Buildings on the Korniche north of Maadi, shot from Dahab Island
Yesterday I attended the blue march in Heliopolis. As part of the global “Moving Plantet” day, which is organized by the cut-carbon NGO 350.org, a group of young Egyptian hit the street to demonstrate for a better environment, less traffic, more public transport and to move away from fossil fuels. It was a surprisingly short march, but it was better attended than I had expected and the Cairo cyclists showed up in good numbers. Nevertheless I walked away unconvinced. I strongly believe that there is space for a green movement in Egypt and Cairo, but I think first the approach must be taken and put upside down.
But let me start this with a short confession. I am green. No, I am not particularly good at saving the environment. That’s not what I mean. I fly too often, I shower too long and when I am tired I use taxis instead of public transport. No, what I mean is, I am a supporter of the green party in my home country Germany. As Egyptians will learn the hard way, so did I. There is no perfect party and often I am enraged by mine, but at the end of the day “Bündnis 90/Die Grünen” (yes, the name is quite a mouthful) has my support.
The green party in Germany is very successful, it is indeed one of the most successful green parties in the world. Joschka Fischer, one of our most beloved ministers of foreign affairs, was a green man. And of course, in current times with Guido Westerwelle in his office, we remember him even more dearly. He in fact was once a revolutionary too and during the student protests of 1968 he was at the forefront, throwing cobblestones at the police. Once he became Minister he even had to meet with one of the policemen he hurt during the riots 30 years earlier. For many young Egyptians Fischer might be an inspiration how to walk the path from counter-establishment to high politics. But I digress.
The history of the green party in Germany is unique and it shows why the movement could develop its strength. There is primarily three incidents which formed the ecological awareness of Germans today and which still are the basis of the legitimation of the green party. The first story is about dying forests, a development which even in English is usually termed by its German word Waldsterben. Due to too much pollution Europe started to get so called sour rains, which led to trees dying en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Now trees, in especially German pine, spruce and oak trees, have played an important role in German literature and poetry. German trees are in a sense integral to the German identity. And in result the Waldsterben came as a shock and soon after the “Save the Forests” movement emerged.
The second incidence is the accident at Chernobyl in 1986. Being the first country westwards from Chernobyl in Western Europe (don’t forget, the East was still communist at the time and media there was state controlled) it was also the most affected country in the Western world. Suddenly certain foods were contaminated and a higher radiation was measured. Additionally the public felt mis- or under-informed and fear spread among large parts of the population of possible negative effects for children and babies. The result of this accident was an anti-nuclear movement which was first carried for many years by the green party, but is now general consensus in Germany even in the conservative “Chrstian Democratic Union”. The third issue is the only really global issue, which however fell on a prepared ground in Germany and that was the hole in the ozone layer. The political movement to create international agreements to ban certain chemicals and gasses which harm the ozone layer also came upon in the late 80s.
There are two other important points to be made about the German greens. Firstly after the end of the iron curtain a group of civil rights activists from Eastern Germany called the “Bündnis 90″ joined the green party because they felt their general ideals of participation and bottom up decision making reflected in the party. Secondly the green party has been always a national party but aware of its great appeal among urban voting populations and has in result built a platform which includes city politics or urban development politics very clearly.
Now, let me get back to the green movement in Egypt. Let me start by saying that I have great respect for the organizers. I think it is great that people try to establish a green movement and I think you have great potential. I know that what I write might sound harsh, but it is meant to be constructive, so please bear with me. I would like to formulate three criticisms and from there, see if I have some ideas to suggest.
First, the class question: I spoke to a good friend of mine before the march and asked her to join me and she basically said that there is no point of going for a walk with some upper-class kids in Heliopolis. She said “I walk everyday and I always sue public transport. What is there to demonstrate about?” And yes, it is true, that it seems relatively odd to see people demonstrate for using public transport who themselves do not use it regularly. Being a khawaga myself, I probably use more public transport and for sure walk more in Cairo than most people who came to the march on Friday –which in a way, the organizers proved by making the route as short as possible, probably being afraid that people would otherwise not show up.
The second point is about issues: The carbon discussion is working relatively well in Europe (at least before the current financial upheavals) but already in America the idea is incomprehensible. I assume that the limitation of resources and higher population density compared to America might play a role here. Let us be honest, there is no reasonable way to explain to an average Egyptian why he should cut his carbon emission after the Europeans and Americans created the problem in the last 50 years and are in fact not ready to do anything about it.
Thirdly, the international critique: I understand that it feels good to be part of a global movement. But right now Egypt is not about the global or international, it is very much about the national. And more than that, the green issues people tend to care about first are local. Using the “Moving World” day as an inspiration I think is fine, but having primarily banners showing the logo of some international organization with a name (350.org) no one really understands (how many people besides the organizers really understand the idea of 350 carbon dioxide particles or carbon dioxide particle equivalents per million?) is especially in the current Egyptian political environment slightly careless.
Now, I have three points to make which attempt to address those criticisms. First, it is individual actions which eventually create momentum and not individual demands (and it was encouraging to see that the Cairo Cycling Club seems very aware of this). There is a thousand things you can do individually and network yourself with others who do the same. Even better, try to set up a website to collect those steps and advertise them to each other. Make it a game. Make each step your win, so that in the end it is going to be a big win for the movement. What can you do? Move back to the city centre (yes, urban sprawl is an eco disaster and these non-sustainable fenced communities in the satellite cities are so especially), walk, bike, use public transport, buy local products, get into urban farming, guerrilla gardening, take care of your trash (especially when attending a green march… just saying), organize to clean your neighborhood, get an electric vehicle, heck if you have the money buy a Tesla and combine eco-friendly with status symbol, get a bee hive (if you can do it in Hong Kong, you can do it in Cairo), use your fan instead of the A/C, put solar cells on your roof, petition for pedestrian areas, and seriously, I say it once more, say no to urban sprawl!
Secondly, move issues into the center of the debate which are comprehensible to the people and resonate with them emotionally. Basically, speak the local language, and by that I do not mean Arabic, but the attempt to link into a local culture instead of a global idea. In a way, the two most important points were already there, but I think one can use them even more centrally. First is the reference to the Nile. The Nile is to the Egyptians what the forest is to Germans. It is part of their identity. The fact that you can swim in the Nile south of Aswan but it is basically hazardous waste when it arrives in Cairo is a disaster. Good news is, it is a disaster most average Egyptians will understand. Global warming is not. The second issue is traffic. All Cairene suffer from traffic, no matter how rich they are. Talk about traffic and people will agree with you. But do not talk about it exclusively as a ecological issue. True, traffic and pollution is an ecological issue, but it is also an economical, a health and a social problem. When talking about traffic, think about it in the frame of an urban issue. But of course, to do so, you first need to embrace the urbanity. Yes, I will say it again, move back to the city centre. Let me add, that if you are looking for a third issue, rubbish might be something to think about (but if you really want to do something positive here, one needs to think with the Zibellin, not against them).
When you do that, i.e. start with individual actions and embrace Egyptian issues, you will be recognized as an honest broker. At this point you will be able to build a movement from below. International issues, international support and the like are all great, but it only works if you are rooted in the areas. But that is actually good news. I bet you, that in every area of Cairo there is local, often possibly poor Egyptians, who are bothered about environmental things. They might not recognize that there thinking is in line with a green movement, but they care bout the rubbish, the traffic, the Nile or the dirt in the local channels. People are trying to plant trees and other greenery. I would go as far as to predict that in every second area of Cairo there is even organized groups who already meet and discuss such issues and who try to raise awareness especially regarding rubbish. These people and groups are the base for a true green movement. Yes, they are hard to reach. They are not on Facebook. But they still exist. If you are able to connect the two, i.e. the grass roots and the urban elite movement, you have a shot to change something.
Okay, this got a bit longer than I expected. But hey, there we go. For now, these are just my two cents. But I do not claim any ownership. Please comment, discuss, re-post, take apart, copy ideas, modify and enhance. Make this your own. Translate it to Arabic or Nubian. What ever it takes, I would be happy to see the green (blue?) movement in Egypt succeed and I am sure, eventually it will.