The Muslim Brotherhood estimates that 70 percent of Egypt’s agriculture might be affected by pollution. And in a while they will probably be in charge. It’s time to ask them how they’ll remediate this.
I ask Jamal Himdan. Around thirty, he never ran for office, but he is still in charge of the Muslim Brotherhood’s think tank, for the environmental part at least. We had an elaborate chat, which I’ll shorten as much as possible. But I won’t reduce it to an enumeration of their program, along with some juicy quotes. Instead I’ll quote you the most interesting passages in their entirety. The Brothers are said to have an ideology of their own so it might be interesting to understand their logic. To help you with this, I’ll let you read how Himdan explains their ideas.
He starts his analysis of Egypt’s environment issue using a known Egyptian joke:
The Emirate kings gave Hosni Mubarak (Egypt’s former leader) a billion dollars as aid for the Egyptian people. It passed from different government levels, and each shelve took a digit from the sum. By the time it reached the population, the mayor shook hands with the citizens and said “the Emirates kings say hey.” And the money vanished in between. That’s how it was in Egypt.
“The resources looted out of the Egyptian economy, over the entire thirty years of Mubarak’s regime, is equivalent to three times the national budget of Egypt. We’re talking about 2 to 3 trillion dollars.
Before, for the president and his inner circle the environment was just something to violate, abuse and get the most cash out of. By being part of the government, we hope to make sure this doesn’t happen any more,” Himdan explains.
He tells me that Egypt in fact has good environmental legislation, but the Minister of Environment doesn’t hold executive powers. If somebody breaks the law he can’t do anything. In the past you could just sideline the environmental rules by paying the inspector, somebody in the ministry or by being close enough to Mubarak’s circle of power.
“Below Cairo, there are steel, cement and fertilizer manufacturers pumping poisonous chemical waste into the Nile, without anyone knowing it. They only recently started cracking down on this. And most of this is already embedded in the Delta Region, where 70% of Egypt’s food agriculture needs are being developed. The value chain is broken and it won’t be easy to fix it.
On corruption in Egypt
A little bit more on corruption: research shows that a country that receives most of its revenue through the government, not the people, is especially prone to corruption. Egypt is such an example. The government receives a lot of money through gas, oil, the Suez Canal, as military-aid or even development aid. They call this rentiership.
When I linked this with the prominent role the military plays in society, Himdan seemed suspicious and denied this. Instead he surprised me by arguing that corruption is a trait inherited from the Pharaonic times. Later that evening during the course of our talk I realised that this is exactly what the Bible, the Old Testament and Quran both say – three classics on Middle-Eastern society.
“The most important is the law on freedom of information. Once information is public, the civil society can act as a monitoring agency on not just the ministries but the private sector as well. We also want to provide executive power to the Ministry of Environment,” he said, “and the last issue is the rule of law, to stop any exceptions no matter how big they are.”
“And we do intend to make an example of a number of national or international companies that take an aggressive stand against the environment,” he relayed. “They are known, and within the environmental sector it is easy to identify Egypt’s biggest polluters. Warning signals will be sent and the law will be given a probation period. But if they don’t adjust their manufacturing processes and the pollution they cause, their treatment won’t be insignificant.”
This aims at ensuring social justice, one of the three main demands of the revolution, along with bread and freedom.
But Egypt will have to undergo a big transformation. Accountability for example is non-existent and what will happen if this changes? Will protests, like the ones against the Mopco and Agrium fertilizer plants or the future nuclear plant in Dabaa, spread throughout the whole country? Will the courts be able to deal with every scandal the people try to expose? Maybe it will create a similar juridical strive as Egypt’s recent re-nationalisations.
Egypt has a lot of environmental know-how, the Egyptian Mostafa Tolba was the first president of the United Nations Environment Programme for example, but most of them are academics, and stay far away from social justice. There’s no international link neither. While big NGOs who focus on the environment or farmer rights are quite active in Sub-Sahara Africa, Asia or Latin-America, they remain absent in the Arab region. And in the context of Egypt’s paranoia about foreign intervention it seems unlikely this will change.
“For us taking on pollution is not just about looking good in front of the global community, and sitting together with the G8 and whatever,” says Himdan.
Big green things could sprout from Islam
“It’s an Islamic mandate. There are close to fifty sayings of the prophet Muhammad that we relate to the environment issue in various [ways]. One is especially well known to Egyptians: if the day of judgement is called for, and you have a seed or a small tree in your hand do not drop it and go on to do something else, but plant it and you will be rewarded for it.”
“That’s the kind of considerations that feed into the environmental protection of the Islamic movement in general. Also, when you understand Egyptian people and the weight of religion in governing their daily live choices and decisions, you can really capitalise on that being such a deep motivation for them. They might respect it more than any law.”
If you don’t have a religious background these words are difficult to grasp. But in a country like Egypt, you cannot deny the great power religion has in society.
Himdan hopes that if they let their faith guide their actions ethically, they won’t forget the Prophet’s sayings on the environment. He sees it as an additional lever. I wasn’t convinced, because I never heard such an environmental hadith being used in politics or in society.
“Of course, it’s not on the list of priorities. If somebody doesn’t have a plate to eat in front of him, or in front of his family, no matter what you tell him he’s not going listen to something like this,” he says.
“Half of the villages in Egypt don’t have tap water, drinking water or clean water for that matter, but meanwhile others are irrigating their golf courses with tap water. How devious do you have to be to design a system like that? And this is what we are trying to solve.
“That’s why the law comes in for those who have, rather than those who have not. It’s one of the principles of Islam. You cannot really punish anyone for theft if it is to feed themselves.
“But we have to wait and see how this translates into legislation. We don’t hold majority in parliament…”
Climate not a priority for the Brotherhood
Climate change, for example, he says is not a priority. ” To allocate part of the budget for something like this, you really have to have met the basic needs of the citizens, otherwise the outcome will be negative either way. If you talk about people dying in the next 200 years, there are people dying this year and this will always be more pressing. But we will make sure that what we do now, doesn’t affect what will come later.”
The Renaissance Project:
“We are an anti-nuclear party and our energy program has a substantial portion of renewable energy. It ties into the Renaissance Project of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. For us, renewable energy is the energy source for the globe within the next fifty years, whether that’s wind, solar or water,” says Himdan.
“Look at the European plans to switch from nuclear to renewable energy by 2050. They won’t be able to find the needed generation unless they use the North-African continent, and specifically the desert between Egypt and Libya, as their main source of power. Egypt is an essential part of this, and not just for the availability of land, but also for the manufacturing and raw-materials.
“At the moment there have been smaller scale projects in villages, mostly for distributed energy generation. And we expect this to take quite a leap forward. Not just for Egypt but for the African continent in general. In 2011 most of the African countries have passed laws that allow feed-in tariffs by any private energy provider.
“The issue of wind generation is tied to the logistical hubs we want to develop along the Red Sea Coast. We want each hub to be self-sufficient in terms of energy-supply, because they are quite disconnected from the grid and the cost of extending the grid to those areas would be much higher.
“But within the next two years, it won’t take a high profile [negotiations] because the expectations of the citizens are much higher. The demands within a crisis economy don’t allow much time to focus on such matters,” Himdan explains.
The large-scale energy plan in the desert probably ties into the German Desertec and French Medgrid program. In Morocco, Europe’s closest neighbour, construction is due to start. So it might be important for Egypt not to lag behind, especially if Egyptians companies want to do a large share of the job.
This plan is basically a good investment opportunity for Egypt. Europe wants to invest money, so why wouldn’t Egypt let them. It’s interesting that when the Brotherhood meets a European delegation, the announcement reads that they have been discussing the Renaissance Project. And most diplomats seem to know this plan, while most Egyptians, even academics, don’t.
Himdan is mostly talking about big scale projects, but what about solar roof panels and other small scale solutions? In Palestine or Turkey they are common, but in Cairo they remain rare. And they could improve the livelihood of poor communities, but only if policy changes. At present such projects lack governmental support and the subsidised non-renewables keeps their profitability low.
“The subsidy system has always been quite a burden on the fiscal budget of the state,” says Himdan. “The list of subsidised products in Egypt is incredibly extensive.
“We need to organise a public transport system that allows for higher costs, whether they are taxis, specific bus lines or metro lines to be subsidized by an overhead cost. The lower the type of public transport the cheaper.”
“The same should be reflected by the power and water subsidies,” he says. “For water subsidies for example, consuming the first ten to twenty liters would probably be for free, so subsidised at 100%. Then the next 10 litres would be subsidised at 50%, the next would be 25% and then the next wouldn’t be subsidised. The next might incur twice the price of the water production costs. If you go higher you might actually pay thirty times the price to deliver water to you.”
“The water that the lower classes use for showering or drinking will fall within that basic limit, but those who have a pool or are irrigating a golf course will pay a higher price to make sure they do account for it. We will cross-subsidise them within society itself, to make sure we alleviate the subsidies from the state.”
This is quite a hot issue. Due to the subsidised import of basic commodities, the government is three months away from running out of cash reserves. The discussion to abolish subsidies, driven by the World Bank and likeminded economists, has been ongoing for years. Since the seventies, abolishment of subsidies has been announced a few times, but was each time retracted after protests.
In recent weeks subsidised gas has become scarce. At night taxis queue in endless lines in front of gas stations. It has become evident that the subsidising system won’t last much longer, and if a sustainable new system can be found that stops resource squander, without victimising the poor, who can be against it?
But the Brotherhood has to overcome their inertia. Two months have lapsed since we had this interview and nothing has changed.
Throughout the interview Himdan was emphasizing the sentence “no compromises in the new.” He used it to illustrate that they don’t believe in short-term solutions, even when it’s urgent. They wouldn’t build unsustainable gas plants, allow harmful fertilizers or build polluting plants.
But it’s doubtful that Egyptian politics will give the Brotherhood the time to figure out the ideal solution for every problem. Problems can emerge very quickly or aren’t easy to resolve. So, in a search for a hard example I asked him what they’ll do with Cairo’s defunct waste management system.
“We think, no matter what you pump into the waste management system in Cairo, it will always remain dysfunctional. The solution for the situation in Cairo as a city is to motivate enough citizens to leave Cairo, so that the maintained infrastructure can really carry the weight of the city itself. The road network is designed for 1.5 million cars, and they carry 4.5 million cars. But this is a long-term solution.
“The previous regime only offered chances for the top layer to move out. Cleaner air, greenery, better services, better roads, and so on. The problem is that they never provided enough reasons to live and work in these new cities. Instead, these cities have produced much more pressure on Cairo’s infrastructure.
“We want to create specialised cities. Usually this develops naturally, in Qena for example, a specialised mineral sector developed over generations and now they have the most expertise. We can try to create such a manufacturing community in the petrochemical sector, arts sector, craft sector or whatever.
“The government can influence this, by providing a housing incentive for people to move with their families. While they develop a new city in that location we will then also provide the incentives for services to move, supermarket chains, healthcare services and so.
“A twenty years tax deduction for example. That’s a strong enough incentive for them to go provide services to that community and then the development cycle starts circulating and you have a workable community that becomes into a city. Once you provide the necessary infrastructure, the living conditions will be better and the needs will be met, so they’ll transfer.”
We talk about the slums
“About the slums. The only solution everybody comes up with is; let’s move these people and put them here and demolish that. That’s just not practical, the state can’t do that, it doesn’t have the resources. And the people won’t accept it. Even when they tried to do it, and they tried it many times, the people sold their new flats and remained in the slums. This is not a solution, you have to work with the psyche of the people itself.
“We’ll do it differently, by legislating the property of the slums to the people. Make sure that if you live in a slum room, that you own that room and have a legal document that legalizes your ownership of that room. Then it can be bought and it can be sold. So it’s a regulatory process for us, not just pump money in them and give them incentives to leave. They’ll never leave.
It’s not the first time the idea of legislating the slums is raised. In 1997 Gamal Mubarak invited Hernando De Soto to conduct an extensive study about it. This even resulted in a best-selling book, “The Mystery of Capital,” but somehow the idea itself remained on the shelf.
Strengthening the juridical position of the population can have a huge impact. For the livability of a city outlawing extortion and fraud can be important. Also, improving ownership and security of tenure can have a bigger impact than any urban upgrading program. Some people, like the abovementioned Hernando De Soto even expect economic miracles from it.
But Egypt’s frenzied attempts to spread the population continue. When I mentioned Mubarak’s unpopular megaprojects, such as Toskha, I didn’t get a clear response. This surprised me. These projects aren’t very loved by the population, so I expected more criticism. The only thing Himdan told me is that it’s hard to gather reliable information on these projects, to decide what to do with it, but nothing more.
But spreading the population? Do we still think that cities are a frill, and that it’s only agriculture and raw material resources that support an economic life?
Moreover, creating specialised cities isn’t easy. In theory, some services seem detachable from the city, the media for example, but in reality they aren’t. There’s a reason why they germinate in megalopolises. Also, specialisation is fragile. If a city’s speciality dies out it might become a ghost town. Think mining towns in America.
But what do the Brothers exactly envisage? Himdan told me that the Muslimbrothers’ example is Hassan Fathy; “because he had the perfect cycle in terms of material use, in terms of ownership of the people of the land, suitability to the region,” to quote Himdan.
The way Hassan Fathy built wasn’t dense, so I can’t really imagine how this could work in the populated delta –not to mention Cairo. But maybe it’s not about what he built but about his philosophy. Anyone?
When I contacted the Freedom and Justice party to hear about their election program, I didn’t expect to be confronted with a grand plan like their Renaissance Project.
It’s probably the most massive rebuilding effort in decades, says Himdan. “It’s led by the Muslim Brotherhood and includes many universities, parts of civil society and even bodies of the state.”
“Now we are making this public. And when we are in the parliament, or in the government, we can start to move.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a vast organisation. There are more than one million people involved, and the majority of the people within the Brotherhood are professionals: doctors, engineers, professors and so on. So the amount of expertise and skilled persons we have access to is huge.
“We couldn’t make this public under Mubarak. A couple of years ago we initiated a plan to manufacture more wheat, so that we wouldn’t need to import anymore. But this was against the interest of the government and the guy behind it was jailed. Three or four people from the regime were importing wheat into the country and they gained substantial profits from it. So for the Muslim Brotherhood it was to threatening to think about any development plan.
Maybe the Renaissance Project can become the twenty-first century’s Aswan Dam for investors and the international community. But I don’t know if the population will like all their planning.
They liked the Brotherhood when it was acting as an alternative for the defunct government, by providing health care and education. But now they might be reluctant to put the Brothers in charge of both systems. This was already shown in the parliamentary elections, when the amount of power the middle-class Brotherhood is gathering, made the lower classes chose the side of the Salafis.
To sum up: planning never was a demand of the revolution. But social justice was, and hopefully the Muslim Brotherhood won’t forget this. The big plans they have can overshadow their intentions to legislate the slums or enhance transparency. In the end, it are these things that might change Egypt the most. Mega-projects have always been on the agenda, but Egypt’s poorest citizens have never been able to side with the state and judiciary to defend their livelihood or dignity.
Image of eye on Egypt from Shutterstock
For more on the Renaissance Project, and the machine behind it, Egypt Independent recently published a portrait of Gehad El Haddad; http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/renaissance-man-gehad-el-haddad-works-islamist-project-s-pragmatist