Smarter Cities

Egypt’s Fledgling Urban Gardeners Hope State Stays Hands Off

From Alexandria to Aswan, urban gardening in Egypt is growing, especially on rooftops. The movement wants to be allowed to develop without the prying policies of a government that has other priorities.

Rooftop gardening in Egypt
Rooftop gardening in Egypt
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO â€" In addition to supplying fresh food, urban gardens add green space to cities, also providing critical cooling and air filtration that plant life provides.

At the recent Cairo Climate Talks, international experts said the trend is taking off in Egypt. From Alexandria to Aswan, interest in it is high, and the best hope for its future is for government officials to simply step out of the way.

So far, attention has focused mainly on rooftop gardens. Between the arid climate and the high density of Egyptian cities, there are few ground-level plots suitable for planting. On top of that, most of the soil in Egypt's urban green spaces is too toxic to grow food safely, explained Usama El-Behairy, a professor of agriculture at Ain Shams University who has run training courses on rooftop gardening across Egypt.

What Egypt does have in abundance are flat rooftops, where simple gardening set-ups can produce healthy food.

"When we started in 2000, we thought that people would refuse it," Behairy said. But suddenly we found that people were attracted. At the beginning, we were working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. We were supposed to do 10 training courses, and each course would have about 40 people. And when we ended, we had 15 courses, and each course had about 50 people and a waiting list of about 100."

To his surprise, Behairy said, even people in cities like Qena, where agricultural land is available, were excited by the prospect of rooftop gardening â€" especially women.

Women are also the most dedicated and motivated participants in a pilot project in the informal Cairo district Ezbat al-Nasr, said Sherif Hosny, CEO of local micro-farm company Schaduf. His company is working there with support from German development agency GIZ.

Although such efforts remain small, proponents believe the idea is bound to spread. "We can't talk about urban agriculture as a movement, but it's at the seed level. We are just starting to do something, but the potential is really impressive," said Martin Buchholz, a German expert in design and technology for small-scale agriculture who has also studied projects in Egypt.

For now, projects like the one run by GIZ and Schaduf rely on funding from international donors, even though they emphasize income-generating schemes and help participants market their crops. The project in Ezbat al-Nasr, for example, only expects gardeners to meet about 10% of the start-up costs.

"In order to kick off, we subsidized the equipment heavily," said Carl Philip Shuck, head of GIZ’s Climate Change Adaptation in informal Urban Areas project. "This is necessary in the beginning, and it's why international cooperation is here, but we also want to create a social movement behind rooftop gardening."

Garden gloves off, please

The Egyptian government has periodically announced initiatives to support urban gardening. The Green Rooftop project announced this summer promised to serve as a training project for youth, expanding from the roof of the Ministry of Education and Scientific Research to buildings nationwide.

But Behairy dismisses such projects as little more than media sound bites. "I heard about it, but I didn't find any details," he said. "Actually, we depend on ourselves for our work. I read a lot of things in the newspaper, but there is nothing actually happening."

Panelists said that the state's hands-off approach might be the best option for Egypt's urban farmers.

"When I think about what could stop the process of urban agriculture, I don't see anything that would hinder growth, other than maybe some kind of policies where it would all of a sudden become illegal to have your own garden," said Hosny.

Emily Mattheisen, who works on food systems as the Cairo-based global program officer for Habitat International Coalition, agreed. "In many cities in the global south, urban agriculture is already existing in the context of these very interesting networks of the informal economy. So it's how you can, maybe, just not intervene so that things continue to thrive," she said.

"In Cairo, we can't really discuss any policy for urban agriculture," Mattheisen added. "I don't think that's even a useful discussion right now, because agriculture policy is kind of a disaster. Nobody will argue that, whether you're working in government or civil society or business."

Egypt simply has too many problems with how it manages issues such as urban planning, land and building ownership, she explained. "To create an urban agriculture policy in Cairo would be like building a house with no foundation. It doesn't make any sense. It would crumble quickly."

Bureaucratic centralization is also a major problem, as is the fact that officials at the local level are appointed rather than elected.

"It would be ideal for local authorities to address this by issuing policies or creating enabling frameworks. But this is, of course, not possible at the moment," said Schuck. "Let's face it. If I talk to the local district or the governorate, yes, maybe they like the urban agriculture project. But can they issue a policy? Of course they can't. I don't expect from the national level that they bother themselves with an urban agriculture policy. There are other priorities in this country."

For any policies to be truly helpful, Mattheisen said, they would have to be rooted in a participatory political system where communities have a genuine voice in policy making. "I think communities really do know what's best for themselves."

Until communities are given that power, urban cultivators hope their gardens will be able to thrive in an environment of benign neglect.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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