas subsidies for industry by 2014. This plan was delayed following the global financial crisis in 2008.

The political turmoil and security situation in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising and ongoing protests aggravated the imbalance between energy supply and demand. Energy consumption continued unabated but production stagnated, mainly due to depleted stocks and a lack of new investment. Supplies carried by gas pipelines were scaled back, while natural gas facilities produced at very low capacities and some were shut down. Egypt’s state-owned oil and gas companies, the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) and the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS), have thus been unable to meet their outstanding supply commitments to international exploration and extraction firms. The head of the state-run oil company said that Egypt's debt to foreign oil companies was $5.9 billion by late April 2014. [7] Independent surveys suggest the figure is much higher. EGPC alone may owe a conservative estimate of $6.3 billion. [8] British Gas’ nullification through force majeure of its contract in Egypt this past January indicates the severity of the state’s difficulties with supply and payment.

In the three years since the overthrow of Husni Mubarak, one interim cabinet after another warned that domestic supplies of oil and gas were insufficient to cover the needs of industry and household consumption. Fearing public anger over blackouts and the potentially destabilizing political implications of household energy rationing, the government opted to reduce gas supplies to energy-intensive industries. In April 2013, under former President Muhammad Mursi, the Ministry of Petroleum announced a 50 percent reduction in the supply of natural gas to cement factories, which consume up to 20 percent of Egypt’s domestic natural gas supplies. The government prioritized retaining natural gas supplies for Egypt’s thermal power plants to produce electricity. At the time of the announcement, 18,500 megawatts of electricity were produced per month. Output was expected to reach 22,000 megawatts per month during the hot summer months, but the natural gas required to fill such a gap was not readily available. The Petroleum Ministry also announced that it would invest $18 billion to build new refineries and modify existing plants, in an attempt to increase Egypt’s natural gas production capacities. Such investments require time and capital to materialize, particularly challenging given Egypt’s outstanding debts to multinational energy firms. Since July 2014, however, direct energy shipments and cash infusions from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have kept the Egyptian state supplied with fossil fuels.

As a result of energy shortages, production at cement plants decreased by 11 percent in 2013. [9] In the summer months, when electricity needs are highest, cement production fell to 50 percent of potential capacity, according to ‘Umar Muhanna, chairman of Suez Cement Group, Egypt’s largest listed cement firm. Egypt has one of the oldest and, after Turkey, largest cement industries in the region. Today, 19 cement firms produce 60 million tons annually. Industry representatives argued that a decline in cement production could deliver a disastrous blow to the Egyptian economy by depressing housing and infrastructure development.

Cement firms and their dependent industries thus faced several options to guarantee financial viability: import cement or clinker (the main ingredient in cement) for production purposes, accept a reduction in capacity, find alternative sources of energy or rigorously implement energy efficiency programs. Importing cement materials without port infrastructure and transportation is expensive and logistically difficult. In 2012, several cement factories attempted to import clinker to cope with higher energy costs and gas shortages but were unable to secure letters of credit, since the Egyptian Central Bank had restricted credit to maintain foreign exchange reserves for strategic imports, such as wheat. [10] The cement industry has argued that using alternative fuels, such as fuel derived from waste, is neither quick nor feasible. Some cement factories already integrate alternative fuels into their operations, but the industry claims that production cannot exclusively rely on these inputs.The cement industry and its cabinet allies, especially officials in the Ministries of Industry and Trade, Energy and Electricity, thus presented importing coal as the only reasonable option to prevent the industry’s collapse.

“Coal for Them, the Bill on Us”

Despite commanding an influential business lobby, cement firms had to compete with the anti-coal campaign to define the terms of public debate about importing coal for energy. Critics of coal imports capitalized on the cement industry’s infamous track record on air pollution, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. Since the 1980s, the Egyptian government has tried to mitigate the effects of dust and particulates generated by cement plants by relocating them to the outskirts of Cairo and siting new plants in peripheral urban or desert areas. Egypt’s environmental agency repeatedly cited firms for violating environmental standards. International donors also sponsored a number of initiatives to upgrade old technologies and encourage cement factories to adopt pollution prevention techniques, many of which were only partially successful. As in other industries, privatization of old state-owned enterprises combined with new private-sector investment generally improved environmental performance, leaving state-owned firms in Helwan, El-Mex and other areas among the worst polluters.

In addition to decades of air pollution produced by cement plants, by 2013 Egyptians suffered a serious energy crisis marked by blackouts, queues at gas stations and rising energy prices. By the summer of 2014, many areas of Cairo experienced blackouts of two hours or more at a time. Hence, the debate about whether to import coal for the cement industry quickly attracted attention outside the offices of bureaucrats and industrialists.

When the Egyptian government under Mursi first considered importing coal in 2012, a loose coalition of civil society organizations mobilized to launch the campaign Egyptians Against Coal. Several human rights organizations were at the forefront of publicizing the coal issue, as part of a trend in which human rights work in Egypt has expanded to include issues of social and environmental justice. The Land Center for Human Rights pioneered this focus, by highlighting the links between environmental, social and political abuses facing rural landholders in Egypt during the 1990s in their reports. The Land Center under Karam Sabir litigated numerous cases on workers’ rights, protected areas and changes in land tenure laws.

By 2011, two more human rights organizations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), had begun to include issues of pollution and civil rights in their work. EIPR began publicizing energy and governance issues in Egypt through a partnership with Platform, a London-based organization working on the global fossil fuel industry and its ties to universities, governments and big business. Reports by EIPR and Platform echoed long-standing accusations that the Mubarak government had underpriced exports of natural gas via the pipeline to Israel and Jordan since 2005. The organizations also monitored and supported environmental campaigns in Damietta, Alexandria and Idku against local fossil fuel-based industries. In March 2014, ECESR filed a suit with an administrative court in Cairo seeking to have the import of coal banned on grounds of health and public safety.

Human rights NGOs were soon joined by a corps of young environmental activists and professionals affiliated with the mainly Cairo-based groups of the Egypt Climate Change Coalition, Dayma, Green Arm of Nahdat al-Mahrousa and 350.org, an international youth-led network of climate activists. Several established conservation organizations were also brought into the coalition over shared concerns about the environmental costs of creating a coal infrastructure, given Egypt’s ineffective regulation of industrial pollution. These included National Conservation Egypt and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), a private NGO with members from the tourism and diving industries dedicated to protecting marine ecosystems and coral reefs on the Red Sea.

The coalition launched a social media campaign to organize public meetings against coal. The first meeting in November 2013 was so crowded that attendees gathered by the doors of the space provided by IceCairo, an initiative funded by the German development agency GIZ to support collaborative, new ideas for sustainable development. From the start, the anti-coal campaign thus reached beyond technocratic circles to bring together activists, professionals and politically engaged individuals who had not previously worked together.

Egyptians Against Coal soon established chapters in Port Said and Alexandria. While these chapters had small memberships, the ease of creating branches for the campaign outside Cairo demonstrates the expanded networks for environmental and social activism since 2011. Both cities also have a decades-long history of environmental protests against specific cement plants and petrochemical complexes. Environmental activists in Alexandria took steps to connect with human rights groups in their city and arranged for a small protest against coal. The protest slogan, “Coal for them, the bill on us,” criticized the profits reaped by “foreign conglomerates” at the expense of public health.

The coal issue resonated with members of the “Tahrir networks,” the diffuse activist alliances forged in the post-2011 protest movement. Many activists read the decision to import coal as a continuation of Mubarak-era priorities, privileging big business interests over public health and excluding public input. In the weeks following the cabinet decision to allow coal imports, leading activists involved in diverse opposition networks rallied to the cause. The April 6 Youth Movement promoted the Egyptians Against Coal campaign and referenced Article 46 of the newly passed constitution, which asserts the “right to a healthy environment” and the state’s commitment to sustainable development. A post on the April 6 Facebook page asked, “After the decision to import coal, is the constitution nothing but ink on paper?” Tamarrud, the group behind the petition and demonstrations to remove Mursi from office, called on its social media followers to sign petitions against coal. The Revolutionary Socialists released a scathing statement linking the energy crisis to decades of budget mismanagement and crony capitalism, and condemned coal combustion as sending Egyptians “to [the] grave.” An anti-coal joke circulated widely among opposition activists on social media: “If you weren’t killed in three years of revolution, don’t worry. Coal will do it.”

In technical workshops closed to the public, Egyptian environmental experts also evaluated the options for energy diversification and the plans to import coal. Some experts proposed limiting coal combustion to less densely populated zones and called for strong procurement standards to ensure that Egypt did not become a destination for low-quality coal. Some experts argued that the government should incentivize other energy options, particularly renewables in which new technologies have produced significant cost savings, and rigorously measure the dollar value of coal’s impact on the economy, the environment and public health.

Some environmental experts took their skepticism about importing coal to the media. Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Galil, a former head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency who had worked in the state oil and gas sectors, wrote in al-Shorouk that the “catastrophic” decision to import coal was poorly substantiated, especially since it was made without consulting the tourism sector, health care professionals, academic experts or transportation officials. In a striking denunciation, ‘Abd al-Galil denounced an “open bias” in favor of the “cement lobby” of multinational companies, who control more than 85 percent of Egypt’s cement production. Despite the size of the coal industry, ‘Abd al-Galil argued that these firms’ contribution to Egypt’s economy is too little in comparison with the costs that Egyptians could pay with their health if coal is allowed:

The matter is far bigger than coal…it is a matter of concern for every Egyptian; a matter for sons and grandsons; a matter of concern for a country looking for a brighter future, not one filled with black coal dust…. The decision to import coal and use it in Egypt was made by those who have no right to take it and granted to those who do not deserve it. Such a critical decision ought not to be taken by an interim cabinet whose future will only last a few months and in the absence of an elected parliament. [11]

New Allies

Anti-coal activists shaped the opposition to coal around the health risks of pollution. Egyptians Against Coal referred to the “coal government” and “the government of smog,” ending each posting or statement with the tagline “we will pay the price with our health.” Coverage of the coal issue in established and new media outlets often adopted the rhetoric of the anti-coal coalition, at times repeating unsubstantiated claims. Many of the statistics and assertions that anti-coal activists posted online regarding alternative fuel use, and the health costs of coal combustion and pollution by the cement industry, were often uncritically used in traditional media coverage of the coal controversy.

An article in al-Misri al-Yawm, for instance, interviewed respiratory diseases specialists on the potential for coal combustion to cause cancer. The newspaper also published a two-page investigative report describing coal as “a source of energy…and death.” [12] Language equating coal with death appeared frequently, often interchanged with the phrase “black coal.” Yanayir, an independent news collective launched to help ensure positive coverage of the Egyptian protest movement, published a series on “the real cost of coal” using case studies of coal pollution in China and infographics prepared by Egyptians Against Coal. [13] Even the state-owned daily newspaper al-Ahram ran three separate full-page stories on coal, citing technical experts on the “social cost” of coal and implicitly criticizing the lack of publicly available analysis on alternative energy sources.

A few prominent columnists in the state-owned media also weighed in on the health risks of coal and rebuked the military-appointed cabinet for setting the policy while Parliament was suspended. Salah Muntasir, writing in al-Ahram, described the coal import policy as “illegitimate and unacceptable.” [14] He observed that “a decision to use coal is about the health of a people. Sufficing with a vote inside the cabinet without any public participation makes it lose its legitimacy.” Muntasir also worried about the implications for Egypt’s energy sovereignty, asserting that the government’s promise of effective regulation would be “worthless at implementation.”

The anti-coal campaign received another boost when the coordinator of Egyptians Against Coal, Ahmad al-Duroubi, appeared on “AlBernameg,” the popular political satire show hosted by Bassem Youssef. Before Youssef cancelled the show in June 2014, citing the declining freedom of expression in Egypt, “AlBernameg” was one of the most-watched programs on Egyptian television, with an estimated audience of 8.8 million. [15] In his interview with Youssef, al-Duroubi argued that coal would not solve Egypt’s energy crisis and that “the real price of coal will be paid by Egyptians. We will pay it with our environment and our health.” Youssef endorsed the campaign, agreeing that “coal is no solution.” After the broadcast, the Egyptians Against Coal Facebook page received more than 150,000 additional new “likes” in under two hours. [16]

Egyptians Against Coal also gained the support of the Egyptian Doctors’ Syndicate, one of the most prominent professional medical associations, which amplified messages about the dangers coal poses to public health. At a Syndicate press conference, Hana’ ‘Amar, deputy health minister for technical affairs, stated that the 4.5 percent of the national budget spent on health was insufficient to serve Egyptians even without the additional burden of coal-related illnesses. ‘Amar cited data from Europe that 28.5 million people suffer from coal-related diseases, and said that such illnesses are the second most common cause of death in China, figures that the anti-coal campaign employed repeatedly. Muna Mina, then secretary-general of the Syndicate and widely known due to her role in establishing field hospitals in Tahrir Square in 2011, refuted arguments that coal would provide cheap energy once environmental and health damages were taken into account. [17] Khalid Samir, the Syndicate’s treasurer, described his “disbelief” that the government would undertake such a decision without consulting experts, stressing that “the state must be concerned with the health of Egyptians. It should not be thinking of turning to a cheap source of energy that will kill its people.” [18]

Layla Iskandar’s appointment as minister of state for the environment in the July 2013 cabinet reshuffle following the military’s ouster of Mursi seemed to open the coal issue for reconsideration. As a high-profile activist who had worked with Cairo's informal waste collectorsfor her entire career, Iskandar became an important ally for the anti-coal campaign. She was a vocal critic inside the cabinet, held press events to discuss the dangers of coal usage and participated in activist network meetings. In her many candid statements to the media, she argued that the demands of heavy industry could not justify the burning of coal: “We don't have the systems, the laws, the infrastructure or the general climate of compliance.”

Iskandar’s concerns about importing coal were a departure from the united front usually presented by ministers, regardless of shifting political alignments within the cabinet. Iskandar understood her appointment as a victory in the struggle for broader political change. In an interview for this article shortly after her appointment, she said, “I don’t come from the halls of power. Yet the government is saying they want someone that has field experiences, connected to the grassroots and is willing to do something different. There is an absolute political opportunity because of the revolutionary climate.”

In March 2014, 350.org hosted an anti-coal workshop with HEPCA in Hurghada. The attendees included local activists already working against cement factories and individuals interested in environmental advocacy and network-building. Iskandar spoke at the event, titled Tahawul (Transformation), explaining the government’s position while encouraging the mainly young, inexperienced audience that civil society has a role to play in showing the government that opposition to coal was authentic and sustained. “Do not undermine your own power and do not underestimate the role of civil society,” she told attendees.

The workshop also provided an opportunity to rally local authorities in the Red Sea against the shipment of coal through their ports. Ahmad ‘Abdallah, governor of the Red Sea province, interrupted the sessions on the final day to hail the “commitment” of “energetic youth fighting for the future of their country.” ‘Abdallah told the session: “Tourism is our primary blessing and we must always protect it. We must think of alternatives because surely this will affect tourism. Our objective is to protect the environment of the Red Sea.” In comments to al-Ahram a few weeks later, ‘Abdallah challenged the cabinet decision to import coal, saying that he “refuses” to use the port of Safaga as an entry point for coal imports and opposes allowing factories in the Red Sea governorate to use coal for energy. [19]

The Ministry of Tourism, helmed by Hisham Za‘zouq despite repeated changes of government in Cairo, also seemed to be worried about the environmental impact of importing coal on Red Sea resorts and marine ecosystems. The Tourism Investment Authority endorsed the anti-coal campaign, saying that coal “will pollute the environment, harm people’s health and destroy marine life, especially coral reefs.” [20] Other independent tourism officials made even more serious claims against cement investors, arguing they were waging a “political and media war” to overlook the hazardous effects of coal. [21] Other influential departments inside the government, like the Foreign Ministry, reportedly also quietly attempted to find an alternative to coal imports.

Uncertain Future

In April 2014, acting Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab convened a sub-cabinet meeting to clarify the government’s coal policy. In addition to the usual players from the Ministries of Industry and Trade, the meeting included the ministers of environment, tourism and health. Despite the dissenting voices in the government, the cabinet agreed to incorporate coal into the “energy mix in Egypt.” The official statement assured compliance with environmental regulations, required environmental impact assessments for the coal supply chain and promised to apply the newest technologies to mitigate emissions. Details about compliance standards, how much control environmental authorities will have, or which technologies will be adopted have yet to be developed. The statement also declared that refuse-derived fuels should provide 40 percent of the energy source in the cement industry “as soon as possible,” but without any plan for how such a transition to alternative fuels could occur. In another nod to international best practices, the statement noted the cabinet would amend environmental laws to increase penalties for violations and investigate a potential tax on coal users. The Environmental Affairs Agency was tasked with outlining guidelines for coal usage and possibilities for carbon taxes.

Egyptians Against Coal rejected the cabinet decision and countered that the infrastructural, health and environmental costs are much higher than the government recognized. Activists cited a preliminary study conducted by the Ministry of Environment that suggested that the effects of burning coal would cost $3-5 billion per year. [22] The anti-coal coalition maintains that the only beneficiaries of the decision to import coal are the owners of major industrial factories—the same people who benefited from subsidized energy in the past and are now pursuing another “cheap alternative, subsidized by the health of Egyptians' and their futures.” [23] Activist lawyer Khalid ‘Ali and ECESR sought a court injunction against the policy. The presiding judge stepped down in June 2014, citing “discomfort” over having to rule in the case. ECESR noted on its website that the judge had presided over three full hearings of the case before stating that the case could not be ruled upon, suggesting that the judge had been pressured to halt the suit.

Iskandar’s outspoken environmental advocacy, and her lack of experience with the technocratic side of environmental management, likely hastened the end of her short tenure as minister. Just days after the May 2014 election of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency, Iskandar was moved to the Ministry of Urban Development and her predecessor, veteran environmental consultant and technocrat Khalid Fahmi, was reinstated. In 2013, Fahmi had endorsed coal imports, provided that cement plants followed environmental laws and implemented best practices. He had also suggested using carbon taxes and credits to limit cement factories’ demand for coal. Yet Iskandar and the anti-coal campaign invited media attention and public dialogue on a matter that appeared to have been settled behind closed doors. The cabinet’s statement was clearly crafted to respond to many of the criticisms raised by anti-coal activists.

Given immediate pressures to stabilize the economy and prevent further deterioration in the energy supply, the newly reshuffled cabinet under Sisi seems likely to continue embracing coal imports for use in industrial production while reserving natural gas and oil for generating residential electricity. It remains unclear whether the new regime will tackle the structural problems of Egypt’s energy sector—resolving the debts of state-owned energy firms, reforming energy subsidies and encouraging more significant investment in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. More importantly, however, the anti-coal campaign shows how mobilized Egyptians continue to work for environmental and social justice despite a severe crackdown on political dissent. Pollution, health and livelihoods offer environmental activists powerful framing narratives for reaching broad audiences, and activist networks now include newly politicized groups and individuals. Environmental campaigners incorporate the revolutionary expectations that have become entrenched in the media and in public discourse. As prominent youth activist Ziad El-Alaimy wrote: “It is enough that you stole our past. Let us have our future.”

 

Endnotes

[1] Pascal Devaux, Egypt: Crisis in the Energy Sector (Paris: BNP Paribas, October 2013).
[2] Maria Vagliasindi, Arab Republic of Egypt. Implementing Energy Subsidy Reforms: Evidence from Developing Countries. Directions in Development: Energy and Mining(Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012).
[3] Angela Croker, “Renewable Energy in Egypt: Hydro, Solar and Wind” (Manama: Norton Rose Fulbright, January 2013).
[4] Hakim Darbouche, “MENA’s Growing Natural Gas Deficit and the Issue of Domestic Prices,” Energy Strategy Reviews 2/1 (2013).
[5] International Monetary Fund, “Energy Subsidies in the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons for Reform” (2014).
[6] World Bank, Arab Republic of Egypt: Consulting Services for Energy Pricing Strategy (2009).
[7] Reuters, May 14, 2014.
[8] Devaux, Crisis in the Energy Sector.
[9] Daily News Egypt, May 6, 2014.
[10] Ibid.
[11] al-Shurouq, April 16, 2014.
[12] al-Misri al-Yawm, March 16, 2014.
[13] Yanayir, March 16, 2014.
[14] al-Ahram, April 13, 2014.
[15] Magued Osman, “Baseera Poll on Bassem Youssef’s Program ‘AlBernameg’” (Alexandria, Egypt: Baseera, 2014).
[16] Viewer analysis provided by campaign coordinators. The campaign’s Facebook page is available at https://www.facebook.com/NoCoal.
[17] Statement on Egyptian Medical Syndicate website, available at http://www.ems.org.eg/l3.php?id=1739. [Arabic] [18] Masrawi, April 18, 2014.
[19] al-Ahram, April 16, 2014.
[20] Saudi Gazette, April 24, 2014.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Statement by Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, available at http://eipr.org/pressrelease/2014/04/09/2041. [Arabic] [23] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Dina Zayed, Jeannie Sowers "The Campaign Against Coal in Egypt," Middle East Report 271 (Summer 2014).
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