Egyptian Environmentalism and Urban Grassroots Mobilisation
Noura Wahby, American University in Cairo
Published in 2019 in The Right to Nature: Social Movements, Environmental Justice and Neoliberal Natures
Noura Wahby’s chapter on “Egyptian environmentalism and urban grassroots mobilization” provides an exciting discussion of the fragmented environmental scene in Egypt and the Egyptian state’s role in this. All those interested in a counter-hegemonic re-thinking of environmental politics will find the edited volume, which this chapter is a part of, of immense value. In her chapter, Wahby argues that “localized grassroots forms of contention against state damage and negligence in Egypt are undermined by a particular definition of nature put forth by the new bourgeois classes and co-opted civil society movements”.
The chapter is a forceful reminder of the importance of intersectionality as a theoretical framework for the study of environmentalism both in Egypt and beyond. Wahby begins with a striking illustration of the marked differences and contradictions between middle/upper class environmental mobilisation on the one hand, and different forms of environmental mobilisation by Egypt’s urban poor on the other. In the academic literature and public debate, the latter have thus far largely gone unrecognised. Wahby provides a much-needed corrective to this and to elitist activist discourses, which often claim that the Egyptian public “does not care about environmental problems” (Sowers 2013: 5). Popular perceptions of an emerging global movement for the environment still, much too often, ignore the importance of class, gender and race in shaping different environmentalisms worldwide. Wahby’s conclusion that the Egyptian state is fundamentally interested “in maintaining a fragmented natural landscape” may be read as a call upon scholars to understand environmental activism and politics more explicitly in the context of uneven power relations and via an intersectional approach.
Egypt’s uneven integration into the world economy led to a number of mega-infrastructure projects (e.g., the Suez Canal, Aswan Dam, Toshka Scheme, New Administrative Capital). Servicing the needs of global capitalism, such projects established new forms of labour relations. These marginalised ordinary Egyptians “in imagining Nature’s future, despite ultimately being its builders”. From the establishment of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) in 1982 on, Egyptian state institutions have pursued what Wahby calls a “dual mission” of attracting investment from multinational corporations via the relaxing of environmental standards and attempting to obtain environmental aid. Eventually, Egypt became one of the highest recipients of environmental aid worldwide. In combination with the many public ventures that were established with foreign companies during the 1990s, this may be read by some as proof of the success of Egypt’s environmental policies. Wahby, however, reminds the reader of the deeply unequal nature of the investment in the built environment facilitated by growing FDI and links this to the fragmented nature of environmental mobilisation across the country.
The strength of Wahby’s contribution lies in the ways in which she shows the highly contested nature of environmental questions and interventions in Egypt. In one example, she compellingly recounts a 2015 protest by upper class women against the killing of a street dog in one of Cairo’s low-income areas. As another woman accused the protesters of caring more about animals than Cairo’s poor, the protesters attacked the woman, who was later arrested on accusations of prostitution. In stark contrast to such instances of upper class environmental activism that remain blind to the concerns of the urban poor, Egypt’s Green party describes poverty “as the worst form of pollution”. However, in a sector dominated by environmental aid from the Global North, searches for technocratic fixes, and the forcing of “local expertise” into supposedly globally valid templates, conceptualisations that link environmental degradation with socio-economic concerns are fundamentally undesired. As elsewhere in the Global South, the (environmental) aid influx has had the effect of turning academics into consultants. The emerging “bourgeois environmentalism” (Baviskar 2003: 90) has effectively sided with authoritarian state institutions and participated in what Wahby pointedly calls a “constant ‘blame game’ among the classes, with the media mostly pointing to the poor’s activities as the cause of environmental degradation”.
Egypt’s urban poor long avoided open political confrontation with the authorities and instead pursued strategies that “reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions” – leading to the emergence of what Bayat (2013) calls “social non-movements”. In this context, Wahby argues that grassroots community organisation, maintenance and financial investment in the face of, for instance, water shortages in marginalised communities must be understood as citizenship claims and deliberate attempts at “reasserting their autonomy over their connection to Nature”. Finally, accepting the inherently political nature of environmental-social mobilisation by the urban poor and challenging middle-class definitions of Nature are important first steps in re-establishing the “possibility of a collective mobilization for a common Nature”, across class divisions. Failing to do so only supports performances by the Egyptian state as a “mediator between classes fighting to define their relationship with Nature”, as Wahby warns us, and ignores the role of the state “in the negligence of the social contract with the marginalized citizens”. Overall, Wahby’s chapter is a powerful reminder that social and environmental questions cannot be separated.
Reviewed by: Benjamin Schütze
- Sowers, Jeannie. 2013. Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts and the State (New York: Routledge).
- Baviskar, Amita. 2003. “Between Violence and desire: space, power, and identity in the making of metropolitan Delhi”, International Social Science Journal, 55(175): 89–98.
- Bayat, Asef. 2013. “The Urban Subalterns and the Non-Movements of the Arab Uprisings: An interview with Asef Bayat”, Jadaliyya, March 26.
Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe