Egyptians demand environmental rights in the revolution

cross posted from Egypt Independent

The leading slogan of Egypt’s revolution has been “Bread, Freedom and Human Dignity,” reflecting the deterioration of Egyptians’ quality of life throughout Mubarak’s thirty-year reign. Consequently, an array of human rights issues have featured among the demands made since the beginning of the 25 January revolution.

One such issue has been securing environmental rights.

The basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, which often include the right to life, liberty, freedom of expression and equality before the law, are intertwined with environmental rights because they seek to protect the quality and continuity of life through the conservation of natural resources, pollution prevention and land use regulation.

Consequently, it is of no surprise that since 25 January, environmental demands have also served to mobilize people.

Two noteworthy examples include Damietta, where residents took to the streets in protest against pollution caused by a fertilizer plant, and in Idku, where residents launched a campaign against a British Gas project they see as potentially catastrophic for the area’s environment.

Other promising cases of people mobilizing for environmental rights include reports of farmers in Fayoum protesting against military-owned factories, which produce phosphoric acid, aluminum sulfate and fertilizers. Their pollution has ruined agricultural production and killed scores of animals.

Residents in Alexandria protested against a cement factory due to its harmful emissions and adverse health effects, while locals in Dabaa, located in Matrouh Governorate on Egypt’s northwestern coast, protested against a nuclear plant.

But these environment-related protests are often viewed as separate from the larger political movement that has gained traction since 25 January.

Speaking to Egypt Independent, human rights activist Sally Sami reaffirms the need to view all forms of protest as part of a comprehensive movement as opposed to setting them apart by labeling them differently.

“In essence, everyone who took to the streets on 25 January, and continues to do so, seeks to re-write our relationship as citizens to the state,” she says. “Unfortunately, it is easy to concentrate on the urban (predominantly Cairo-centric) protests, which are more focused on political and human rights issues, while overlooking the more economically and environmentally related forms of protest taking place in other governorates.”

She explains that such facts should by no means undermine the strength and importance of such protests. “We are all working towards the transformation of our society by being active citizens,” she says. “This entails people rebuilding their own lives according to a chosen set of priorities, and all of these priorities are interlinked because the main goal for everyone is to guarantee the sanctity and dignity of human beings.”

This view equates environmental rights with human rights, seeing that people’s livelihoods, their health, and sometimes their very existence, depend upon the quality of and access to the surrounding environment as well as the recognition of their rights to information, participation, security and redress.

While this awareness has become manifest in past months through protests, what is needed now, according to Mohamed Nagi, executive director of the Habi Center for Environmental Rights, is to take things to the next level by passing  binding legislation regarding environmental human rights.

“As we discuss rewriting our constitution,” Nagi says, “we need to make sure there are articles in the new constitution clearly stipulating the need to guarantee and protect environmental rights.” This, he adds, is essential for enforcing Egypt’s environmental laws, which have not been properly implemented, and also strengthen the role of civil society on the ground.

To achieve this, he highlights the need for public and media pressure alongside the creation of strong coalitions with others seeking similar rights.

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