Egypt: Why going green is not a ‘luxury’ many can afford without support for basic necessities

By Abir Sorour

Posted on Friday, 4 November 2022 13:59
A woman buys orange at a popular market in Cairo, Egypt in 2016. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Egypt has spent millions of dollars in preparation of the upcoming COP27 and in promoting its green economy and sustainable living initiatives. But going green is seen by many as a luxury in the daily fight for basic survival. 

The connection between poverty rates and adherence to a green agenda, although crucial in its cause, is an issue that is rarely, if ever, discussed.

While the Egyptian government is calling on citizens to adhere to an environmentally conscious behaviour, access to basic needs for a decent living are absent.

‘Culture of self-care’

In many speeches and statements, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, once an athlete and former officer who often roams military and police colleges on his bike, has called on Egyptians to lose weight.

He has also criticised obese individuals, and advocated a “culture of self-care”.

In a 2019 speech, Sisi spoke for 20 minutes about exercising, saying he sometimes sees obese people and asks himself: “Why are people not taking care of themselves? How can you walk like that?”

To encourage such ‘self-care’, one major initiative the government has sponsored is encouraging citizens to practice sports and exercise more, but a lack of access to public places and green areas makes the government rhetoric a moot point for many.

Green spaces

In the past three years, large amounts of green spaces in Cairo were removed for the government to build bridges, military-owned gas stations, and fast food joints.

Mohamed el-Shamy, a 45-year-old teacher with two children, tells The Africa Report the government has de-greened several spaces in his neighbourhood of Heliopolis to build new high roads and massive bridges.

Shamy and his family try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but the lack of affordable public spaces to practice sports remains an issue.

“Green spaces which were built in the 1950s and 1960s are either taken over by thugs and occupied for cafes, or were de-greened by the government,” he says, adding that “a membership to a sports club these days may cost half a million pounds.”

“You have to be a millionaire to enter a sports club. The only alternative is the street, where you will have to inhale a mix of toxic gases.”

Aida*, 29, a gallery curator and an environment activist, echoes Shamy’s complaints. She too has taken to the streets to do her sports as there are no public spaces which are accessible. “I face harassment – verbal and physical – in the street since I cannot afford a gym subscription.”

Aida says access to spaces where civilians can exercise has become a privilege as more and more spaces are being privatised.

“Egyptians are often accused by the government and the president of being lazy while they are not given the bare minimum of rights,” she says.

Hard times means cheap food

But the president, who is advocating for a healthier lifestyle for Egyptians, has not taken into account how the diet of many people is tightly connected to their economic status.

Starchy foods are common and favoured among the low and middle class, due to their affordability over meat, fish, and certain vegetables, making them more prone to obesity.

Four of the subsidised commodities the government provides to millions of Egyptians are bread, sugar, pasta, and rice. When 1kg of meat can cost LE150EGP ($6.23), many will opt to buy a bag of rice that costs LE5.

Esmat*, 29, an illiterate house cleaner says she first learned the word vegetarian from her employer’s daughter. “I thought this was a trend or a special diet, but I found out that I am vegetarian most of the year,” says Esmat, who rarely eats meat. She lives in the impoverished Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba.

“Only when there are leftovers from my employer or in the month of Ramadan are there a lot of charitable people who distribute meat to the poor,” she adds.

Esmat’s diet consists of salty cheese, bread, cooked rice, falafel, fava beans, and deep fried eggplants and potatoes, food that she can buy from street vendors.

“Soon all of Egypt will be vegetarian,” she jokes.

After the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, Esmat is considering banning more foods from her diet such as eggs, milk, and canned tuna, as their prices have notably increased.

Who can live green?

A representative from the Environment Ministry press office told The Africa Report that Egypt has taken many steps since 2018 to promote and support ideas for Egyptians to live green, recycle, and have more environmental awareness.

All this in assuring Egypt’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Accords as part of Egypt’s 2030 Vision for Sustainable Development.

Abdel-Majid al-Ashqar, a member of the Senate, tells The Africa Report that this year’s COP27 hosted by Egypt “will raise Egypt’s status globally and put the country on the map of foreign investment.”

He adds the country’s interest in climate change comes from the “insightful vision of President Sisi [who] wants to raise Egypt to a distinguished global level.”

However, one Member of Parliament, who asked to remain anonymous, shares a different vision of COP27:  “There will be conferences in massive air conditioned halls, speeches by English language-speaking experts and politicians, multi-million pounds in advertising campaigns, and numerous panel discussions about living green, all while more than 30 million human beings are struggling to live.”

He adds: “We have to differentiate between young volunteers in private universities who remove plastic bottles from the Nile in EU-sponsored events, and the impoverished masses who collect these bottles in order to sell them by the kilo.”

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