Authoritarians across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) have, in the past decade, curtailed civil and political rights organizations, human rights organizations, charitable networks, and media outlets. In short, civil society is under attack—including the small but emerging clusters of environmental activists who have attempted to advocate for climate change action and nature conservation.1 Though less visible and generally less worrisome to authoritarian leadership across the region than many of their peers, these men and women have been squeezed by new, extreme forms of autocracy since the uprisings of 2011.
Beyond traditional human rights actors, governments have jailed journalists, scientists, climate activists, and experts on the environment and water. Most notably, the authorities have cracked down on such civil society actors in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. In other countries—such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan—there is a relative absence of activism on climate change, despite the need for urgent action.2 In these places, action on climate change is subsidiary to broader rights agendas, either in the fight against corruption or against ethno-sectarian politics. Meanwhile, in countries where civil society is encouraged by relatively more space to organize—such as Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco—climate activists have been relatively unfocused about their hoped-for outcomes. Countries that remain in conflict—especially Libya, Syria, and Yemen—have seen civil society activity destroyed and forcibly displaced. In these countries, there is less bandwidth to focus on a climate or environmental agenda, since urgent humanitarian and social justice demands supersede such topics.
In general, climate activism and environmental civil society remain in their infancy across the region. For the most part, where such activity is not simply suffocated by the state (as it is in the Gulf), it suffers from a lack of a definitive course of action; these deficits are often actually a bigger hindrance than state repression. Language and literature have not yet afforded intellectual thought on this issue across the MENA region. Analysts and activists alike are often hurt by a basic misunderstanding that conflates environmental civil society (such as that related to water security and air quality) with climate activism (direct targeting of emissions, and action to address and reduce climate change). This inability or unwillingness to differentiate between the two is often counterproductive, because it risks confusing the long-term changes in resource use that climate action will necessitate with the immediate symptoms of environmental breakdown, such as water pollution. Almost nowhere is there a deep appreciation of these topics as they relate to broader civil society activism, rights, and economic and political security and engagement.
Tension between civil society and government is likely to increase, especially as government responses to a growing climate emergency across the region remain inconsequential at best, or counterproductive at worst.
Rights-based activism remains a decades-long endeavor that has molded itself into the body politic of the MENA region. As a result, activism on civil, human, and political rights is more visible and susceptible to direct attacks from the state, as compared to environmental activism. Action on climate change in civil society is, in comparison, a new field. Its direction is still unclear, and its targets undefined. As climate issues rise in priority on national and state agendas, it remains uncertain how states will respond to growing climate activism. What is clear is that it is unlikely that national agendas will provide the space for more organizing or collaborative efforts with civil society—at least without an evolved approach to policy from the rest of the world. Tension between civil society and government is likely to increase, especially as government responses to a growing climate emergency across the region remain inconsequential at best, or counterproductive at worst.
A Shrinking Civil Society Space for the Environment
Across the MENA region, environmentalists, including environmental journalists, are suffering from crackdowns on rights and freedoms. 3 After a brief heyday in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2011, in which all forms of civil society enjoyed unprecedented liberties, environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been stifled by the reaffirmation of authoritarian governance.
In Egypt, for example, many organizations are more cash-strapped than ever because of new restrictions on foreign funding. These restrictions include the country’s “NGO law,” which imposes significant fines and jail sentences on management of organizations deemed to be acting against “national security interests”—a concept that is loosely defined and aggressively applied. Two major legal cases have been conducted against hundreds of human rights advocates, including forty-three local and international employees of international organizations.4
In Egypt and elsewhere, activists have been stymied by intensified constraints on protests, data collection, and data sharing. As public concern over environmental degradation mounts, some environmentalists are getting jailed or driven into exile. In Iran, since water shortages contributed to massive street protests in 2018, many security officials have come to see the environmental scene as a dangerous source of cross-ideological mass mobilization.
In this shrinking space for civil society, environmental activists have adapted and enjoyed some success at a local level. Operating within individual neighborhoods or communities, campaigners have focused on the most conspicuous of public grievances, such as poor waste management and leaky water infrastructure. While still relatively small in activity, such actors have subsequently been able to boost environmental awareness among many civil society groups who had seldom had much to do with the movement in the past, while also pushing for action in ways that authorities would generally find less threatening—and harder to stifle. Egypt’s Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), an NGO that focuses on conservation in the Red Sea, shows how these kinds of efforts can yield results.5 The NGO has carved out an invaluable role for itself in improving waste management policies and preserving reefs in the tourism-dependent Red Sea governorate. It has built formal relationships with the local authorities and government representatives in the area, and has benefited from embedding itself as a localized effort supporting an economic lynchpin in the area. This has allowed the organization to work with a low profile, and contribute to local leadership efforts.
But throughout the region, when it comes to “big,” countrywide issues, environmental groups have increasingly little room to maneuver. In strong, centralized authoritarian states, many of which worry about resource scarcity—and the popular fury that can accompany shortages—water sectors have been securitized, and in some instances closed off to civilians altogether. In the case of Turkey’s Ilisu Dam or the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, for example, authorities have come to see water activism as akin to political activism and water research as tantamount to espionage.6 With worsening climate stresses and pollution, the definition of what qualifies as a “security” concern is only likely to expand to include previously safer activist beats across the region. States such as Egypt and Iraq have begun attempting to curb voices promoting awareness or conducting research on environmental issues.7
In conflict-ridden and collapsing states, violence or severe economic crises have crushed the environmental scene in ways that not even repressive policies could. The Arab uprisings brought with them a decade of economic insecurity that has curtailed climate action and stymied urgent environmental policies. Iraq has slowed efforts to diversify its economy away from a dependence on oil revenues amid a wave of anti-government protests.8 Egypt’s energy crisis of 2013–14 brought with it a reestablishment of coal-powered energy production to boost the industrial sector.9 Then there are Yemen, Syria, and Libya, all of which have been far too paralyzed by conflict to make any headway at all on environmental issues, despite the clear urgency of their respective climate crises.10
As a whole, the MENA region is falling behind with respect to cleaner energy production, more efficient domestic consumption, and decreasing carbon-emitting electricity generation. The biggest causes of these shortcomings are increasing population growth in recent decades and urban planning policies that add to environmental stressors, as well as a broader lack of focus amid myriad higher priorities.11
Throughout the region, climate activism and action have suffered from a potent mixture of indifference and repression. Middle-income and poorer MENA states contribute relatively little to climate change, and thus don’t necessarily object to this kind of activism in itself. But the outsized economic role of the Gulf Arab oil producers across the region has had implications far and wide. Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are among the world’s top ten per capita carbon emitters.12 They are also some of the largest state donors and foreign direct investors in the likes of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon over the past decade, and they’ve made their influence felt in those countries.13 The capitals of those countries either view lobbying against fossil fuels as unacceptable, or simply ignore it.
At the same time, the presence of major extractive or polluting industries across the region, such as mining and cement production, means that even countries that don’t produce energy have their reasons for clamping down on climate action.14 Environmental activism has thus become a politicized matter that extends across borders, as neighboring and regional actors create fortified bilateral and multilateral alliances that have further exacerbated environmental issues and influenced climate-change policies, arguably to their detriment.
Like many of their civil society counterparts, environmentalists are on the back foot across much of the MENA region. However, the coming years offer both promise and additional cause for concern.
One source of hope is the region’s demographics. Globally, climate change awareness is particularly prominent among the young, and with one of the youngest populations in the world, Middle Eastern environmental groups are well placed to take advantage of that knowledge and enthusiasm. On average, 60 percent of regional countries’ populations are under thirty.15 It is these people, in tandem with a fledgling group of regional bodies and local community groups, on whom most of the region’s environmentalists pin their hopes.16
Another possible positive is increasing involvement of the private sector. Through the use of social media and a growing ecosystem for entrepreneurs and businesses, actors across the MENA region are engaging in climate-conscious investment and production.17 Start-up tech hubs in the Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain have become central to the broader climate agenda.18 Younger, liberal, and more socially conscious entrepreneurs engage within the environmental landscape to promote awareness of climate change, and sell environmentally friendly services or products. Examples include Dubai Startup Hub, the RiseUp Summit in Egypt, StartUp Bahrain, and iPARK in Jordan. These initiatives have the potential to plug at least part of the gap left by state repression of and underinvestment in environmental civil society.
Start-up tech hubs in the Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain have become central to the broader climate agenda. Younger, liberal, and more socially conscious entrepreneurs engage within the environmental landscape to promote awareness of climate change, and sell environmentally friendly services or products.
So too, women’s economic empowerment and broader microfinancing schemes show promise. Such programs have benefitted from decades of investment from the international community—and have created a groundswell of support for local businesses that promote local products with a sustainability lens.19 New “unique selling points” for local businesses across the region promote awareness through labelling of environmentally friendly policies or products, while service-based businesses (such as gyms, cafés, local grocers, and other hospitality enterprises) promote healthier lifestyles, along with organic produce and climate-aware literature and best practices.20
But despite the uptick in popular interest—and corporate and wider NGO spending—the coming period also has the potential to further shrink the space for environmental action. With record-breaking summer heatwaves, significant periods of drought, and rising sea levels, among other climate stresses, the impact of environmental issues is likely to become even more pronounced.21 And if current and historic experience is any guide, authoritarian leaders are unlikely to respond well to environmentalism’s increasing relevance and attendant clout. Already, organizations big and small are feeling the pressure. Groups like Greenpeace have struggled to gain a regional foothold beyond Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco, where they’ve supported air quality and waste management programs. Other organizations have had to rein in their work.22 EcoPeace Middle East, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental peace-building group, is a rare example of cross-border cooperation in the region. The organization has spent years alleviating water insecurity across the three states. Elsewhere, governments have attempted piecemeal quasi-state efforts.23 Still, for all the difficulties environmentalists have experienced so far at the hands of authoritarians, there might be much worse to come.
In order to support the MENA region’s growing civil society on climate change and environmental issues, the international community as a whole must support civic engagement more broadly and empower civil society actors, including in repressive environments. Advocacy and efforts to challenge bilateral relationships (U.S.–Egypt, U.S.–Jordan, EU–Iran, U.S.– and EU–Iraq) to provide better accountability of states and protect civil society must remain part of any possible solution. Enabling a thriving environment in which civil society can become more active on issues related to climate change requires a halt to the continued assault on rights and freedoms across the region, as well as a curbing of repressive tactics by states—including the arrest and detention of activists, regardless of what their focus might be.
Nevertheless, there are certain immediate recommendations that can support the growth of civic engagement on issues related to the environment, alongside continued promotion of the protection of rights and freedoms, and demands for the release of activists jailed across the region.
- Support must both assess and aim to mitigate the threat perceptions of states toward environmental activists and media. As we have seen over the last decade, civil society actors have been targeted both for their advocacy and for their ties to the international community. Autocratic state leaders have been successful, in a decade of uncertainty and political polarization, in promoting conspiracy theories related to a “fifth column” and politically motivated “foreign funding.” States from outside the region that want to support MENA climate activists are responsible for conducting adequate assessments of the role of the state, and ensuring measures are in place to mitigate the threat perceptions of regional states (such as Egypt, Iraq, and Iran).
- Government and foundation donors should adjust MENA civil society funding strategies to include specific climate activism support. Currently, most donor strategies are focused on broad support to civil society, although they typically target the civil and political rights activism and protection of human rights. While there is debate over the continued success of a human-rights-based support agenda in the MENA region, different approaches can be taken to better support environmental civil society. Approaches can include specific strategies to fund active environmental organizations and movements, or support their creation. Alternatively, donors could undergo a strategy evaluation over the possible benefits of shifting either regional funding or country-specific funding from a human-rights-based approach to a climate-rights-based approach.24
- Donors should increase their support to independent and impartial media to create an active and aware citizenry. This intervention would mainly occur through targeted training interventions to support better understanding and awareness of climate change issues broadly, as well as specific support to help grow the body of environmental journalism in the region. Support can include exchange programs, support for internships or short-term experience at international outlets, training schemes for journalists working on environmental issues and climate change, and peer-to-peer training through NGOs.
- Donors should increase funding on environmental and climate change issues in research and academia. This type of funding modality can be directed to both independent national programs developing MENA-based climate research, as well as for specialists and academics to study abroad or engage in exchange programs with academic institutions. Study options could include undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as research-based projects within civil society.
- Consider new forms of funding modalities to support private-sector entrepreneurship targeting climate change and environmental issues. Where possible, new forms of funding modalities or donor programming—such as loans and guarantees, or the creation of investor portfolios—can be created to support environmentally aware start-ups and entrepreneurship. Such interventions can be particularly successful in supporting environmentally friendly, locally sourced goods; public health initiatives as part of microfinancing tools or economic empowerment programs; and broader opportunities to promote private-sector investment in hydroponic agriculture and sustainable development in waste management.
- Government donors should include climate rights and environmental issues as part of their diplomacy and promotion of protection of freedoms and human rights. Modalities for this action will differ from government to government within the international community. Government donors with bilateral or multilateral engagement with countries in the MENA region should more forcefully promote climate change activism through the inclusion of environmental issues within regular human rights reporting. Examples include the incorporation of such issues in the U.S. State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”; the EU “Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy”; the UK “Human Rights and Democracy Report”; EU member states’ individual human rights reporting; and donor strategies and bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagement.25
Civil Society Is a Lynchpin
The MENA region’s civil society environment remains precarious and difficult to navigate. Engaging with civil society actors has become increasingly difficult over the last decade. Regional states have become increasingly suppressive of broader activism and organizing. Emerging trends indicate that climate change and the environment demand more research and active organizing by civil society. In addition, civil society actors, journalists, scientists, and academics working on these issues require increased protection as the space for their areas of focus continues to shrink, along with space for civil society generally.
With the broader politicization of civil society actors and the issues of environment and climate change, the international community should work harder and more coherently on a climate change agenda with relation to the Middle East. As one of the most water-insecure regions in the world, and a region expected to suffer disproportionately from the climate emergency, a strategic reset on interventions is required.
A developed climate-rights-based agenda can successfully target broader issues related to economic rights, water security, freedom of speech, and access to information (among other fundamental freedoms). Developing civil society support to better respond to emerging threats ensures that focus does not turn its back on the traditional and imperative agenda of democracy and the promotion of human rights.
This report was written with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as part of the TCF initiative “Nature and National Security in the Middle East.”
header photo: Cairo buildings are silhouetted in front of the famous Giza Pyramids in 2016. Despite the urgency of environmental problems ranging from air pollution to drought, environmental and climate-change civil society remains in its infancy throughout the region. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
- See Jeannie L. Sowers, “Environmental Activism in the Middle East: Prospects and Challenges,” Humanities Futures, Franklin Humanities Institute of Duke University, November 2018, https://humanitiesfutures.org/papers/environmental-activism-in-the-middle-east-prospects-and-challenges/.
- Of course, even in these countries there are small numbers of activists at work, sometimes effectively. Azzam Alwash, whose report on Iraq’s water crisis (“Iraq’s Climate Crisis Requires Bold Cooperation” ) appears in this series, runs the nongovernmental organization Nature Iraq.
- See Peter Schwartzstein, “The Authoritarian War on Environmental Journalism,” The Century Foundation, July 7, 2020, https://tcf.org/content/report/authoritarian-war-environmental-journalism/.
- “Egypt: New NGO Law Renews Draconian Restrictions,” Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/24/egypt-new-ngo-law-renews-draconian-restrictions#.
- Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, https://www.hepca.org/.
- Michael Woldermariam, “Nile Be Dammed: Toxic Water Politics Threaten Democracy and Regional Stability,” Foreign Affairs, August 10 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2020-08-10/nile-be-dammed; Julia Harte, “New Dam in Turkey Threatens to Flood Ancient City and Archaeological Sites,” National Geographic, Feb 21, 2014, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/2/140221-tigris-river-dam-hasankeyf-turkey-iraq-water/.
- Peter Schwartzstein, “The Middle East’s Authoritarians Have Come for Conservationists,” The Atlantic, March 30, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/03/middle-east-north-africa-environmentalism-espionage/585973/.
- Jennifer Gnana, “Iraq’s Dependence on Oil to Continue as Reform Pace Slows, Says Moody’s,” The National, October 3, 2019, https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/economy/iraq-s-dependence-on-oil-to-continue-as-reform-pace-slows-says-moody-s-1.918725.
- “The Cement Industry Switches to Coal to Recover Lost Fortunes,” Oxford Business Group, 2014, https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/analysis/cement-industry-switches-coal-recover-lost-fortunes.
- Emily Atkin, “Climate Change Is Aggravating the Suffering in Yemen,” The New Republic, November 5, 2018, https://newrepublic.com/article/152011/climate-change-aggravating-suffering-yemen; Madhuri Karak, “Climate Change and Syria’s Civil War,” JSTOR Daily, September 12, 2019, https://daily.jstor.org/climate-change-and-syrias-civil-war/; “Climate Risk Profile: Libya,” United States Agency for International Development, February 2017, https://www.climatelinks.org/resources/climate-change-risk-profile-libya.
- “Population Growth (Annual %)—Middle East and North Africa,” World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.GROW?locations=ZQ. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “the total population increased from around 100 million in 1950 to around 380 million in 2000—an addition of 280 million people in 50 years.” See “Population Trends and Challenges in the Middle East and North Africa,” PRB, December 2001, https://www.prb.org/populationtrendsandchallengesinthemiddleeastandnorthafrica/; “Planning [in] Justice: Spatial Analysis for Urban Cairo,” TADAMUN: The Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative, 2018, http://www.tadamun.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/PlanninginJustice_Final.pdf.
- Eaman Abdullah Aman, “Energy Efficiency in MENA—a Tool to Reduce GHG Emissions,” EcoMENA, December 17, 2018, https://www.ecomena.org/energy-mena/#:~:text=The%20Middle%20East%20and%20North,sector%20and%20domestic%20energy%20consumption.
- Karen Young, “Gulf Financial Aid and Direct Investment: Tracking the Implications of State Capitalism, Aid, and Investment Flows,” American Enterprise Institute, August 13, 2020, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/gulf-financial-aid-and-direct-investment-tracking-the-implications-of-state-capitalism-aid-and-investment-flows/.
- As a whole, the entire MENA region is falling behind with respect to cleaner energy production, more efficient domestic consumption, and decreasing carbon-emitting electricity generation. This lag is largely a result of increasing population growth in recent decades and continuing urban planning policies that add to environmental stressors.
- Ahmad J. Alkasmi et al., “Entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa: How Investors Can Support and Enable Growth,” McKinsey, April 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/Middle%20East%20and%20Africa/How%20investors%20can%20support%20entrepreneurship%20in%20the%20Middle%20East%20and%20North%20Africa/MENA%20entrepreneurship%20article-final%20version-for%20viewing%20(003).ashx.
- The largest and most prominent among these regional bodies is the Arab Youth Climate Movement, which occasionally partners with international groups such as Extinction Rebellion to promote activism on climate change. The group’s website is http://www.climatenetwork.org/node/6595.
- See “2019 Was a Record-Breaking Year for MENA’s Startup Ecosystem: Exits and Investments at an All-Time High,” Startup MGZN, January 9, 2020, https://www.startupmgzn.com/english/news/2019-was-a-record-breaking-year-for-menas-startup-ecosystem-exits-and-investments-at-an-all-time-high/.
- Triska Hamid, “Game of Hubs: The Battle for the Middle East’s Startup Capital,” Wamda, May 2019, https://www.wamda.com/2019/05/battle-middle-easts-startup-hub.
- A core part of the Millennium Development Goals across the Global South was the economic empowerment of women, which manifested itself primarily through microfinancing and skills labs that were also promoted as a form of social corporate responsibility by large private-sector actors. This has ingrained itself into a significant part of the international development agenda, and has seen the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) achieve their targets on early-years gender parity in education up to secondary school level, and increasing numbers of females employed across the Global South. This empowerment of women has arguably been the backbone of the entrepreneurial surge that has occurred over the last decade in the MENA region, though in some cases it has recreated a class-dependent supply chain. Elite groups of women may co-opt the labor of more rural, less educated women who physically produce local goods. With more money, international visibility, and education and access to promote and build a platform, those more affluent entrepreneurs can risk dominating the sector and stymying its development.
- Dina Zayed, “For Egypt’s Entrepreneurs, Going Green Makes Business Sense,” Reuters, June 15, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-egypt-business-climatechange/for-egypts-entrepreneurs-going-green-makes-business-sense-idUSKCN0Z11T4.
- Johannes Levieveld et al., “Strongly Increasing Heat Extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st Century,” Climatic Change 137 (2016): 245–60, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-016-1665-6.
- Peter Schwartzstein, interview with the author via Skype, July 2020.
- In Egypt, for example, the government has formed a number of quasi-state initiatives to tackle waste or plastics management and recycling. These initiatives include a scheme under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment, which is being rolled out on a trial basis in Cairo, before possible rollouts across the country. Other quasi-state initiatives include the Air Quality Index, operated by the Centre of Environmental Hazard Mitigation (CEHM) at Cairo University and the Institute of Graduate Studies and Research (IGSR) at Alexandria University.
- For example, the Swedish International Development Agency’s “Regional Strategy for Sweden’s Development Cooperation with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 2016–2020” has specific strategy goals related to climate and water rights; https://www.government.se/48fba2/contentassets/f6f483c6ed2d4cb9ac367092233390ed/regional-strategy-for-swedens-development-cooperation-with-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-mena-20162020. George Soros, the chairman of the Open Society Foundation, has launched a $1 billion fund to support global climate activism through the Open Society University Network. See Katherine Burton, “George Soros to Start $1 Billion School to Fight Nationalists, Climate Change,” Bloomberg, January 23, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-23/soros-starts-new-global-university-with-1-billion-commitment?sref=pNuht4rY.
- “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/; “EU Annual Reports on Human Rights and Democracy,” European Union, https://eeas.europa.eu/topics/human-rights-democracy/8437/eu-annual-reports-human-rights-and-democratisation_en; “Human Rights and Democracy Report,” United Kingdom, https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/human-rights-and-democracy-reports.