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New Texts Out Now: Jeannie Sowers, Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts, and the State

[Cover of Jeannie Sowers, [Cover of Jeannie Sowers, "Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts, and the State"]

Jeannie Sowers, Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts, and the State. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jeannie Sowers (JS): In Egypt, as elsewhere, environmental issues are often viewed as secondary to issues of “high politics,” such as national elections and debates among political elites. Yet so many of the core concerns of politics—power, resources, justice—are most clearly seen in who has access to land, health, water, and other essential services and goods. “Environmental” concerns, broadly conceived, are thus central to political debates and substantive outcomes concerning representation, accountability, and social justice.

Many people have told me that Egypt does not have “environmental politics”—by which they seemed to mean large pressure groups and social movements dedicated to preserving “nature” or “the environment.” I wanted to dispel this notion in two ways. First, there is far more local and regional activism around a broader conception of “environmental” issues than often perceived, particularly once we explore environmental campaigns that link public health and pollution with critiques of national development strategies and unaccountable politics. Second, social activism per se is only one facet of the politics of the environment, since states, businesses, and communities continuously reshape landscapes and ecologies. Environmental historians have embraced this approach, taking seriously how changing infrastructures, technologies, and practices interact with the natural world, but with a few notable exceptions, this approach has been less evident in political science.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JS: By focusing on the agency of networks of activists and experts, this book was written against the grain of conventional accounts of Egypt’s environmental problems, which casts the country and its inhabitants as prisoners in a neo-Malthusian scenario. In a grim future marked by increasing population growth, water scarcity, and intensifying urban densities, the severity of environmental problems can seem overwhelming. Yet as the case studies in the book illustrate, physical scarcity and population increase do not figure as straightforward “causes” of the environmental problems. Instead, the book calls attention to the complex ways that state policies, business privilege, and protest campaigns shape policies and ecosystems. Physical resource scarcity and population growth are important structural factors, but do not explain why political leaderships often devote inadequate financial resources, undermine or ignore environmental institutions, and create regulations that seem to exist only on paper. To explain these features, we have to grapple with distributions of power, patterns of inclusion and exclusion, and political priorities.

In the first iteration of this project, I focused on how state and corporate interests dominated environmental policy-making and environmental outcomes. These remain important concerns, but as I became more familiar with the long-term investments of activists and experts around specific environmental issues, I focused more explicitly on their efforts and activities to create change. I asked: what kinds of power can environmental networks generate or draw upon, given Egypt’s specific authoritarian context?

The book thus traces political dynamics around specific environmental projects, popular campaigns, and public controversies. I look at the different strategies employed by experts and activists to engage public and private enterprises, central ministries and provincial authorities, the military, judiciary, and appointed governors, primarily under the Mubarak regime.

The concluding chapter discusses Egypt’s revolutionary moment, when many groups are asserting their rights to resources and livelihoods through direct action and informal encroachment. It provides an initial account of how environmental networks adapted to these new challenges and opportunities generated by the uprising.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JS: I wrote this book to be accessible to scholars and students interested in environmental politics in developing countries generally and in the Middle East and North Africa more specifically. The field of comparative environmental politics is just emerging in Middle East studies more generally, and I hope that the book helps prompt discussion and encourage further research in this area. There is so much more of interest to be explored! 

For scholars of comparative environmental politics, I wanted to show that the Middle East offers insights beyond a focus on rentier states and debates about the “resource curse.” Middle Eastern environmental politics encompasses more than water and oil, or more specifically, embeds the production, distribution, and consumption of these, as well other resources, in local and international political economies. In the book, I thus try to highlight key features that structure the institutional context in which activists and experts work in Egypt, which in turn can be compared to other cases. These include the often conflicting property claims made by military and security agencies to land and resources; the complex role of state-owned entities in the industrial, energy, and tourism sectors; and the privatization and “hybridization” of public policies, in which governmental initiatives often consist largely of externally-funded projects contracted out to local and international consulting firms.

I also wrote it explicitly for environmental practitioners—both experts and activists—in Egypt and beyond. I focused on analyzing several kinds of authority that networks employ to explain why activists and experts are more successful in some cases than in others. The insights and observations provided by Egyptian environmentalists were essential to this argument, and often these individuals have provided the most helpful feedback as to whether I accurately characterized their struggles and the constraints that they face.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JS: At the moment, I’m working with several colleagues on the “securitization” of discourses around climate-induced migration and drought in the Middle East. Viewing migration primarily in terms of national and regional “security” often distorts adequate understanding, promoting either inaction in dealing with climate impacts and drivers of migration, or conversely, draconian policies to secure borders. This project draws upon prior collaborative work on climate adaptation and water resources in the region. I’m in also in the beginning stages of a new project on energy infrastructures and social mobilization.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?

JS: I used qualitative case studies to focus on political and policy processes, drawing heavily on first-hand accounts, unpublished documentation, and media sources. I used a mix of classic fieldwork strategies—the most important being unstructured interviews—combined with shorter periods of participant-observation at the national environmental agency and environmental organizations. I collected lots of “gray” documentation—unpublished material produced by voluntary organizations, donors, and state agencies (as in the illustration below)--- in addition to newspapers and official reports. While the quality of basic environmental information and media coverage has improved greatly over time, very little of this includes political or process-oriented accounts, which had to be largely gleaned directly from the participants.

In many ways, I did not have much choice about the research methods I could use. The conduct of social science has been severely circumscribed in Egypt, with a host of official restrictions. Of course, as is generally the case with many formal regulations in Egypt, most of us just circumvent them, but the costs can be significant. In addition to official suspicion around the aims of such research, particularly when conducted by foreigners, there was also the more typical challenge of building trust with local organizations and individuals. I overcame this primarily by staying for a year and a half of fieldwork initially, and then returning intermittently when I could, given my academic and familial commitments. The advantage of conducting the research in this fashion is that I had a chance to see how networks and issues evolved over time.

Excerpts from Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts and the State

From Chapter One: Networks, Authority, and Environmental Politics in Egypt

In 2011, construction on the expansion of the state-owned fertilizer plant [MOPCO] began and popular protest resumed [in Damietta.] Groups of villagers from nearby hamlets blocked the main roads leading to Damietta’s large industrial port and cut off power to port from the main power station. The military ordered in soldiers with assault rifles in the early hours of the morning to attack protesters camping out on the road, injuring a number of them and shooting dead a twenty-one year old youth. Tens of thousands of residents poured into the streets for the young man’s funeral that night, castigating the rule of the generals as well as the expansion of the fertilizer plant.

The protesters in Damietta knew well, as did the generals, that protests about environmental issues are also political and social claims about rights, access, livelihoods and power. In the years before Egypt’s January 25 revolution, networks of activists used popular petitions, legal cases, and media coverage to bring environmental problems to the attention of decision-makers, and to contest air and water pollution, the siting of industrial facilities, water scarcity, and other forms of environmental degradation immediately tangible to ordinary citizens. Frequently, however, activist networks were unable to bring sufficient leverage to bear to change the practices of firms or governmental agencies involved in producing environmental degradation….

This book explores the changing contours of Egypt’s activist and managerial networks under decades of sustained authoritarian rule and more recently, revolutionary upheaval. Drawing on extensive interviews and fieldwork conducted in Egypt, I analyze the effectiveness of networks that coalesced around specific environmental policy domains. I analyze the creation of national environmental institutions and trace the evolution of specific efforts to control industrial pollution, establish and manage protected areas, contest urban land use and planning, and restructure water management….

I analyze environmental networks in terms of kinds of authority that they were able to deploy. I focus on three types of authority—discursive, legal, and infrastructural—to elucidate under what conditions environmental networks influenced policymaking and institutional development.[1] In essence, I argue that networks were more effective when they engaged the rule-making power of the state (legal authority), employed discourses and concepts that resonated with decision-makers and popular constituencies (discursive authority), and could draw upon or create infrastructures and organizations that linked environmental networks with governmental authorities and local communities (infrastructural authority). In the absence of these kinds of authority and linkages, environmental initiatives could quickly become little more than, in the words of one scholar of environmental policy in China, “a paper agreement or a hollow shell with little effect on social action.” (Ho, 2005).


Egypt offers a fascinating case for studying how environmental networks mobilize authority—or fail to do so—because the country cannot be simply dismissed as a “failed” or “weak” state. Development practitioners and scholars alike often argue that developing countries like Egypt simply lack the resources and expertise to pursue effective environmental interventions or provide adequate public services. Reports by multilateral organizations like the World Bank (and also the relevant Egyptian state agencies) reiterate these claims, presenting lack of “capacity” as the key factor hindering more adequate action to protect the environment….

In contrast to many developing countries, we might expect Egypt to exhibit relatively strong environmental capacities as well as strong [environmental] awareness, if we simply focus on available expertise and resources. With a long tradition of state regulation and intervention, increasingly well-educated if small cadres of environmental professionals, and sizable external resources targeting environmental problems, the country should be relatively well positioned, by conventional accounts, to make significant progress.


Two types of environmental networks can be abstracted from the Egyptian experience, managerial (or expert) networks, and activist networks. During the Mubarak period, these networks often differed in terms of their participants, institutional origins, goals, and strategies. Managerial networks base their interventions on claims to technical expertise and invoke the authoritative role of the state as the basis for public policymaking. Participants in these networks hold often overlapping or rotating positions as appointed officials, environmental scientists, university researchers, and environmental consultants. These individuals became linked together through the repeated experience of working together on discrete “projects” (mashari’a) in a given policy domain and by staffing environmental reform units and parallel institutions established within existing central ministries…

Activist networks drew upon different justifications and tactics than managerial networks. Activist networks mounted campaigns to address specific, egregious sources of pollution, industrial siting, and other issues that have tangible impacts on local communities. Participants in activist networks often came together through a collective undertaking, namely, the mobilization of a campaign (hamla) to publicize their case, mobilize local communities, and influence decision-making. Activist networks grounded their environmental discourses in risks to public health, livelihoods, and urban identities. They often derived a sense of coherence from either a shared value orientation, such as a commitment to human rights or labor organization, or a shared sense of place, as in the provincial cities of Alexandria and Damietta.

The scope and substance of Egyptian environmentalism has been redefined by the increasingly prominent role of activist networks and popular mobilization in the decade preceding the 2011 uprising—and now in its aftermath. Activist campaigns became more effective in influencing decision-makers during the late 1990s and 2000s with the rise of an independent media, the strategic use of existing but weak political institutions (such as the Majlis al-Sha’ab, the elected parliamentary house, and the judiciary) and the increased willingness of ordinary people to engage in direct action.

Managerial and activist networks also arose in different locations, in the distinctive landscapes and projects that served as catalysts for network creation and activity. Different places thus offered different opportunities and constraints for networks seeking to mobilize legal, discursive, and infrastructural forms of power. As Michael Mann observed, networks have “spatial contours” (Mann, 1986: 10). The spatial contours of environmental networks have inevitably been intimately linked with broader transformations in Egypt’s political economy and its landscapes.


From Chapter Seven: Environmental Politics in Revolutionary Times

The impacts of Egypt’s revolutionary year, however, have gone far beyond these changes in electoral politics and repeated bouts of repression and accommodation from the SCAF. Instead, the uprising transformed how many Egyptians think about, and engage in, the everyday conduct of politics.….The tactics and claims once employed primarily by relatively small activist networks and organized groups in the years before the uprising—from striking textile workers to demonstrating judges to petitioning lawyers—have been adopted by a much broader array of groups and communities.

Contentious politics around many issues, including around environmental ones, is thus no longer the exception but the norm in Egypt. As a result, many policy arenas formerly closed to public input and monopolized by governmental authorities now have to respond to the claims and tactics of a deeply mobilized public. While repression makes headlines, these proliferating protest campaigns regularly win concessions from governmental authorities, even as these same authorities often employ force to disperse, detain and injure those engaged in direct action.

Since the 2011 thawra, environmental issues and policies are thus increasingly contested by a broader array of actors taking a variety of direct actions in the public sphere. These changes have altered the character of environmental networks and signal potentially deeper changes in the landscape of popular participation and political decision-making. This chapter explores how changes in political institutions and popular mobilization have already begun to impact the politics of the environment in Egypt, chronicling intensified social protest around pollution issues and increased demand for access to resources such as agricultural land and fisheries….As the numerous examples of direct action [given in this chapter] show, activist campaigns and collective protest draw in much greater numbers of ordinary people, from villagers blockading roads and conducting sit-ins at governorate and ministerial offices, to Nubians seeking compensation for lost land, and residents protesting in Idku and Damietta.


Contested Coastal Lands and Corruption Charges

Conflicting land use claims on Egypt’s coastlines have lost none of their salience in the post-Mubarak era. As we have seen in Chapter Five, rapid development of Egypt’s coastlines for tourism and luxury housing under Mubarak largely benefitted leading Egyptian business conglomerates and well-placed officials. Popular outrage against these privileged relationships and corruption prompted the SCAF to review some of the more controversial land acquisition deals shortly after it took power in early 2011. The anti-corruption campaign has been selective, however; it has been unclear why some businessmen were charged with corruption, price-fixing, and other suspect business dealings, while others were exempted from scrutiny. In some cases, the junta simply quietly re-negotiated land deals with influential foreign investors, such as Saudi prince Al Waleed bin Talal’s stake in the New Valley (Toshka) land reclamation project. But others were not so fortunate.

A previously moribund agency, the Illicit Gains Authority, as well as public prosecutors, began systematically investigating some of Mubarak’s associates, their private fortunes, and their acquisition of lucrative real estate on the Red Sea and Sinai coastlines (El-Din, 2011). The legal dossiers held at the Ministries of Environment and Tourism documenting land acquisition on the Red Sea and Sinai coasts were suddenly of great interest to public prosecutors.[2] One of the first members of the old regime to be charged was the Zuhayr Garrana, the last minister of tourism under Mubarak, sentenced to five years in prison in May 2011 pending an appeal. Public prosecutors also charged businessmen known for being close to the Mubarak family, such as Hussein Salem and Kamal Shazli, with illicit acquisition and development of coastal land. Noticeably lacking from these prosecutions, however, were cases against the many military, police and internal security officers who had acquired and often resold large tracts of coastal land.

To classify these land transactions as illicit, state prosecutors invoked an obscure 1998 legal provision that required all state land to be sold through competitive bidding. This rule had never been applied to tourism land previously. As a result, decision-making on land transfers ground to a halt in many governmental authorities after the spring 2011 uprising, amidst fears of corruption charges.[3] This included the Tourism Development Authority (TDA), which temporarily stopped allocating land for tourism development along the Red Sea altogether. In an interview with Reuters, Samih Suweiris, the owner of Orascom Development Holdings, one of the largest tourism development companies in Egypt, accurately captured the ramifications of invoking this little-known legal requirement for all land transactions in the country. "The biggest problem the state is facing now is the lack of clarity on the legal status of all of Egypt's land,” he observed. “The problem is the rule can apply to any land which has been sold in Egypt" (Zayed, 2011).

Suweiris and his firm were particularly concerned with the criminalization of land transactions conducted by the TDA and other governmental agencies under Mubarak….According to the firm’s own promotional material, Orascom’s success was built upon acquisition of a “land bank of 127 million square meters” in “some of the most breathtaking locales in the region” (Orascom Development Holdings, undated)…


Demanding Rights to Resources on the Periphery

In the Sinai, where Cairo’s approach to Bedouin tribes has long been dominated by security concerns, conflicts between Bedouin and the state intensified. As the International Crisis Group warned in 2007, heavy-handed security sweeps, indefinite detentions, and “a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs” had produced widespread disaffection in the years before the uprising (International Crisis Group, 2007: i). Years of drought, which affected most of the eastern Mediterranean, had decimated livestock and grazing along the northern coast, prompting greater migration and competition into South Sinai for limited jobs. In addition, the international isolation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip created a black-market economy of tunnels and smuggling in which northern Sinai was the key transit route.

As a result, protest and insecurity escalated in Sinai. Armed tribesmen attacked police stations, where torture and indefinite detention were routine practices, and surrounded courthouses. In May 2011, armed tribesmen shut down the main road leading into Sharm el-Sheikh, the city near Ras Mohamed National Park on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, demanding the release of relatives imprisoned by Egypt’s security forces (Aboudi, 2011). The pipeline supplying Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan, which runs through northern Sinai, was sabotaged fourteen times from January to May 2011, amidst mounting public criticism that the government should cancel the sale of gas to Israel.

As in the environmental campaigns in Damietta and Idku, public criticism centered around the claim that the regime in Cairo was selling Egypt’s natural resources for the benefit of foreign firms and foreign countries. This criticism gained even greater currency as ordinary Egyptians found that they faced shortages of locally used fuels—diesel, propane, and butane—in the spring of 2012, leading to long queues at gas stations and bakeries and rising prices. As a result of public pressure, the Egyptian state-owned petroleum company cancelled its contract supplying gas to the private multinational consortium that supplied gas to Israel in May 2012. By this time, the Egyptian government had already negotiated to double the price of natural gas sold to Jordan.

Protected areas in Sinai were not immune from intensified mobilization among Bedouin communities. In the spring of 2011, sixty Bedouin conducted a sit-in at the South Sinai governor’s office, demanding that they be allowed to fish in and around Ras Mohamed National Park during the spawning period for emperor fish, a valuable and lucrative species for local fishermen. Faced with a mobilized local constituency, the governor capitulated, issued a decree allowing angling in an important spawning area for the emperor fish within the boundaries of Ras Mohamed….

[Fishermen in front of Misr Fertilizers Production Company (MOPCO),
Damietta, November 22, 2008. Photo by Jeannie Sowers.]


[1] Although I do not employ the same typology, Clapp and Fuch’s work on the “three faces” of corporate power was helpful in clarifying my thinking about forms of environmental authority. Clapp, J. & Fuchs, D. A. (2009) Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[2] Interview with the author, Legal Department, Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, Cairo, June 7, 2011.

[3] Interview with the author, Tourism Development Authority, Cairo, May 30, 2011.

[Excerpted from Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts and the State, by Jeannie Sowers, by permission of the author. © 2012 Jeannie Sowers. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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