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The Violence of Climate Change in Egypt

[Arab Youth Climate Movement acts against climate change, Mansoura, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Omar Amir via Flickr.] [Arab Youth Climate Movement acts against climate change, Mansoura, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Omar Amir via Flickr.]

In the midst of the revolutionary battles of recent years, it is easy not to notice that climate change is fundamentally changing the Middle East and North Africa we live in. This gradual transformation, much of it already inevitable, threatens to displace millions, if not tens of millions, and change the region beyond recognition. Business as usual will allow elite classes to profit from the devastation of the majority–but a just future is possible, if we fight for it.

The early arrival of summer this year brought with it a reminder of the violence of climate change. Rising temperatures kill, even if hot weather seems normal for the region. Heat waves like that of this May, when Cairo temperatures reached forty-three degrees Celsius, might seem irritating but innocuous. But a British hot spell killed 760 people in nine days last summer. London's highest temperature was thirty-three degrees. How many more will die in Egypt this summer, where it is far hotter and the health system weaker? The statistics do not exist and we do not know the names of those who died, as many live on the streets and come from Egypt's underclass.

This is about more than extreme weather events. Between 2006 and 2010, severe droughts in eastern Syria destroyed the livelihoods of 800,000 people and killed eighty-five percent of livestock. 160 whole villages were abandoned before 2011. Rising sea levels in the Nile Delta have forced farming families to abandon their homes repeatedly in recent years. In a coastal village I visited near Rasheed in April 2014, residents spoke of relocating three times as their land was washed away.

This is not nature “having its revenge.” The classist violence of climate change is shaped so that the poor carry the burden on behalf of the privileged. We do not recognize the underlying brutality, as dominant narratives render it invisible. Responsibility is diverted onto “natural” disasters and the physical landscape. Yet nobody needed to die in Cairo when the temperature dropped in December or soared in May. The deaths were the result of decisions made in London and Brussels, DC and Dubai, and more locally in Lazoghly, Heliopolis, and Qattameya. These were choices made to keep burning fossil fuels, and to protect the rich rather than the poor.

In Egypt and its neighboring states, survival is predicated on adaptation to the new droughts and storms, floods and crop failures. Plans and solutions are touted by academics, intergovernmental institutions, and officialdom, but most offer too little too late, or threaten further devastation. Interventions are not politically or socially neutral. Constructing sea walls to defend tourist resorts and expanding capital-intensive agriculture both re-assert corporate interests. These adaptation pathways create new spaces for elite accumulation and control over land, water, and energy. Market-based “solutions” further entrench the same exploitation that has already exposed the poor. Yet most of the relevant literature does not question the economic and power structures that shape how we adapt.

This article argues for a careful interrogation of how class mediates both the impacts of climate change and how we adapt to it. We need to recognize the attempts to use climate change to profit and further entrench inequality for what they are. The scale of the crisis means that we need a radical departure from existing authoritarian and neoliberal power structures. The urgency makes it appear as if we do not have time to change the system–but relying on those that rule will take us two steps back with every step forward. Instead, we need to look to the social movements and frontline communities that are resisting, and build democratic pathways to survival in a warmer world.

A Devastated Nile Delta

Climate change is set to radically reshape the planet. Hundreds of billions will be spent trying to adjust, reshaping physical landscapes and social and economic relations. What will this transformation look like in Egypt?

The current proposals and analysis are too limited, slow, and conservative to cope. With a few important exceptions, existing writing takes a top-down approach and emphasizes a “security” lens.[1] Will water scarcity pose a threat to the state? Will migration undermine security? What technological fixes will ensure continued cultivation of land? How much money will be lost by the tourism industry? Just as development consultants have done for decades, today's “experts” blame Egypt's vulnerability on its physical geography: a desert country with one major source of freshwater, a flat and sinking delta, and a large population. This implies that the threat can be avoided using technology, without changes to the social order.

One of the first and most high-profile texts to explore the political context of climate change in the region asks us to trust domestic elites and neoliberal institutions with defining and shaping the forms that adaptation will take. John Waterbury's The Political Economy of Climate Change in the Arab Region was published last year by the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report. Given the limited research on the topic in the region, his article was widely circulated and will likely form the basis of future scholarship. By interrogating its argument, we can see what is missing from existing narratives on global warming in the region, and in Egypt specifically.

For example, many policy papers rely on over-optimistic forecasts that downplay the threat. Waterbury's paper emphasizes Omran Frihy's 2003 projections of a sea level rise of only fifty cm in Egypt by 2100, apparently containable with jetties and groins. More cautious analysis is referred to as “alarmist.” Similarly, in 2011, Egypt's Coastal Research Institute (CORI) was basing its scenario planning on the controversial 2007 IPCC estimates of fifty-nine cm by the end of the century. These figures had barely been released when the scientific community discarded its projections “as utterly unrealistic.” CORI was still using them years later, by which time the body of research was conservatively estimating global average sea level rise as at least one to two meters by 2100.[2] Muhammed Al-Raey, a leading expert on sea level rise in Egypt, called for development plans to be based on a two meter rise, while the Alexandria Research Center for Adaptation to Climate Change argued in an interview for working from projections of 140-200 cm.

Focusing on unlikely and best-possible scenarios is misleading and irresponsible at best. Even the lower estimates will make the Nile Delta a different place, as “sea level rise will accelerate erosion and increase the incursion [of seawater], thus finally devastating the economic and natural resources of this vital part of Egypt.”

Adaptation for Whom?

In this context of climate change, disputes notwithstanding, some people are more vulnerable than others. This is widely accepted, but the underlying reasons are ignored by those shaping policy in Egypt. Vulnerability and resilience are neither random nor “natural,” but socially produced over decades and centuries of contestation and interplay within and between local populations, diverse state, capitalist, and colonial forces, as well as the physical geography.

In the Nile Delta, how people are affected is shaped by their inherited experience of dispossession, land theft, and repression. These may have been enacted during the expansion of cotton cultivation and the creation of a class of landless workers during the British occupation, or after ousted president Hosni Mubarak's 1992 land reform law that handed control to large landowners and evicted hundreds of thousands of small farmers from their land. Both processes were overseen in the name of “development” and “modernity” by different coalitions of local business, bureaucracy, and military leaders. These operated in alliance with international capital and (neo)colonial power, whether the nineteenth century British empire, or the United States and European Union (EU) agencies in the late twentieth century.

Those shaping global warming response plans do not recognize these historical roots of climate injustice. Instead, the lesson drawn from history by both government officials and certain academics is that the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated effective use of external pressure. The idea is to replicate this process. Domestic elites will expand capital-intensive export-oriented agriculture and regional carbon trading, guided and coerced by experts from the EU, World Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But these same public banks fund tax dodging private equity, promote privatization programs for essential services like water and transport, and subsidize polluting fossil fuels including oil drilling in Egypt and potential fracking in Tunisia. Meanwhile the European Union is locking in a gas grab by expanding pipelines into Central Asia and across the Sahara, while preventing people from following the same routes, and militarizing its surrounding seas, causing thousands of migrants to drown in the Mediterranean every year.

Egyptian institutions are part of this process. The Coastal Research Institute based in Alexandria is prioritizing adaptation proposals that protect tourism and large business interests. Attracting capital is seen as so important that CORI staff underplay the threat of climate change: “If we say that we have a big problem the investors withdraw their money and put it somewhere else. They do not develop the coastal zone, and that’s against our policies. We need to develop these areas, and we need to have people interested in them, not to be afraid at any time.”

This approach to adaptation in Egypt is consistent with the dominant orthodoxy among well-paid climate policy advisors, who argue that we can deal with global warming by enhancing existing policies. “Win-win” solutions will allow continued growth and minimize political risk, they say. The really bad news is disregarded as too “alarmist,” making us believe that a low-carbon future is merely a step-change away. Technofixes and market instruments can neutralize the threat. This is a new stage in what Ray Bush calls the ongoing “ideological assault on African governments that ensures submission to external political reform and economic liberalization.”

Those shaping adaptation in the region mostly fail to ask the question “Adaptation for whom?” Adaptation plans are not politically or socially neutral technological interventions. Measures to adapt to sea level rise in the Nile Delta could include redistributing land to those who need it the most, or mass forced eviction of small scale farmers to be replaced with supposedly hyper-efficient agribusiness. Building seawalls to protect tourist resorts and oil infrastructure, or seawalls that protect the population and local food production. Prioritizing water supplies to those who can pay the most, or providing more equitable water distribution. Depending on the ideology of the institution making proposals, adaptation can range from introducing “market” mechanisms that prioritize big business, to collective programs of mutual support. Adaptation can involve success for one social class but failure for another.  Will adaptation be just? Profitable? Democratic? Fascist?

Yet Waterbury warns us several times not to tinker with social or economic structures: “Radical departures are not warranted nor feasible” and we should avoid “taking on the issues of authoritarianism and lack of accountability.” Adapting this way “has the advantage that it requires no major adjustments to the existing alignments of interest groups.” There is no alternative.

Major Dislocations for Civilization

In reality, radical departures from current power relations are not only warranted, but unavoidable. According to a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, preventing a two degrees Celsius temperature rise is no longer possible “within orthodox political and economic constraints.” Two degrees Celsius is defined by most governments as the threshold beyond which runaway climate change becomes unavoidable. Even that level threatens “major dislocations for civilisation.”

According to Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the silence over the dangers of continued growth is due to the “tendrils of economics permeating into climate science.” The two scientists argue that a cozy rhetoric of naively optimistic science and policy obscures the “discontinuity between the science (physical and social) underpinning climate change and the economic hegemony.” They describe the impossibility of adequate emissions reductions within the existing economic system, but it is similarly difficult to achieve just adaptation without changing who makes the decisions.

Today, climate change is devastating communities everywhere, killing 300,000 people  every year. However, ninety-nine percent of casualties are in the Global South. In Egypt, the warmer weather means disease creep, as water and insect-borne pathogens spread from the tropics, reaching millions never exposed to them before. Egyptians could face savage hunger as crops are ruined and livestock die. Coastal megacities like Alexandria confront the possibility of inundation. Even when drought or floods occur abroad, urban populations that rely on imported staple foods like wheat and rice are exposed to volatile prices, and become unable to feed themselves. Rising temperatures and heat stress kill thousands, especially rural workers who cannot avoid heavy labor and outdoor work. Weaker infrastructure means being more exposed to droughts, storms, and floods, with limited evacuation possibilities.

In short, disasters kill many poor people, and few rich people. Rural and urban working classes lack the resources that enable survival, including safe housing, clean water, and the ability to travel. In contrast, ruling classes not only survive, but also profit from disasters, using the opportunity of population displacement and reconstruction to impose systems that meet their interests. From their air-conditioned gated communities, elite classes use carbon trading, land grabs and water, diversions to increase private control over previously public resources: air, water, land. But there are alternatives that allow for just adaptation, beyond the rule of profit.

Fighting for Just Adaptation

The vast majority of writing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa includes no references to oppression–or to resistance. This hides the grassroots struggles that do exist. Poverty and disenfranchisement have been severe in Egypt for a long time, and were a key driver of the January 25 Revolution. From Tahrir Square to Port Said and Aswan, the chants for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” have echoed back and forth over the past three years. Nobody was thinking of the climate while facing off with the Central Security Forces, but bread, freedom, and social justice are a good starting point for just adaptation.

Adapting to climate change is about survival in the face of adversity. Farmers in Egypt have long been determined to survive despite intense oppression. This has meant clandestine and overt resistance to large landowner and state attempts to take their land away. Mubarak's 1992 land reform law sparked massive opposition in the countryside during the 1990s, as tenants tried to defend their livelihoods. The Famers' Committees for Resistance to Law 96 organized as many as two hundred rural conferences to challenge the authorities, despite state repression that saw over one hundred killed. During the same period, farmers in the Northern Delta refused to comply with government growing directives. By limiting the planting of domestic food crops like rice, the state aimed to divert water supplies to industrial and export crops. But farmers planted so much rice that the state issued 250,000 pound fines and threatened many with imprisonment.

Not all battles were lost. Fisherfolk and farmers on the Cairo island of Qursaya prevented the Egyptian military from confiscating their land. The army first stormed the Nile island with bulldozers and one hundred troops in 2007, in an attempt to evict the entire village. Local residents resisted this as well as repeated incursions in the following years, refusing to leave their homes. They set up roadblocks along Al-Bahr Al-A‘zam Road, and clashed with the police, after soldiers killed twenty-year old fisherman Mohamed Abd Al-Mawgoud during a brutal dawn raid in November 2012. Activists from No Military Trials for Civilians, the April 6 Youth Movement, as well as Mosireen soon joined the island's struggle after residents were imprisoned on trumped up charges. The people of Qursaya have thus far managed to retain their land–as did the farmers on nearby Dahab Island, who have resisted similar state attempts to steal their land since 2001.

We are also witnessing wave after wave of resistance to the infrastructure projects that are driving fossil fuel extraction and consumption. In 2011 and 2012, a broad coalition of fisherfolk and local residents mobilized against the MOPCO fertilizer plant in Damietta, clashing with the police, shutting down the factory, and forcing official inquiries. After seventy homes were damaged or collapsed in the village of Fares near Aswan when Dana Gas fracked and drilled for oil nearby, villagers blocked the desert highway and invaded the drill site. Sit-ins, street meetings, and protests in Idku throughout 2011 and 2012 pushed oil company BP to freeze construction of a gas terminal for over a year, before conceding not to build anywhere near the town. In early 2014, the national “Egyptians Against Coal” campaign joined forces with the Wadi Al-Qamar community in Alexandria in its ongoing battle against the pollution caused by the Lafarge cement factory. In March, the local Popular Committee threatened a sit-in after the Minister for Industry announced that cement factories would be allowed to use coal.

In Egypt, people are already fighting on the front lines of climate change. When we refuse to see how these struggles relate to climate mitigation and adaptation, it can seem like change will only come from “experts” or from the top down. 

Imagining and Building New Futures

Our collective failure to prevent and adapt to catastrophic climate change has many causes. Key factors include unequal power relations and a poverty of imagination. Most of the relevant literature on Arab countries embodies this failure, remaining beholden to neoliberal economics and dominated by a geophysical approach that ignores struggle. With few exceptions, its “political realism” offers a profitable analysis for corporations.

Anderson and Bows urge us to “leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon—let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.” Imagining futures beyond a neoliberal and authoritarian framework requires understanding how climate intersects with class and power.

This demands a political economy of climate change in the Arab region that investigates the relationships between fossil fuel industries, regional elites, and international capital. Malm and Esmailian have started this work by challenging the limited geophysicalist framing of most academic writing on climate impacts in Egypt. As adaptation plans are developed and money is pumped into large engineering projects, we should ask whose interests are being defended, and who will profit. How is control over water and land distribution enforced in the context of a warming world?

Climate change will drive the most profound transformation in Egypt in living memory, probably within the next generation. If the battle to define adaptation in Egypt takes place between the military and neoliberal forces, then the rest of the population has lost. But the headlong rush to lock our societies into further fossil fuel dependence can be prevented, and there is good cause to believe that just adaptation is possible. Despite the resurgent strength of militaries and old guards at the moment, the Arab revolutions have showed that ruptures are possible.

Egyptian social movements fighting for redistribution, co-operation, and justice are able to articulate transformative strategies to deal with climate change. These alternative futures will not be conceived in the Nile City Towers, World Bank-sponsored conferences, or United Nations summits. Indigenous discourses of just adaptation can emerge instead from the millions of people living in slums and small villages, where questions of power are visceral and impossible to ignore. Spaces like the popular assemblies that filled the streets of Idku as they discussed an energy future without BP.

Grassroots groups in other parts of the world are also building solutions: in 2013, the El Salvador Mangrove Association's neighborhood hurricane response committees turned out to be more effective than the United States government evacuation plans. The same year, the Greater London Pensioners Association joined climate activists in demanding warm homes and opposing new gas infrastructure. Members of the National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa are steadily creating international networks of workers calling for a just transition.

This is where we should look for pathways to survival for Egypt. Adapting in a democratic and just manner will be very difficult. There will be intense and violent backlashes from big business and the military, each trying to impose their visions of a future driven by profit and exploitation. But it is the only possible alternative to devastation.


Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, A new paradigm for climate change (Nature Climate Change, 2012).

Ray Bush, Poverty and Neoliberalism: Persistence and Reproduction in the Global South (London, UK: Pluto Press, 2007).

Balgis Osman Elasha, Mapping of Climate Change Threats and Human Development Impacts in the Arab Region (Arab Human Development Report, UNDP, 2010).

James E. Hansen and Makiko Sato, “Paleoclimate Implications for Human - Made Climate Change,” Climate Change at the Eve of the Second Decade of the Century: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects: Proceedings of Milutin Milankovitch 130th Anniversary Symposium, (Springer 2011).

Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (New York, NY: Picador 2008).

Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, “Doubly Dispossessed by Accumulation: Egyptian fishing Communities between Enclosed Lakes and a Rising Sea,” Review of African Political Economy 39no. 133 (2012), 408-426.

Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, “Ways In and Out of Vulnerability to Climate Change: Abandoning the Mubarak Project in the Northern Nile Delta, Egypt,” Antipode 45, no. 2 (2012), 474–492.

Andreas Malm, “Sea Wall Politics: Uneven and Combined Protection of the Nile Delta Coastline in the Face of Sea Level Rise,” Critical Sociology 39, no. 6, (2012), 803–832.

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991).

John Waterbury, The Political Economy of Climate Change in the Arab Region, (Arab Human Development Report, UNDP, 2013),

World Bank, WDR 2010: Development and Climate Change, (Washington DC, 2010).

World Bank, Making the Most of Scarcity: Accountability for Better Water Management Results in the Middle East and North Africa, (Washington DC 2007).

Dorte Verner, Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries: A Case for Adaptation Governance and Leadership in Building Climate Resilience, (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012).

[1] The three papers written by Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian provided important inspiration for this paper.

[2] Hansen and Sato go on to argue that it may be up to five meters, explaining that the scientific community has by now accepted projections that “are typically a factor of 3-4 larger than the IPCC (2007) estimates, and thus they altered perceptions about the potential magnitude of human-caused sea level change.” James E. Hansen and Makiko Sato, “Paleoclimate Implications for Human - Made Climate Change, Climate Change at the Eve of the Second Decade of the Century: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects: Proceedings of Milutin Milankovitch 130th Anniversary Symposium,” (2011): 14-15. 

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