In Egypt’s current political climate, new parties are cropping up like daisies. But one group isn’t sure that its best interests would be served by being formally recognized, at least not yet.
Environmental activists say they are searching for a political voice, but not all think a new Egyptian “Green” party would be the best outlet for that voice.
“I don’t think it will fly,” said Ahmed Zahran, environmental activist with the Egyptian Sustainable Development group. “We need to raise awareness first.”
Environmental reform and ecological and health issues were rallying points, albeit secondary ones, for protesters during the weeks of unrest leading up to former President Mubarak’s departure. Farmers told stories of government-provided fertilizer that polluted their land and poisoned drinking water. Youth protesters picked up trash in the square, telling people they wanted to change the way Egyptians took care of their country.
But not all activists agree on how to translate such grassroots energy into political influence.
“We want to influence policy makers and affect environmental policies,” said Lama al-Hatow, an activist with the environmental arm of Nahdet el Mahroussa, a group that works to organize youth. “But we hesitated between various shapes: should we create an NGO, a lobby group, a think-tank, a research group?”
After 25 January, environmental activists began talking of forming a new party, but it now seems that most Egyptians who support green initiatives have become politically involved in two ways: forming alliances with liberal parties and trying to revive the Egyptian Green Party, a party which was only nominally allowed under Mubarak.
The problem with the party, some activists say, is that it is crippled by the culture of corrupt politics that flourished under Mubarak. As for forming alliances, it remains uncertain which liberal parties will be taking on a green agenda.
The Egyptian Sustainable Development group Zahran said it is currently in talks with a liberal party that will support its platform in parliament. He said he was not able to name the party because talks had not been finalized. Maybe later in the future, he said, there would be enough political desire for creating a new Green Party.
“We need to go out there and actually start solving people’s problems, like getting clean water and electricity,” he said. “And then people will start believing in us.”
The original Egyptian Green Party was a group primarily consisting of academics who petitioned to become a political party in 1987. The party, whose goal was to promote ecological causes, was modeled after the Greens of Germany, one of the first politically prominent environmental parties.
“They were not caring about propaganda, they were caring about doing something on Earth,” said Mohamed Ahmed, an organizer with the Egyptian Green Party who is trying to revive its agenda. “The first issue was dealing with the landmines on the northern coast.”
But the party faced difficulties under Mubarak, and wasn’t inaugurated until 1990.
It was only allowed to exist, Zahran said, as long as the National Democratic Party leaders didn’t perceive it as a threat. Mubarak's regime used the party, as it did other opposition parties, to support the idea that Egypt was making strides toward democracy.
When the party began attracting influential personalities, Mubarak shut it down, and the party remained inoperative from 1996 to 1998.
After reopening, it remained ineffective, with only one member in the Shura Council.
Now, Ahmed said, the party is hoping to field 22 candidates for Parliament. He said it would not nominate a presidential candidate, but would choose to support one from another party.
In previous years, environmental activism was, for the most part, relegated to NGOs, which tried to raise awareness of problems related to pollution and waste disposal in Egypt.
Mohammed Fangary, an environmental consultant, said that environmentalists need to be careful about taking sides.
“Let’s move on the ground and try to work on raising awareness,” he said. “The right, the left, the Muslim Brotherhood, these debates are not helping the revolution. Let’s put our effort on the ground with the people.”
It’s better if environmentalists continue to work in the non-profit arena, he said, as do international environmental organizations like Greenpeace.
Most activists agree that there is little to no political ambition behind the green movement; they say they just want to throw their weight behind someone – anyone – who will speak up for sustainable development and social justice in Egypt.
“Whatever initiatives happen under the green initiative we’ll be happy,” said Ahmed.
The problem, Zahran and Ahmed agreed, is that until Egyptians come to understand the issue of living green as more than a luxury for the rich, the green movement will not gain political momentum.
“Sustainable development is a way of life,” said Zahran.
“This issue really is life or death,” said Ahmed.