Is Egypt on the verge of an environmental disaster?

On April 21, Ali Reda, head of the Touristic Investment Authority in the Red Sea, voiced the objection of the authority’s board of directors, the owners of hotels and tourist facilities, and tourism sector staff to the Egyptian government’s plan to use coal as an alternative source of energy. He underlined the damage that would specifically befall this coastal part of the country if the plan is implemented.

“Coal will be detrimental to tourism in the Red Sea,” he said in a press statement. “It will pollute the environment, harm people’s health, and destroy marine life especially coral reefs.” Reda specifically objected to importing coal through Safaga, a major Red Sea port, since, he argued, the resulting damage would also extend to the infrastructure.

“The highways in this area are not fit for the transportation of coal from Safaga so the roads will be substantially damaged,” he said. “Add to that a remarkable increase in road accidents.” Ahmed Droubi, coordinator of the Egyptians Against Coal movement, agreed with this last point: “Eight million tons of coal a year would require 250,000 to 500,000 trucks on our roads carrying coal. Can you imagine that?”

Coal critics

Reda and the tourism sector he represents constitutes the latest addition to a long list of critics of the Egyptian government’s decision to import coal for powering cement factories.

Approved by the Egyptian cabinet on April 2, the decision followed a significant cut in natural gas supplies to cement factories to solve the problem of frequent power outages that, occurring almost on a daily basis, had been subjecting government performance to scathing criticism.

During the meeting in which the decision was made, the cabinet stressed its “commitment to all precautionary measures recommended by the World Health Organization and to enforcing those measures on all facilities that manufacture, import, transport, store, or use coal,” according to the cabinet’s official statement.

The government, the statement added, would also work on modifying the environmental law so that violating facilities would be penalized. “A tax will also be imposed on factories that use coal.”

Minister of Environmental Affairs Laila Iskander said: “I have failed to convince the government to retract its decision to import coal. My team and I were unable to make them see the magnitude of the hazards of importing coal and the environmental disaster that would follow.”

Iskander, who warned that using coal as a source of energy would turn Egypt into “a carbon state,” said that despite the objections, the ministry will have to do its part if coal is to be imported anyway.

“We cannot allow divisions within the government and have to work together,” she said. “What can be done now is setting the environmental rules that should regulate importing, transporting, storing, and using coal. We are working on that now.”

Iskander explained that three teams in the ministry are working on a plan to minimize the harm of coal.

“The first team is working on modifying the environmental law, the second on setting requirements and regulations, and the third on preparing for the measurement of harmful coal emissions,” she said. Commenting on the third team’s job, Iskander said the ministry still needs to procure the necessary equipment. “This needs to be done as soon as possible.”

Iskander is to be subpoenaed on May 10 by the Administrative Court for the lawsuit filed by leftist activist and rights lawyer Khaled Ali against the cabinet’s decision to import coal. Ali’s lawsuit is part of an expansive campaign launched by a number of activists and rights organizations to stop the import of coal.

Blind eye to the disaster

A joint statement by several rights and environmental groups accused the government of giving in to pressure by cement factories while turning a blind eye to the disastrous impact of coal on Egypt and its citizens.

“Cement investors are waging a political and media war to push the government to overlook the hazards of using coal through taking advantage of the current energy crisis and promising to reduce cement prices in return,” said the statement. “The cabinet is siding with those investors and ignoring the studies that underline the grave consequences of such a decision.”

In addition to the general environmental hazards, the statement specifically highlighted the impact of using coal on residents of areas surrounding cement factories, and which is expected to last for several generations. The signatories expressed their surprise that while the world’s biggest industrial countries are moving away from coal, Egypt insists on using it.

“In Germany, 61% of energy used in the cement industry is generated from waste and in the Netherlands, the percentage rose to 98% in 2009.” According to the statement, several developing countries are also working on long-term plan to discard polluting sources of energy. “Kenya is expected to generate 50% of its energy from solar energy by 2016 while Morocco will generate 42% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.”

Egyptians Against Coal, one of the signatories of the above statement, emerged as the most vocal opponent to the use of coal. Comprised of rights activists and environmental experts, the group launched a campaign to underline the damaging effects of coal.

According to a statement issued by the group, the only beneficiary of the cabinet’s decisions are cement investors whose profits will skyrocket after using a cheap source of energy such as coal. The main loser is the Egyptian people, whose health will suffer drastically.

“Coal affects the brain, the nerves, the lungs, and the blood. Research proved that inhaling coal dust causes redox reactions and increases chances of lung cancer, blood viscosity, and narrowed blood vessels.” All these effects, the statement explained, are the result of being around coal, and before even starting the process of burning it to generate power.

The group questioned the government’s allegations about the use of coal being a temporary solution. “The use of coal requires a significant change in the infrastructure, which would make Egypt dependent on it for at least the coming 40 years. We can already see other industries like iron and steel and tiles asking to use coal, too.”

Minister of Trade, Energy and Investment Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour was among the most prominent senior officials who supported the cabinet’s decision. Abdel Nour said Egypt is facing a real energy crisis and coal offers a realistic solution. “Energy shortage is a major challenge to economic and industrial development, especially with oil and natural gas being unable to meet all demands,” he said.

Several developed countries have had positive experiences with coal as long as regulations are applied, he added. Abdel Nour, who announced that coal will start to be used as of September, argued that while depending on new and renewable sources of energy is vital, it does not offer an immediate solution.

“Those offer medium- to long-term solutions, while we need alternative sources of energy as soon as possible to supply industrial needs, attract investment, and create more job opportunities,” he said.

Minister of Electricity and Energy Mohamed Shaker adopted the same view, as he unraveled plans to construct a coal-operated power station in the Red Sea to solve the problem of blackouts, and downplayed fears of harmful effects. “Power-generating stations have now reached the highest levels of technology so emissions are reduced to the minimum,” he said.

Owners of cement factories see importing coal as the only available way to save their businesses, which had for a long time depended on subsidized natural gas. “My factories completely stopped operating for almost a month last summer,” said Moataz Mahmoud, who owns cement factories in the Upper Egyptian cities of Qena and Aswan. “We have a huge energy crisis.”

In response to the argument about the effect on coal on residents in neighborhoods close to the factories, Mahmoud said this only applies to a few cases. “Most of the factories are far away from residential areas, so why don’t they give at least approval now to the factories that are far away?”

Ramah Taha, managing director of a cement factory in Aswan, said the cement sector submitted a study that details the plan cement factories are to follow in order to ensure the safest use of coal.

“The study included all the precautions that we would take in order to use coal, the specifications of the filters, mills, and ports, and all the involved ministries agreed, including the prime minister, except for the minister of environmental affairs,” he said.

Tribal infighting plagues Upper Egypt

On April 9, Salem Abu Ghazala, deputy head of the Supreme Council of Arab Tribes, announced a one-month truce between the Upper Egyptian tribes of Bani Helal and the Daboudiya a few hours before the first truce, which was to last for three days, had expired. “The truce aims at paving the way for a final reconciliation between the two tribes as well as identifying the actual perpetrators and estimating the damages,” he said in a press statement. “The state is to interfere in case the truce is breached.” Each tribe formed a committee to monitor the implementation of the truce and make sure normalcy is restored in Aswan, the city in Southern Egypt that witnessed the bloody conflicts which killed 26 and injured more than 50 while the Supreme Council of Arab Tribes formed a fact-finding committee to look into the triggers of the clash.

The fighting reportedly started on April 2 when two students from the Nubian tribe the Daboudiya wrote offensive graffiti on their school wall about a girl from the Arab Bani Helal tribe while according to the Interior Ministry statement, the Bani Helal girl was sexually harassed by a group of Daboudiya’s young men. A cycle of violence and counter-violence ensued during the following two days that witnessed intensive gunfights and acts of vandalism amid complaints of minimal intervention on the part of security forces. The unprecedented nature of the incident triggered a spate of speculation about the real reasons for the occurrence of the massacre and the political factors that might have been involved.

Muslim Brotherhood involvement?

“There are signs of the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in igniting the conflict between the two tribes,” said Egyptian army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali in a statement. Although the Interior Ministry attributed the conflict to the alleged sexual harassment incident, Nubian lawyer and rights activist Mohammad Azmi had a different story.

According to Azmi, the Interior Ministry first claimed that the conflict was between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other residents of the city and did not interfere for two whole days because of the ties between security forces and members of the Bani Helal tribe. “Security forces have been using members of the Bani Helal tribe, who mainly work in drugs, arms dealing, and prostitution, to crush protests and sit-ins by force. That is why they have become very influential,” he wrote on his Twitter account. Azmi also refuted allegations by severalmedia outlets concerning an old feud between the two tribes. Nubian activist Manal al-Tibi argued that the Interior Ministry was unable to deal with the Bani Helal tribe because they are heavily armed. “According to eye witnesses, security forces were very weak because they could not confront the arsenal of Bani Helal,” she said in a press statement. “On the other hand, the Daboudiya’s only weapons are cudgels and knives.” Dozens of Nubians staged a protest in Cairo, calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim, who they accused of siding with Bani Helal, and demanded that investigations into the massacre be conducted by officials from Cairo as the head of the Aswan Investigation Bureau is a member of the Bani Helal tribe.

The involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood was, however, supported by several parties. Former Aswan MP Helal al-Dandarawi said that a teacher from the school where the fight started opened the school gate for members of Bani Helal to attack the Daboudiya students who were said to have harassed the girl. “This teacher is a member in the Muslim Brotherhood and is reported to be behind the graffiti that insulted the Bani Helal girl,” he said in a TV interview. In another interview, Dandarawi noted that the font and color of the graffiti that insulted Bani Helal is the same as that written in retaliation allegedly by Bani Helal to insult the Daboudiya. “This means that a third party was trying to turn the two tribes against each other,” he added.

According to Judge Mohamed Adlan, chairman of the Nubian Club, the Muslim Brotherhood started the conflict to retaliate against Nubians for their stance on presidential elections. “When Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Nubian leaders, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were infuriated and decided to take revenge,” he said in a TV interview. Adlan argued that the number of the deaths from Bani Helal proves that there was a conspiracy. “Nubians do not possess weapons, so how all those members of Bani Helal were killed remains a mystery.”

Hani Youssef, coordinator of the Nubian Union, had a differentview. “I am against Mursi, but we cannot blame everything on the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said in a TV interview. “This will never solve the problem.” Potential presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi agreed: “There is no evidence to prove the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the Aswan crisis,” he said. “The state has to assume its responsibilities.”

A larger conspiracy

On the other hand, Presidential Media Advisor Ahmed al-Meslemani saw the conflict as part of a larger conspiracy to create an independent Nubian state.

“Several domestic and international parties are involved in a plot to separate Nubia from Egypt,” he said in a press interview. “These attempts would never bear fruit.” He did not, however, name the parties involved. While Meslemani did not support the argument about the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement, he did accuse the group of taking advantage of the crisis. “The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to politicize the incident to make it seem like a conspiracy by the security forces to distract public opinion from the state’s repression of Islamist protests,” he explained. “Several of the Muslim Brotherhood websites have been promoting this theory.” In the same vein, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Helali, the imam of a mosque in Aswan and a member of the Beni Helal tribe, accused the Interior Ministry of distracting public opinion from the security forces’ inability to contain the crisis as soon as it had started. “It is always easy for security forces to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood to cover up for its negligence,” he said in a TV interview. “They have to admit they were wrong so that similar incidents will not recur.”

“Had it not been for us, the situation would have been much more disastrous,” said Aswan Security Chief General Hassan al-Sohagi. “We intervened at the first minute.” Sohagi refuted claims by members of both tribes about the absence of security forces. “The occurrence of some incidents that we could not prevent was due to the extreme proximity of members of the two conflicting tribes,” he said in a TV interview. “Some even live in the same building.”

“The Aswan security chief is held accountable for every drop of blood that was shed in the city,” insisted Ibrahim al-Prince, coordinator of the Arab Tribes coalition, for his part.