Environmental activism in Egypt: hopes for a brighter future

It’s no longer limited to the slums and low-income neighborhoods: at this point even a brief stroll through any of Cairo’s districts will leave one wondering, why do people chose to live like this? Mounds of malodorous trash on every corner, overflowing sewers, and perpetually smoggy skies, mostly due to the literally millions of cars continuously clogging the city’s arteries. With most people expressing little or no faith in the government or state service’s ability to adequately deal with the pressing issues at hand, who is there to turn to?

The answer–albeit a far from complete one–can be found in eleven-year-old Amr Abdalla, whom Al-Masry Al-Youm first encounters standing knee-high in a pile of trash. When asked what it is exactly that he’s doing, Abdallah replies, although not too happily: “recycling.”

For the past few weeks, Abdalla, inspired in part by a clean-up campaign that recently visited his street, has been attempting to start a recycling initiative in his neighborhood, trying to raise awareness towards what he believes has become a critical issue. “There is garbage everywhere,” he explains, “Mainly because people haven’t been taught how to dispose of it properly.” Abdalla believes that even cleaning up his relatively tiny street constitutes a step in the right direction. “All this [garbage] everywhere—it looks bad, it smells terrible, and it spreads diseases.” Even though a quick glance into Abdalla’s collection cartons reveals he hasn’t quite gotten the basics of recycling, his heart is clearly in the right place.

In recent years, environmental awareness has become something of a global trend. It’s ‘cool’ to be green now, as seen by the rapidly growing numbers of corporate social responsibility campaigns and Facebook groups of the ‘clean up the streets/stop littering/start carpooling’ variety. But how much of these initiatives are sincere enough to actually carry through with their promise of environmentally-conscious conduct? And in a city like Cairo, effectively a microcosm of the rest of the planet’s environmental ailments, are any of these efforts actually effective?

“Of course, a lot of these [campaigns] are just following a popular trend, just because it’s currently fashionable,” says Inji al-Abd, a 29-year-old environmental activist. “But there are many sincere and genuine efforts.” A development consultant specializing in sustainable living, el-Abd has, over the past couple of years, had extensive experience with various environmentally active groups, including tree-planting initiative Shagarah, street clean-up project Keep Egypt Clean, and the popular Cairo Cyclers Club, which she’s particularly fond of.

“It’s a really good idea,” she says of the group, the members of which regularly bike to and from work–an impressive feat considering a significant number of them work at Smart Village, situated on the outskirts of Cairo. “There’s a lot of diversity in that group, in every way, age, social background, gender.” Al-Abd claims that, at one point, 60 percent of the Cairo Cyclers Club’s members were girls. “It’s a very socially inclusive group. People only focus on the activity that unites them.” An activity which, according to al-Abd, and painfully obvious to anyone who’s spent even a few minutes in Cairo’s notoriously frustrating traffic, is good for the environment as well. “It’s also great exercise,” she adds.

Al-Abd explains that while the Cairo Cyclers’ Club is only one of many significant and effective initiatives, there could always be more. She believes that the biggest obstacle to this much needed proliferation is continuity. “People have commitments and at first may be reluctant to say, waking up early on a weekend to clean someone else’s street. There’s a resistance to change, but once someone sets a precedent, it becomes easier for others to follow their example.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Ahmed al-Dorghamy, a senior business developer at an environmental consultancy, agrees. “A positive process can replicate rapidly,” he says, “Especially when the people involved are doing it for the common good, and not for recognition, or credit.” Along with al-Abd, al-Dorghamy is partially responsible for the current establishment of Green Arm, an environmentally-active entity of the popular NGO Nahdet el-Mahrousa, as well as being a founding member of the aforementioned Cairo Cyclers Club.

Al-Dorgamhy, who believes that these proactive initiatives are “only sustainable when they are fuelled by people’s concern and passion,” believes that the number of genuine attempts are on the rise. “It’s got to the point where the pollution–in terms of both trash and air–has literally reached our doorsteps, and that has mobilized people, especially the youth, into wanting to do something about it.” In his opinion, though, the biggest obstacle facing this desire to change is “a lack of focus and organization. People want to change, but they don’t know how.”

“You can’t save the world single-handedly overnight and that’s what most volunteers usually want to do,” he says. “Everyone wants to do everything, but that will never work. What people don’t seem to be aware of is that there are so many dimensions to this problem–renewable energy, biodiversity, environmental justice, awareness raising, fund raising–it’s not just limited to climate change, which seems to be the common misperception.”

Al-Dorghamy argues that this misperception has been nurtured by years of insincere and “superficial and over-marketed” efforts funded by international corporations in an attempt to enhance their image. “Those types of events operate on a very shallow level, and have little to no lasting impact,” he explains. However, that seems to be changing, thanks to the recent global financial meltdown.

“There’s been a significant phasing out of international aid in general, which has had a huge effect on the money previously put into environmental activism. You take away the money, and you can start to see the withdrawal symptoms.” Al-Dorghamy states that ultimately, this will lead to a wake-up call of sorts, directing people’s attention to the gravity of the situation, and what realistically needs to be done to combat it.

Overall, though, he does believe that the number of positive efforts is on the rise, as does Hazem Saleh, a project manager at WESC, the Wadi Environmental Science Center, located on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.

“We are catching up in terms of environmental activism, but we still need much more work,” Saleh states. “Three years ago, there were barely any individual activists, but now there are all sorts of independent groups and university students. Of course, there are different levels of interest.”

Saleh’s responsibilities as a project manager at WESC revolve heavily around teaching school children the necessity of being environmentally conscious. As such, he has an early gauge on the future of environmental awareness in Egypt. “If you approach thirty students and manage to get five of them interested, that’s a success.” The problem, according to Saleh, is that what the children see as acceptable behavior in their daily routines doesn’t correspond with the values he attempts to imbue them with. “You can have the children temporarily convinced, but what they see from their own community will discourage them from putting those values into action.”

The key to effectively promoting change is, Saleh believes, “media coverage. It’s a tool that, if utilized in the right way, can reach the majority of the population. These are all issues that people need to be aware of. The current vegetable crisis, for example–that is directly related to climate change. Some people might not know that, and so we need that push from the media.”

Despite the slow pace of progress, Saleh is optimistic about the multitude of initiatives currently in operation, highlighting Spirit of Youth–an NGO concerned with educating garbage collectors on proper waste management methods–and charity organization Ressala’s nation-wide recycling campaign as admirable efforts. He is also—not surprisingly–a fan of the Cairo Cycler’s Club.

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