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Environmental Activism in Aswan

In this context, another of the most important and successful social movements unfolded in the southern city of Aswan. In contrast to North Sinai’s focus on torture and armed struggle, Aswan’s activists engaged issues of health and the environment. There, accompanying the construction of the Nile valley estuary was the outright criminal spread of industrial pollution by way of a bank held primarily to protect the city from risk of flooding and to direct excess water to the Nile River. It conducted hundreds of tons of industrial toxins to the Nile each day. Legal and human rights movements emerged from one of the most famous and oldest human rights centers in Egypt, the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, which had achieved several victories in Egyptian courts since the end of the 1990s. However, none of the court rulings were implemented. With the 2011 revolution, hopes were aroused that public pressure might be able to extract these long- sought-after rights.

Aswan played a small role in the 2011 uprising, similar to the participation witnessed by other cities of similar size such as Luxor, Nag Hammadi, and other towns in Upper Egypt. The people in these Upper Egyptian provinces had a keen sense of marginalization and a resulting belief in the centrality of Cairo. This peripheral outlook led many to travel to the Egyptian capital to participate in the Tahrir Square protests. Data from interviews with activists reveals an initial op?timism and sense of urgency to network across the country in order to expand their revolutionary base; however, this nascent cross-country mobilization disappeared gradually in conjunction with the rise of the counterrevolution. In the first two years after the revolution, the people of the Aswan village of Abu el-Riesh witnessed the unprecedented activism occurring around the country. This manifested in new revolutionary demands by them for environmental reform for the Nile water, which supplies the faucets and fields of Egypt’s eighty-six million people.

Abu el-Riesh is located north of Aswan on the east bank of the Nile, less than five kilometers from the stream famously known as Kima Canal—named for the chemical plant that unofficially belongs to the Egyptian army. This village is most affected by poisoning by industrial and agricultural waste, as well as by waste disposal from a number of hospitals and security bases. The high rate of kidney failure, hepatitis, and cancer led to a popular reaction among the families of those infected. These ordinary citizens organized protests against the government’s refusal to implement court rulings that would stop the poisoning of the Nile. Working as an investigative journalist, one of the authors of this chapter succeeded in bringing this account to light in December 2014 in a two-part story of subaltern activism, which he came across only by chance while investigating the poisoning of the Nile. The case of Abu el-Riesh reveals a great amount of self- and collective awareness on the part of activists in Aswan who organized peaceful mobilizations of opposition to the government without much contention among the leadership of the movement. This led to formal negotiations and the government’s acceptance, in principle, of a fair resolution. The movement’s leadership subsequently formed committees for this task, and registered their concerns in the official records of government meetings. In spite of these tentative gains and the massive social implications regarding the health of tens of millions of Egyptians, Aswan’s environmental rights social movement now faces substantial adversity accompanying the rise of the military-led counterrevolution. As will be discussed later, President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi’s government has closed the public domain almost completely. Yet, despite the best efforts of the state, public pressure in the Egyptian periphery has not disappeared since the summer of 2013.

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