A new minister, a different environment

For a few months in the fall and spring, it seemed like Laila Iskandar, then minister of environment, was everywhere. She was a reliable presence at panel discussions, roundtables, signing ceremonies and even photography exhibitions with an environmental theme.

This frenetic schedule of speeches, meetings and photo-ops was the most visible face of a strong working relationship with environmental NGOs, and it was a welcome change from the way ministerial business is usually carried out.

With the cabinet reshuffle this past June, however, Iskandar was removed from her post, and with the new face taking up the ministry, this relationship with civil society has drastically changed.

“Civil society engagement during [Iskandar’s] term was quite strong and quite profound. Since then, that hasn’t been there,” says Lama al-Hatow, co-founder of the Water Institute of the Nile.

The most high profile aspect of this cooperation was Iskandar’s vocal opposition to coal. It was also the most controversial.

With energy in short supply, industrialists, particularly cement manufacturers, lobbied hard to allow the import of coal, which would provide a cheap and plentiful source of fuel for their factories. Iskandar publicly spoke against the plans, arguing that the environmental and public health costs of burning coal outweighed the potential advantages of importing a cheap but highly polluting fuel.

In this, she was joined by a coalition of environmental activists, academics and civil society groups under the banner Egyptians Against Coal. While activists launched information campaigns, lawsuits and workshops, Iskandar stood firm as a dissenting voice in a cabinet that appeared determined to change the law to allow coal imports.

“It was a very brave stance. Usually people who take that stance are activists,” says Sarah Refaat, Arab world coordinator for climate change action group 350.org.

Despite their efforts, the import of coal was eventually green lighted by the government.

Still, Iskandar’s good rapport with activists was a marked departure from previous ministers, who had little engagement with local environmentalists — although a few have good things to say about Nadia Makram Ebeid, Egypt’s first environment minister, appointed in 1997.

“Before Laila Iskandar, I didn’t feel the ministry was necessarily against us, but at best it was neutral, or maybe just another government institution,” says Refaat. “When Laila Iskandar was the minister, for the first time I felt like the minister was taking a strong stance and was on my side.”

Even activists who didn’t agree with all of Iskandar’s programs or politics respected her principled stance on coal imports.

“Suddenly, there was someone in the government who was actively challenging the narrative that was adopted by other government institutions,” explains Refaat. “It was the first time for me personally to witness a minister taking a stance for the environment and social justice.”

Iskandar’s support energized civil society. Real debate was happening within the government about environmental issues and groups felt like this was their chance to have their voices heard by legislators.

During Iskandar’s tenure, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency also produced a report on the potential impacts of coal. The draft version of that report, dated April 2, reached the conclusion that the public health and environmental costs associated with coal outweighed the potential short-term cost savings of using it as a power source.

It also concluded that relying on imported coal to power the country’s industry degraded Egypt’s energy sovereignty and threatened national security. Instead of permitting coal imports, the report argued Egypt’s government should work to bring industry up to global efficiency standards and develop alternative power sources. This official government document lent credibility to the argument activists had been making.

Before the final draft of the report could even be published, though, the cabinet went ahead with the plans to permit coal imports for industrial use and power generation. Rumors swirled that Iskandar was more or less put under a gag order, told not to speak publicly on the issue once the decision was made. This could not be independently verified, in part, because the previously accessible ministry stopped taking phone calls.

Iskandar also did not attend a May court hearing in a lawsuit filed by civil society groups opposed to coal imports.

Shortly after, Iskandar lost her post in a June 17 cabinet reshuffle — one of 11 ministers to change in the new government. Instead, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb tasked her with heading the new Ministry of State for Cultural Development (also referred to as the Ministry of Urban Development).

Since then, Iskandar has worked on redevelopment projects for informal areas, which tie into waste management projects she had worked on before and during her time as environment minister.

Iskandar’s transfer is widely believed to have been due to her stance on coal imports.

“It’s obvious, it doesn’t need an intelligent person to see why they removed her from the Ministry of Environment,” says Mahmoud al-Kaissiouni, who served as an advisor to Iskandar. “She took an oath to protect the environment of Egypt. She stuck to that oath.”

In her place, Mehleb appointed Khaled Fahmy, who had previously held the post under deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Fahmy was widely seen as a proponent of coal imports, an impression cemented when one of his first statements upon taking the post concerned its benefits.

Fahmy argued that modern technology allowed coal to be burned while mitigating its negative side effects and vowed to take action to facilitate Egypt’s transition to coal power.

“In every country in the world, the cement industry uses coal,” Fahmy said in one of his first public statements after taking office. “Trembling hands will not allow us to do anything.”

Kaissouni took issue with this, saying, “I just can’t imagine for a person to declare what he did.” The advisor, in turn, resigned from his post upon Fahmy’s appointment.

With Fahmy’s stance on coal clear, Kaissouni says it would have violated his principles to continue working with the ministry. “What will happen to the people under him?” Kaissiouni asks.

Fahmy’s statements directly contradicted the findings of his own agency, a fact that appears to have raised little comment. “Environment is what I do and NGOs do. Political environment is what the Minister of Environment and the EEAA do,” says Kaissiouni.

After Fahmy’s appointment as minister, collaboration with civil society went back the old ways, essentially becoming non-existent. “He is representing the official stance of the government,” says Refaat.

Fahmy’s projects appear worthy enough: he declared that, per Mehleb’s request, his ministry would focus on Nile River pollution, a serious issue with implications for both environmental and social justice. But environmentalists and other activists had rallied together to fight coal imports, a stance which now puts them squarely opposing the Ministry of Environment.

“He’s the minister of the cement sector. He’s here to facilitate their needs,” argues Ahmed Droubi, coordinator of Egyptians Against Coal

Refaat also points out that Egypt’s current government structure means there is no formal system for the government to interact with civil society. “There is no cooperation. There’s also no mechanism for that,” Refaat says.

There is currently no parliament, no room for public debate by elected officials, let alone substantive opportunities for ordinary citizens to weigh in on public policy. Instead, laws are drafted by ministries and decreed by the president.

Ministers like Iskandar who actively engage with civil society do so informally on their own initiative, not as part of any official policy. Maintaining a working relationship requires good rapport, or at least mutual trust that environmentalists and the environment ministry are fundamentally on the same side, even if their positions don’t align on every single issue.

At present, that basic level of trust seems to be gone. “The government does not really believe in environmentalism. It’s a beautiful image for a beautiful dream that is not there,” says Kaissouni.

“Yes, we have a minister of environment. When the minister worked faithfully, they were kicked out. They changed ministers, got another minister who will carry out the will of the government.” 

Isabel Esterman 

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