In a desperate plea for a “greener” and sustainable future, young Egyptian environmentalists silently take the lead in the collective fight against socio-economic injustices writes Donatella Vincenti.
The unexpected wave of political contestation and social mobilization sparked across the Arab-Islamic countries after the popular uprisings of 2011 has opened new opportunities for collective action in non-political fields. Egypt’s eco-activists are a case in point. Besides demanding the end of the Mubarak regime and emergency law, freedom, and justice, these young revolutionaries also insisted on their right to a “green” future. Their focus on the ecological consequences of human action has thus been instrumental in bringing about social change and economic restructuring.
The active presence of social movements for sustainability in Arab countries reveals the need to think about the disastrous consequences of the current global model of economic growth. It is for this reason that the main claims expressed by Arab green movements do not dramatically differ from those presented, for example, by the Indignados and Occupy movements, which are generally depicted as typical Western responses to the global economic-financial crisis.
In this emerging ‘green public sphere’ there are also Arab social movements for sustainability. They are concerned with the crafting of ecological values. Some do so on secular grounds, others on Islamic grounds. But both sides are committed to create a shared ‘ecological vocabulary’ and a collective culture of ecological awareness, and both sides have their impacts on environmental and sustainability advocacy initiatives.
Cleaning up streets
Under guidance of the United Nations, five Arab Human Development Reports have been published since 2002, critically analyzing a variety of problems in the Middle East, including gender, education, economics, and ecological issues. These reports argue that only a comprehensive approach that takes into account all these issues will lead to a “sustainable development” in the Arab world.
The ecological (“green”) dimension of this development is taken up by small, but persistent groups of young Arabs. Where the movements with a distinct political agenda have so far received all world attention as well as all the regimes’ harsh responses, the movements with a more innocent – because non-deliberately political – agenda, like the ecological movement, escape such problems, but in the meantime gather momentum that is very much needed for the future of the Arab world. Their learning capacities, expertise and transnational networking activities are vital and essential aspects for ensuring the very existence and survival of social movements for sustainability in the MENA region.
The examples of such activities seem indeed harmless, but upon closer inspection show that they do more than merely calling for a greener environment. For instance, the successful campaign ‘Clean Up Giza’, launched in 2009 by the young Egyptian citizen Dana Moussa on her Facebook event page, was effectively a form of social mobilization that was quickly copied: it was followed by several eco-initiatives to clean up uncollected garbage in Cairo urban districts, and these initiatives convinced many residents to express their concerns for ecological safety.
Ecology is more than clean streets. Nawaya (“seed, nucleus and intention” in Arabic) is an Egyptian permaculture movement that was inspired by the Revolution. Established in 2011, Nawaya promotes social and environmental justice, with emphasis on the plight of the poor. The notion of justice is also central to the Islamic political, legal and economical discourse. The pedagogic centre of Nawaya designs and implements educational curricula for rural development and farming learning programs in synergy with their recipient communities (‘co-creation’).
In the view of these Egyptian eco-citizens the chant “nurīd isqāt an-nizām” (“we want the fall of the regime”) on Tahrir Square in 2011 was equal to say ‘down with the savage privatization system which benefited only a few people’. They advocated environmental justice principles and practices as the main instruments to achieve social equity and ecological restoration.
These are not new demands that came about during the Arab Spring revolt. For instance, harsh criticism of overuse of carcinogenic pesticides and fertilizers in the agribusiness, water and air pollution, land grabbing and Nile Basin hydropolitical struggles had been the underlying themes of civic anger since 2008, the same year when the 6th April Youth Movement was formed. In the Egyptian public opinion, state oligarchies are held responsible for the gradual health and life-quality deterioration as a direct consequence of a massive ‘theft’ of financial and natural resources.
The Egyptian social movements for sustainability often address ecological issues as part of political and policy reform issues. As a consequence, their environmental fights result in the mobilization of a wider public composed of technicians, experts, policy-makers, farmers, urban dwellers, and so on. This mobilizing power is strategically important because it also entails the creation of new political constituencies, at least in the short term.
It is for these reasons that we may observe in the coming years that young generations of eco-citizens will be agents of positive social change in Egypt and in other Arab countries. Not only because of their goals, but also their means: the new technologies and social media platforms by which they direct and organize eco-initiatives, campaigns, marches and protests. These young activists not only initiate and frame their field of action but they also take the lead in mobilizing older generations for the sake of sustainability.