‘Waging a war not only on coal but much more’: Types of Youth Activism among Egyptians against the Coal Movement

‘Waging a war not only on coal but much more‘:[i] Types of Youth Activism among Egyptians against the Coal Movement

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Aziza Moneer, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden


The insurrectionary wave that started in Tunis in December 2010 and then unfolded across the Maghreb and Middle East has raised important questions about the role of youth in contemporary political mobilizations. While there is a plethora of studies that address the role of youth in political movements and collective actions in the MENA region during the Arab Spring, the role of youth in civic engagement in environmental causes is significantly under-researched. Interestingly in the wake of the Arab Spring, environmental issues have come to the forefront of the public sphere and a number of environmental movements erupted in the MENA regions. One example of these environmental movements is ‘Egyptians against Coal’ which formed after the government’s decision to reintroduce coal as an energy source in Egypt. Within this movement, young people expressed a strong resistance to their government’s economic, social, and environmental policies that advocate economic growth at the expense of their health and environmental rights. However, surprisingly little attention has been given to analyzing expressions of resistance among youth and their impacts on politics and state-society relations. By focusing on the ‘Egyptians against Coal’ movement, I address different ways through which youth are challenging power relationships that are used as a means to constitute, legitimate, and normalize business-as usual and fossil-fuel based economic growth in Egypt. The study draws on analyses of interviews with young activists who engaged in this movement and literature review of social movement theory and green politics in the Middle East.  

Arab Spring and the Green Awakening 

The insurrectionary wave that started in Tunis in December 2010 and then unfolded across the Maghreb and Middle East has brought not only political issues to the forefront of the public sphere but environmental issues as well (Loschi, 2019). For example, in Lebanon in 2015, thousands of Lebanese protested Beirut’s months-long garbage crisis that was created after Beirut’s main landfill reached capacity and was shut down (Hancey, 2017).  Frustration with the crisis spawned a movement dubbed You Stink that was led by young activists who display the usual social media savvy and creative protest tactics that echo activism in the Arab Uprisings (Kraidy, 2016). With the persistence of the garbage crisis, coupled with the violent reaction of the government towards the protests and the involved activists, the movement framed the garbage crisis as political crisis that shows the corruption of the political elites in Lebanon and the incompetency of the government to provide the very basics of public services (Chaaban, 2016). In Tunis, an NGO called SOS BIAA (‘biaa’ means ‘environment’ in Arabic) was created by a young engineer named Morched Garbouj in late 2011. The NGO mobilized a movement to improve the waste management measures in Tunis. One of the most important areas of mobilization was the Borj Chekir landfill, which is the largest dump site in Tunis and is a source of hazardous environmental and health risks (Chaabane & Bellamine, 2015). The movement was successful in many ways as it attracted sympathizers from different stakeholders’ groups, including scientists, local people, and other NGOs; raised public awareness about the pollution; and pressured legislative, institutional, and administrative reforms as indispensable for a more accountable and effective waste management system in Tunis (Loschi, 2019).

In Ain Salah, in the heart of the  Algerian Sahara, another movement erupted in order to protest against the shale gas exploration by a French oil company in 2013 (Petitjean and Chapelle, 2016). The campaign claimed that Algerian citizens were confronting not only the environmental and health hazards of fracking, but also a form of neocolonialism. Two years later, the campaign has fostered a formal coalition representing local councils, the energy minister was forced to resign, and fracking operations remain stalled (Kinninburgh, 2015).

The above-mentioned environmental movements attracted youth not only to express their environmental concerns but to articulate discontent with the established political order and denounce social injustices (Onodera et al., 2018). For young people in societies engulfed in an institutional crisis and characterized by varying levels of repression and barriers to political participation, it is not an easy task to openly challenge those in power (Scott, 2005). In this way, groups of environmental activists have introduced new and creative practices of mediation and alternative modes of actions to express their dissent, but without direct or open confrontation with power (Onodera et al., 2018). Examples of these actions include new genres of music and ‘street art’- graffiti, and performances that can’t be addressed in the same way as organized forms of political protest, such as strikes, sits-in, or institutional lobbying (Marche, 2012a). However, they are considered forms of resistance that convey oppositional meanings and contribute to public life with added criticism and acts of citizenship (Marche, 2012b). 

These environmental movements have not received sufficient scholarly attention, with few studies focusing on mobilization strategies and networks formation in Tunis (i.e. Loschi, 2019); motivations for environmental movement in Algeria (i.e. Hamouchene, 2015); and the framing of environmental movements in Lebanon and ways of transforming them into formal political activity (i.e. Nasrallahm, 2017 and Nieuwburg, 2018). There is insufficient literature that explicitly focuses on different ways of expressing environmental activism, particularly in Egypt which is characterized by a paucity of environmental movements. 

In this study, I focus on the ‘Egyptians against Coal’ movement in order to explore the different ways through which youth oppose and challenge established policy and institutional arrangements that sustain unsustainable economic practices. The study’s outcomes will shed a light on Egyptian youth’s visions and priorities for change in Egypt, particularly in relation to an environmental policy profile and orientation.

Egyptians against Coal Movement: A Short Overview 

Egypt’s political economy, and the types of environmental threats imposed by its development path, means that many Egyptians face significant exposure to numerous pollutants (Sowers, 2013). These kinds of environmental threats, combined with other factors such as population growth, rapid urbanization, water stresses, and climate change have given rise to environmental activism (Sowers, 2017). During the Mubarak era, environmental activists typically mobilized around issues affecting public health and livelihoods. Activists – who shared common value orientation – came together through a collective undertaking, namely the conduct of a campaign to publicize specific environmental controversies, mobilize local communities, and influence decision-making (Sowers, 2013). Activist campaigns became more effective in influencing policy making during the late 1990s and 2000s with the introduction of independent media, the strategic use of existing formal political institutions (such as the parliament and the judiciary system), and the increased willingness of lay citizens to engage in direct action (Moustafa, 2007). After the Egyptian revolution, environmental issues became more salient and environmental movements intensified (Sowers, 2017). One example, of these environmental movements is “the Egyptians against coal” movement. This movement happened in the wake of the chronic shortage of domestic supplies of oil and gas, which negatively influenced the electricity consumption of industry and households (Egypt Network for Integrated Development, 2015). 

Out of concern about public discontent over blackouts and the possible destabilizing political ramifications of household energy rationing, the government opted to reduce gas supplies to energy-intensive industries. As a result of energy shortages, production at cement plants decreased by 11 percent in 2013, and, thus, industry representatives argued that a decline in cement production could deliver a disastrous blow to the Egyptian economy by depressing housing and infrastructure development (Zayed & Sowers, 2014). 

As a result of a dramatic decrease in natural gas supplies that has caused industrial production to drop, a rigorous lobby led by cement companies and businessmen has formed to pressure the Egyptian government to compensate the shortage in natural gas by coal imports. This pressure has been reinforced in the Egyptian Cabinet by the ministries of industry and electricity (Mada Masr, 2014). Meanwhile, numerous human rights organizations, environmental activities, and several established conservation organizations formed the coalition “Egyptians against Coal” over shared concerns about the environmental costs of creating a coal infrastructure, given Egypt’s ineffective regulation of industrial pollution. The coalition began publicizing energy and governance and taking these concerns about importing coal to the public, arguing that the costs associated with coal use would overshadow any benefits that might be attained by allowing the cheap but dirty fuel into the country (Mada Masr, 2015). Also, Environment Minister Laila Iskandar had a strong anti-coal stance and was a prominent antagonist of coal, joined by the Ministry of Tourism, who was trying to defend Egypt’s natural environment as a major tourism attraction. In this regard, Iskandar criticized and opposed the government’s plans to import coal, arguing that coal can be replaced with renewables whose environmental impacts are incomparable to the adverse impacts that coal burning causes (Esterman, 2014). In this regard, Environment Minister Laila Iskandar issued statements calling for the adoption of an alternate “energy mix” to power the cement industry, including the use of garbage, rubber tires, and sludge along with renewable energy sources (Sarant, 2017). 

Despite the opposing opinions in the government and the visible discontent with the decision of importing coal, the Cabinet voted in 2014 to allow coal imports for industrial use. The law was amended again in 2015 to allow coal-fired power plants provided that compliance with environmental regulations is assured, and required environmental impact assessments for the coal supply chain are put in place to mitigate emissions (Mada Masr, 2017; Sarant, 2017). 

 Throughout this period, discourse among coal protagonists and antagonists has been imbued with various perspectives and imbedded meanings. Some  tout  coal  as  the only viable solution to  stabilize  the economy  and  prevent  further deterioration  in  the  energy  supply. Opponents maintain that the only beneficiaries of  the decision to import coal are the owners of  major  industrial  factories—the  same  people who  benefited  from  subsidized energy in the past and  are now endorsing a cheap  alternative, subsidized by the health of Egyptians and their rights in a healthy environment (Zayed & Sowers, 2014).  

What is particularly significant in this movement are: First, the movement unfolded around a common objective (stopping coal imports) and was a seamless and spontaneous collective action supported by the Internet and wireless communication (Facebook and Twitter) (Castells, 2001). Second, the consistent pressure of this movement challenged the discourse of the state and its apparatuses whereby the economic growth was conceptualized as a priority. Third, this emphasis on youth engagement in the anti-coal movement becomes significant to learn how youth -through advocating for an environmental cause – are challenging established policies, critiquing power and express their critique through different forms of activism (O’Brian, 2018).

In this study, I present a typology that captures the diverse ways that Egyptian youth are expressing opposition to using coal as an energy source in Egypt. The typology draws on both semi-structured interviews with 30 youth activists (16 males and 14 females) in the anti-coal movement and an extensive review of the literature on youth environmental activism. The activists’ ages range from 21 to 36 years old. Most of them live in Cairo and are university graduates. Out of 30, 20 interviewees belong to an environmental NGO. The interviews lasted between 45 and 90 minutes. I coded the interviewees’ responses based on O’Brian’s et al. (2018) typology of youth civic engagement: dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous activism. This typology recognizes that each form of activism has its own orientation to power. Based on this analysis, I expected that certain types of argumentations would be dominant in the interviewees’ discourse. However, it is important to stress that the three types of activism are not mutually exclusive and that some youth may perform more than one type of activism or all types at a time (O’Brian et al., 2018). In this regard, all interviewees’ statements were closely read and transcribed, and all of the arguments were coded in light of the predefined typology of activism. 

Types of Youth Environmental Activism within the Egyptians against Coal Movement

The three distinguished types of youth activism within the anti-coal movement in Egypt are as follows: 

Dutiful activism works through existing political and economic institutions in ways that sustain their legitimacy, but they can also draw on existing social norms and rules to challenge unfair or unjust institutionalized practices (O’Brien et al., 2018). In this regard, the detrimental environmental impacts and health risks of coal are dominant concerns of the dutiful activists in the anti-coal movement. Under this premise, requests to regulate and monitor Environmental Impacts Assessments (EIAs) of heavy industries such as the cement industry were stressed. Also, legislation and policy reforms were highlighted as a way to obligate cement companies to respect the environmental guidelines and to be accountable in case of any environmental violation. In this regard, one of the respondents said: 

The Egyptian Environmental Law 4/1994 obligates any investment project to conduct EIA as a perquisite to get a license for its activity. Although the EIA must be shared with the public and be approved by the civic society, the cement companies (Lafarge and Suez company in particular) do not share their EIAs with the public and they do not give any explanation for potential environmental harms of using coal and possible ways to mitigate these impacts. 

Another participant explained: 

The Environmental Law was amended by a presidential decree that was issued on 19/05/2015. The presidential decree added article 40 which implicates that it is forbidden to import and use coal without the approval of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA). However, cement companies are not committed to this mandate and continue using coal without sharing their EIAs with the public. This is not a mere environmental violation, rather it is a violation of Egyptians’ rights in public participation and getting information about public matters.

Through dutiful activism, youth activists in the anti-coal movement expressed their discontent with business as usual and consider efficient law enforcement and transparent decision making as possible solutions for the coal crisis. For example, one of the participants said that: 

The Law of Environment 4/1994 should be enforced on the ground and this means that EIAs of cement companies must be announced to the public. This can be done through numerous channels, for example, through the Website of the EEAA. Also, the public should be an active partner in the decision-making process and not mere consultees.

So, it could be said that although this type of activism represents resistance to the status quo, it still sustains the prevailing hegemonic powers and economic system.

Disruptive activism usually takes place when people defy the rules and institutional routines that organize their life (O’Brien et al., 2018). In this sense, disruptive activists vigorously critique the institutional order rather than working dutifully within it (Piven & Cloward, 1976). One of the main critiques within the anti-coal movement is the inability of the market-based economy dominated by large corporations (i.e cement companies) to address deep wealth and income inequalities. In this context, one of the respondents said, “The cement industry achieves tremendous profits as it makes use of the cheap labor in Egypt. A closer look at the international rates of wages of labor at cement factories, can give us a strong indication of the economic injustice inherent in capitalism.” She added, “While the wage for a factory worker in South Korea is $25 per hour and in Turkey is $13 per hour, it is estimated to be only $3 per hour for the Egyptian worker.”

In the same context, another participant said, “While the electricity prices are highly subsidized for industrial purposes; the electricity prices are more costly for residential purposes. While the residential tariff is 67 piasters for 1KW/h, the government charges only 33 piasters for 1KW/h for the factories.” He added, “It is very disappointing that the negative impacts of coal cannot be reversed. Meanwhile, fueling the cement industry with coal will increase its consumption of subsidized electricity.”

Another critique that predominately featured in the interviewees’ responses is the failure of large industries to show concern for climate change. By pointing the finger publicly at cement factories and other heavy industries as the main culprits of climate change and describing them as ‘greedy’, ‘irresponsible’, and ‘profit-seekers’, the anti-coal managed to stigmatize the heavy industries and to strip them of their social license (Conner and Rosen, 2016). These youth activists engaged with disruptive activism are thus mobilizing against the systems and institutions they perceive as sustaining unsustainable and unjust policies and practices. Through critique and action, disruptive activism can help the emergence of alternative visions and interest groups and unravel the underlying power dynamics behind what might seem as unquestionable or common-sense arrangements and policies (O’Brien & Selboe 2015).

Dangerous activism is quite similar to disruptive activism in the sense that it does not recognize existing institutions and power relationships as fixed or given. What makes this type of activism dangerous is that it does not only redefine environmental problems, but it offers solutions that are disruptive of established power relations and existing economic and social institutional arrangements (Torgerson, 1999). The “danger” also lies in the way that youth are sending a moral message about their personal assertiveness and political agency, or simply by questioning the status quo and provoking concerns about the root cause of environmental degradation, such as fossil- fuel (Cheon & Urpelainen, 2018).

In this regard, within the anti-coal movement, coal controversy is not only connected with adverse environmental and health impacts or entrenched socioeconomic injustices, but is viewed as a battle to be waged against unsustainable energy sources. In this regard, arguments to diversify the energy mix in Egypt accentuated that meeting the energy demands from local resources would serve as a market corrective, reducing the economic burden of importing coal and also results in avoiding the harmful environmental impact of coal. Efforts to present alternative energy as a way for achieving self-sufficiency in energy sources and political autonomy by reducing the reliance on fossil fuel imports triggers the notion of localism that is characteristic in economic discourse, “eat local food” (Wright & Reid, 2011). This desire to increase renewable energy production resonates precisely because of the increasing global trend of greening energy as a way toward the revival of human scale development, local self-determination, and a commitment to ecological balance (Byrne& Glover, 2006).  Among supporters are also those who believe that greening the energy system embodies universal social ideals or aspirations that go beyond the mere generation of electricity or heat from renewable sources. These aspirations are embedded in an organizational structure that emphasize a genuine form of community empowerment and equitable distribution of benefits and, as a result, can overcome current conflicts between energy “haves” and “havenots” (Byrne & Glover, 2006).  Therefore, this kind of activism can be described as dangerous because it seeks to undermine the established economic system and transforms social norms that are complicit in maintaining current systems of production reliant on accelerating  the extraction of natural resources, increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and deep social injustice. 


Although the study revealed that there are different types of youth activism within the anti-coal movement, all of them implied a combined effort to interlink coal – by varying degrees – to a broader social, economic, and political context.  In this context, the different types of youth activism highlight different definitions of the coal dilemma and different approaches to established power relations that are sustaining the fuel-based economic system in Egypt. It can be concluded that the definition of the coal controversy and possible solutions from the perspective of dutiful activists involves ‘softness’ in a particular sense of flexibility and willingness to collaborate with established policy and legal frameworks. This contrasts with the ‘hardness’ of the disruptive activists that expand the definition of the coal problem to the wider ecosystem and socioeconomic interlinks. The dangerous activism underpins broader thinking about the relationship between the state and national and transnational corporations within a market-based economy. The danger lies in reinforcing radical transformative relations between the state and the market and pressing for a low carbon economy. The above-mentioned types of activism are not either exclusive, nor static categories. Rather, they are fluid, dynamic, and could be intertwined at certain point (O’Brian et al., 2018). These categories rather reflect two main characteristics: First, the youth’s increasing awareness of environmental problems in Egypt. Second, the youth’s agency and willing to enforce urgent and ambitious action as a way to address not only the localized coal problem, but to contribute to a global dynamic movement against the fossil fuel industry and unsustainable capitalist system. This conclusion contrasts the stereotypical image of youth activists in Egypt as being apathetic to environmental concerns, and adopting reasonable positions and predictable behaviors in relation to activism’s expected outcomes (Rice, 2006). However, more empirical research is needed in order to explore the different types of youth environmental activism and how they unfold and evolve over time, particularly in less democratic regimes where environmental causes are usually lagging behind economic concerns. Key to understanding youth advocacy for environmental issues is to examine different identities, actions, organization, and discursive frames over time. 


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[i] Interview with an environmental activist from the anti-coal movement, July 2015.  Sources

required anonymity.