Mohamed equips citizens with the tools and resources they need to use and strengthen their citizenship rights, guaranteed by law, and to protect themselves and their environment.

Mohamed, who is a lawyer, sees that most of Egypt’s nearly seventy million people have no real understanding of the legal protections that exist for their health and safety and for the protection of the environment and natural resources. Whether it’s in relation to occupational safety or air quality, few (especially the poorest, most vulnerable) know how to access the courts or apply the law and its protections. Mohammed encourages a new, proactive understanding of environmental rights, which to him means the freedom—and the tools, resources, and know-how—to protect against hazards and abuses. His efforts signify an important shift, putting citizens in charge and enabling them to operationalize environmental laws and regulatory mechanisms. Though advocacy and education, Mohamed joins the efforts of everyday citizens with experts and public officials to mobilize broad support and push for important legal wins. The result is first of all a strong, assertive citizenry that will hold governmental institutions, businesses, and industries accountable for mismanagement of natural resources and breaches of safety requirements; the second, a cleaner, safer environment and accessible tools and resources to keep it that way.

During the past twenty years, Egypt has made progress on some economic and social fronts. The country has strengthened its macroeconomic discipline, privatised many public sector investments, made substantial infrastructure investments, and initiated some actions to address environmental concerns. Advances in political development—transparency, accountability, participation, free and fair elections, rule of law, and respect for rights—have lagged behind, resulting in less than optimal distribution of the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. Accordingly, for the human rights situation to be improved in Egypt, the legal, policy and regulatory environment must be improved.

Many Egyptians do not know that they have rights protected by law. Many do not have the skills or tools to speak up. They don’t have access to the courts and the legal mechanisms that exist to insure their protection. But at a more fundamental level, the Egyptian public is passive rather than assertive—it’s a mindset quality made more pronounced by the efforts of development groups that aim to protect people without really involving them. Many development efforts posit citizens, and especially poor citizens, as the beneficiaries of protections, rather than the initiators. While some impact measures would suggest that the result amounts to the same thing (citizens get protected, or not), the outcome in terms of people, their tools, and their understanding of citizenship is entirely different. In the former situation, people are left with, say, a cleaner environment and guarantees against air pollution; in the latter, they are left with a cleaner environment, the same guarantees, plus the attitude and tools they need to push forward with other important protections.

Existing citizen efforts in environmental protection focus on the protection of natural resources, not on the cultivation of an active citizenry. If citizens get informed, it’s a by-product and not really the aim. In Egypt, and especially in Cairo, a city of eighteen million people, and one of the world’s most polluted cities, people must pay ever greater attention to their environment and the factors that are spoiling it such as gasoline emissions and chemical run-off from factories. For people to protect their rights to a clean and safe environment, they need reliable data and mechanisms to hold non-complying institutions accountable for breaches. Many regulations designed to guarantee the rights of people to a safe, healthy environment simply aren’t enforced, in part because no one complains. In the absence of a monitoring and regulating system, and an active, watchful citizenry, severe environmental problems go unaddressed.

Mohamed identifies cases of environmental or safety concern; works with people, and especially with poor people, to learn about the situation and how it affects them; helps them gather information and data to support claims of abuse or mismanagement; draws in experts, journalists, and citizen groups for clout, publicity, and support; and pushes the most visible and important cases to court. Throughout the process, he and his team show people that they must be watchful, proactive citizens, using the law that is designed for their protection to guard against abuses to their environment.

Mohamed says that he is here to help people, and especially poor people, but not to take their role. Reaching into poor communities like the one he grew up in, he mobilizes the public around environmental issues that have a direct negative impact on people’s lives—factories dumping waste in the Nile, fuel emissions causing severe asthma, breaches of occupational safety costing lives or causing deafness or other impairments. When Mohammed and his colleagues learn of a hazard, they respond with a few actions. They alert policy makers to the seriousness of the situation through mobilizing the media and sharing information about the situation. They teach people of their right to know about and protect their environment, involve them in gathering data to support claims, and give average citizens the tools of collective action to register their complaints with the authorities and attend resulting court cases.

Once an issue is identified, Mohamed and his team use legal action to enforce existing regulations and create new ones that can be used as legal and judicial precedent. He pursues those cases that are of critical importance to a large number of people and that are winnable in court. He sees that targeting these cases, especially in these early years of his idea, allows visibility for an emerging understanding of environmental rights through citizen action. So, whether it’s a violation of workplace safety regulations, or an environmental issue of greater scope—for example, the looming black cloud that hung over Cairo for two months in 1999 and for a shorter period the following year—people see that their collective action yields results: they read about it in the newspapers and hear about it on television. Examples of important wins to date include: achieving a legal precedent that establishes occupational health as the responsibility of the Ministry of Labor and holds the Ministry accountable to workers who suffer damage due to a polluted or unsafe work environment; changing the law and practice of testing car exhaust to ensure compliance with reduced lead emissions standards—cars are now inspected upon renewal of car licenses.

In each case Mohamed takes on, he is clear that he and his team act not for people but with their support and active involvement. He connects with citizen groups focusing on a variety of issues—women’s rights, health, environment—to achieve broad impact and draw on a diverse base of support. Owing to his pioneering work, the term “environmental rights” is no longer foreign to the journalists, policy-makers, and citizen groups.

Mohamed’s next steps include strengthening the diverse coalition of citizen-led groups he has begun to gather, helping them to work effectively with communities to mobilize public officials and lobby for protective measures. He will also establish a mechanism that provides periodic environmental information to the public, and a strong environment-friendly lobby within the Egyptian parliament. In the coming years, he hopes to reach the citizens of neighboring countries in the Arab world, opening the discussion of environmental and citizenship rights.

Mohamed comes from a poor family. He grew up in Shoubra, a lower-middle income area of
Cairo; his family later moved to Ismalia, a coastal city to the northeast of the city. As a boy, he was the class leader. He was also an enterprising child and made and sold sandwiches to teachers and classmates to supplement his meager allowance. He pushed through to university and graduated with a degree in social work. His university years coincided with the politically active nineteen-seventies, a time of opening up in Egypt and many parts of the world. As a student, Mohamed designed “wall magazines”—big sheets of paper posted in the hallways, spaces for student-authored editorials and articles—and participated in campaigns to promote freedom of expression. He wrote for the school magazine, participated in organized debates, and student-led seminars about Egypt, its changes, its promise. These early experiences formed the base of his rights-based efforts today.

After completing his degree in social work, Mohamed began to see that his interest in citizenship rights would require him to know the law. Working as a busdriver and salesperson, he put himself through law school, completing a second university degree. As a lawyer, he has never worked for money from clients; instead, he has considered himself a public defender, working to support and enable people like those he grew up with: poor, mostly uneducated, many illiterate.

Mohamed traces his interest in environmental rights, which has evolved into a passion, to a period in the mid-nineties when he used to visit a friend in a low-income area of Cairo. He would find the building doors blocked with huge piles of garbage blown by the wind from a nearby dump. The filth was unsightly and unsafe. He and his friend began to talk to neighbors, to summon support to create a community garden in place of the dump. The success of the garden, and the active community that developed around it, led Mohamed to see that environmental concerns offer a useful rallying point—whether for neighbors, colleagues, or citizens generally. He was drawn to learning about broader environmental issues and became interested in environmental legislation, interests he pursued by working with a national environmental group for three years.

In 2001, he founded the Habi Center for Environmental Rights to move his ideas forward. He directs the center, now with a staff of ten full- and part-time employees.