Environmental Activism in the Middle East: Prospects and Challenges

Jeannie L. Sowers University of New Hampshire
Abstract: Environmental activism has intensified across the Middle East and North Africa over the past few decades, focusing primarily on environmental issues that affect public health, livelihoods, and essential services. While intrusive security states limit information and stifle civil society, expanding educational opportunities, growing cities, and new means of communication have enabled environmental activism. This includes small-scale, informal, and localized activism to appropriate and demand access to natural resources and environmental services; the spread of environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGO’s); and the coordinated popular resistance campaign (hamla) that typically includes direct action, media outreach, and lobbying. State elites and official media often portray environmental mobilization as a threat to national security and state integrity, but sometimes tolerate it as an informal enforcement mechanism to pressure polluting firms and nonresponsive officials. As elsewhere, state and corporate actors also increasingly deploy their own discourses and interventions around environmental issues, generally focused on technocratic solutions rather than questions of political economy and environmental justice.

The 2011 uprisings in the Arab world catalyzed scholarly interest in developing a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of social protest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). From the protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and spread to 90 other towns in Turkey in 2013, to the demonstrations against electricity shortages in the Gaza Strip in 2017, environmental activism has been intensifying in the region over the past few decades. It remains, however, an understudied element in the broader landscape of popular mobilization. The diffusion of environmental activism reflects changing opportunities for activists as well as long-term structural changes in the region’s political economy, including population growth, urbanization, education, and migration.

Not surprisingly, the expansion of environmental contestation has been most evident in countries with semicompetitive political systems and long histories of collective action, such as Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Israel, and Iran. Environmental activism has also emerged to a lesser degree in authoritarian states considered inhospitable to activism, such as those of the Persian Gulf, while routine forms of civic engagement have become almost impossible in war-torn Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

The diffusion of environmental activism reflects changing opportunities for activists as well as long-term structural changes in the [MENA] region’s political economy, including population growth, urbanization, education, and migration.

While the Middle East faces a number of important and complex environmental issues, activists typically mobilize around issues affecting public health and livelihoods. Urban activists often focus on pollution and public health threats from air pollution, traffic, lack of green space and recreational opportunities (especially for children and youth), inadequate solid waste collection and disposal, and industrial proximity. Rural mobilization centers on a lack of access to land and water resources, inadequate sanitation and solid waste systems, and displacement and threats to livelihoods from large state-led projects such as dams.

These and other environmental problems in the region do not simply reflect "natural" imbalances in resource endowments. Instead, the type and distribution of environmental problems reflects the political and economic trajectories pursued in the colonial and postcolonial periods. State-led industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s taxed agriculture to provide investment in urban heavy and intermediate industries, without regard to environmental impacts. The parallel cultivation of authoritarian security states stifled environmental criticism, as universities and voluntary associations were brought under rigid state control. The focus on creating heavy and intermediate industry was followed by fiscal crises in the 1970s and 1980s, which crippled investment and modernization of state-owned enterprises, creating intense "hot spots" of pollution. In Egypt, for instance, these industrial hot spots have long generated chronic conflict with local urban residents, fishermen, and farmers living nearby.[1]

Fiscal pressures drove many MENA states to reengage with the private sector, seeking economic growth and job creation, in the 1970s and 1980s. Led by Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, neoliberal reforms opened protected domestic markets to foreign direct investment and established special economic zones designed to attract private investors without regulatory burdens or taxation. These national policies helped attract industries based on proximity to cheap natural resources (oil, gas, and phosphates), particularly in sectors facing significant regulation, and thus limited expansion in developed countries. In Iran, for instance, these areas included the special economic zones of Sirjan, which saw concentrations of chemical, hydraulic oil, and motor oil companies, and Anzali, a port city on the Caspian Sea (Afrasiabi 2003). In Egypt, free zones have often been located to take advantage of existing port infrastructure, resulting in pollution-intensive or potentially hazardous industrial complexes near cities such as Damietta, Alexandria, and Suez.

The region as a whole is urbanizing rapidly—the World Bank in 2016 estimated that 65 percent of the region’s inhabitants live in cities. The rapid expansion of urban frontiers has played a significant role in fostering environmental concerns and activism. Urban inhabitants increasingly live in proximity to industrial facilities, garbage dumps, incinerators, and other noxious facilities. Urban neighborhoods are also well networked in terms of media coverage, cell phones, and family and professional networks, all of which serve to facilitate opportunities for collective action.

Generational change and expansion in educational opportunities, combined with stagnant growth in formal employment, have been important in diffusing modes of activism.

Generational change and expansion in educational opportunities, combined with stagnant growth in formal employment, have been important in diffusing modes of activism. The expansion of education, particularly for youth aged 15–29, has exceeded job opportunities, meaning exceptionally high unemployment rates for women, youth, and college graduates when compared to employment rates in other world regions. Some of these educated cohorts in their twenties and thirties steadily demonstrated a greater capacity to organize direct action and capitalize on spontaneous outbreaks of protest during the 1990s and early 2000s.[2] Transnational changes in the flows of information, communication, and education enabled social activists to more readily access and publicize environmental issues and work with activist organizations across borders. "Citizen-journalists," bloggers, and others have increasingly shared environmental issues with a broader range of audiences at home and abroad, documenting environmental problems and local social mobilizations. In Turkey, for instance, transnational linkages between Kurdish communities in Germany and their hometowns brought new dynamism to local environmental movements in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast.

Three modes of state-society engagement around environmental issues are prevalent in the region. The first is small-scale, informal, and localized action to appropriate and demand access to natural resources and environmental services. Local media and online platforms regularly report that small groups of community members, peasants, urban residents, fishermen, and others block roads and public places, petition local officials, and generally pressure state authorities. While these forms of activism often generate small changes in state and corporate behavior, the deeper drivers of environmental degradation often remain unaddressed. Second is the spread of environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGO’s), a more institutionalized form of mobilization. Surveys of environmental associations show that numbers have grown rapidly in Iran, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, although their level of popular support varies significantly. However, the effectivieness of civil associations is limited in authoritarian and semicompetitive regimes by an array of government restrictions, including requiring governmental licensing and prohibitions on receiving external funds. The most flexible, diffused, and, in many ways, effective form of mobilization is the popular resistance campaign (hamla). Environmental activists have learned from other types of popular campaigns how to frame concerns broadly, build alliances across scales, establish local coordinating committees, and combine tactics of protest, media outreach, and lobbying to achieve limited successes. At the same time, however, campaigns often gradually lose momentum as they encounter police repression, complex bureaucracies, and official promises that often fail to materialize.

Environmental activists have learned from other types of popular campaigns how to frame concerns broadly, build alliances across scales, establish local coordinating committees, and combine tactics of protest, media outreach, and lobbying to achieve limited successes.

State elites and official media outlets often view all three types of environmental activism with suspicion. The unstable regional environment—characterized by economic volatility, high employment, and wars fueled by interlocking local, regional, and great power interests—fosters polarized politics and fears of chaos. While mobilization around some environmental issues is tolerated by Middle Eastern regimes—as a way to pressure polluting firms and nonresponsive officials—mobilization that targets state-sanctioned "development" projects or important sources of state revenue is less welcome. Regimes often cast activists as a threat to national security, territorial integrity, and national identity. This was evident, for instance, in state responses to popular campaigns against large-scale dam building in Turkey, around labor and environmental conditions resulting from phosphate mining in Tunisia, and campaigns warning against effects on groundwater from exploratory hydraulic fracking wells in Algeria.

At the same time, state and corporate actors increasingly deploy their own discourses and interventions around environmental issues. All MENA governments had adopted some kind of national environmental law and created an environmental agency or ministry. These institutional changes often reflected the sustained efforts of technocrats, local scientists, and expatriate consultants working within various ministries and donor-funded projects (Sowers 2012, chap. 2). As has often been the case in regional bureaucratic development, Egypt and Turkey led the way in establishing national and later provincial environmental authorities. However, environmental ministries are widely viewed as "weak" compared with the money and power concentrated in the governmental ministries of the interior, industry, mining, and oil and gas. States also sometimes support semiofficial environmental NGOs and initiatives. For example, monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Jordan belatedly worked to breed and reintroduce the endangered Arabian oryx (a type of antelope), after hunting by royals and commoners alike decimated the species.

In the future, we can expect environmental mobilization in the Middle East and North Africa to intensify, as ecological challenges increase alongside constrained development choices, increasing population growth, resource scarcity, and tightened restrictions on migration outside the region.

Anthropogenic climate change is a significant challenge for environmental activists in the region. Global warming has intensified the intensity of flood events, heat waves, and drought, among other impacts. A recent study found that the widespread drought that has gripped much of the Mediterranean since the late 1990s is the most severe observed in the 900-year record, significantly exceeding natural patterns of climate variability (Cook et al. 2016). Social mobilization has been limited around climate change, although climate activism is emering particularly in countries where circles of youth activists have shifted from overt political protest to "safer" forms of dissent. The 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Marrakesh in November of 2016, raised the profile of regional climate activists. The Moroccan COP22 was also notable in part for the outspoken advocacy of a coalition of 48 developing countries considered most vulnerable to climate change.

In the future, we can expect environmental mobilization in the Middle East and North Africa to intensify, as ecological challenges increase alongside constrained development choices, increasing population growth, resource scarcity, and tightened restrictions on migration outside the region. The wave of wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, which devastated public services and generated large refugee flows to surrounding states, will exacerbate these socioeconomic and environmental challenges. Fear of war and chaos in neighboring countries, and the spread of extremist groups, have also increased support for strongmen, such as Egypt’s General-turned-President al-Sisi and Turkey’s Erodgan, who promise stability and criminalize dissent. Delivering economic growth remains more difficult than ever in these circumstances. The structural, social, educational, and demographic transformations that underpinned widespread popular uprisings in 2011 also remain drivers of social contestation. Modes of environmental activism will thus continue to evolve, drawing on the actors, discourses, tactics, and forms of engagement already prevalent in the region.

Notes

  1. See Sowers (2012, chap.3), which analyzes efforts to control industrial pollution in Egypt, particularly among state-owned enterprises.
  2. The Arab Barometer surveys, for instance, found that 30 percent of Egyptian youth aged 18–24 had participated in protest activity in the few years prior to the 2011 uprising. See Hoffman and Jamal (2012).

References

Afrasiabi, K. 2003. "The Environmental Movement in Iran: Perspectives from Below and Above." Middle East Journal 57 (3): 442.

Cook, B., et al. 2016. Spatiotemporal Drought Variability in the Mediterranean Over the Last 900 Years. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, March 4. doi:10.1002/2015JD023929.

Hoffman, M., and A. Jamal. 2012. "The Youth and the Arab Spring: Cohort Differences and Similarities." Middle East Law and Governance 4: 177.

___. 2013. Environmental Politics in Egypt: Experts, Activists, and the State. New York: Routledge.


This essay is adapted and used with permission from Jeannie L. Sowers, "Environmental Activism in the Middle East and North Africa" in Harry Voerhoeven, ed. Political Ecology of the Middle East and North Africa. Oxford University Press/Hurst Publishers, in press, https://global.oup.com/academic/product/environmental-politics-in-the-middle-east-9780190916688?lang=en&cc=us.