A girl with a slogan written on her hands is seen during a march of students against climate change, Warsaw, on September 23, 2022. (Photo by Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Analysis

A Silenced MENA Youth Climate Activism Under COP 27

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been facing a set of economic, social, political, and climate crises, impacting all aspects of life. The region’s youth have been affected the most by the magnitude of these crises, as those between 15 and 29 represent over 28 percent of the overall population. As a result, many are left struggling for basic rights to have the future they dream of having one day.

Most of the MENA region lies within the arid and semi-arid desert region and suffers from severe climate extremes. The area has seen a noticeable and increasing recurrence of high temperatures in addition to a change in the amount and distribution of rain: the frequency of rainfall has decreased, while its intensity has increased, impacting and pressuring the already existing fragile systems. 

Climate change concerns have been felt tremendously in 2022. In Iraq, for instance, frequent sandstorms have choked cities, shut down trade, and put thousands of people in hospitals. In Egypt, agriculture and farming are heavily affected by the worsening soil salinity in the Nile delta, affecting lands, reducing produce, and limiting the variety of products. Moreover, Tunisia’s scarce water and overuse of its groundwater aquifers negatively impact its agriculture sector and, as a result, the country’s economy. Lebanon is in the midst of an economic and political crisis, as an environmental disaster has been impacting the country, caused by the worsening pollution and the neglect of its waste treatment, among many other things.

The region’s youth, on the other hand, faces various challenges. One of the main challenges it faces is high unemployment rates, which was standing at 27 percent in 2021 for those between the ages of 15 and 24—the highest rates were registered in Libya, Jordan, and Tunisia. The lack of employment has pushed many to leave in pursuit of a better future; statistics show that 50 percent of those under the age of 25 have chosen to migrate. In addition to this, the changing political landscape has left some countries politically unstable, making security a priority for many of the youth, rather than other concerns that are perceived as less urgent. 

Climate change has been more felt in the MENA in the last few years, but the youth’s perception on its impact varies, depending on the countries. According to Arab Barometer’s 2018-2019 survey of 12 MENA countries, Lebanese youth are the most worried about climate change, as 49 percent of surveyed youth consider it a serious issue. Iraq and Egypt come next, with a majority concerned about water pollution and solid waste. Youth surveyed in Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan were found to be more worried than their older counterparts on issues pertaining to climate change. Their level of concern is mostly directed toward water scarcity, waste management, and air pollution, all environmental issues amplified by poor governance. 

Both poor governance and insufficient management, in addition to the numerous environmental issues, have amplified the worsening of the impact of climate change in the region. Youth have been mobilizing to tackle climate change with limited resources in spite of governments’ reluctance to seriously implement sound policies and advance their technical solutions to better adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

Before addressing youth activism on climate, one must look at the general overview of youth activism in the MENA region. The Arab Spring, and the many protest movements and uprisings that took place this past decade, have reshaped, contributed, and provided an opportunity for youth to tackle different issues and challenges, and to properly mobilize. However, youth activism on climate remains scattered and sometimes rarely visible in some parts of the region. 

Climate youth activism across the region highly focuses on awareness campaigns and activities that sometimes lack even a medium-term impact. This is mostly due to a lack of government support for youth initiatives that focus on climate change and environmental issues. In Libya, for instance, youth climate activists address desertification through planting initiatives to increase green areas around the country. However, the country’s successive governments have not focused their efforts on supporting youth-led initiatives that could be developed locally, and instead have provided short-term solutions that do not necessarily prioritize environmental solutions. 

Youth climate activism on the ground differs from youth activism on social media. Some youth-led organizations have a higher online activity but struggle to have consistent activities on the ground and vice versa. There are some well-established environmental awareness campaigns, initiatives, and local organizations, such as the Arab Youth Sustainable Development Network that has supported and amplified the voices and contributions of youth across the region. Yet, local organizations still lack consistent funding to support the implementation of many activities and solutions, which has led initiatives to work on a smaller scale. 

One of the key examples of youth climate activism organizations is the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM), founded in Egypt in 2012 in the lead-up to COP18 that was held in Doha, Qatar. The movement has multiple registered country branches that are not that active and their impact on the ground is limited, regardless of how large the organization is. 

In order to further understand climate youth activism in the region in detail, we can highlight a case in Tunisia. Rawe Kefi, a climate activist from Nabeul in Tunisia’s north eastern region, is the project coordinator of Réseau Enfants de la Terre (RET), an organization that focuses on education for sustainable development and youth capacity building. She has worked with initiatives to raise awareness of sustainable development and water security for students adopting sustainable water use practices. “I am the daughter of a farmer and my name is derived from water, which is why I believe I have a special commitment to work on raising awareness on water issues,” Kefi explained to TIMEP. 

She insisted that COP27 could eventually be a great opportunity for Tunisia but also the African continent as a whole. It could help voice the concerns of the region with a focus on adaptation, and on how the region can change its practices, policies, and methods of governance to support citizens adapt with climate change impact on energy, water, and food. 

Although there is a considerable level of climate activism and initiatives in Tunisia, Kefi explained that the main issue is the gap between the aspirations and visions on climate policies, and how the government perceives climate issues and its low implementation efforts. These concerns could be applied for the entire region, as the youth’s efforts continue but are never enough.

Neeshad Shafi, co-founder of the AYCM Qatar branch and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, works on youth activism in the Middle East. Given his experience with youth work and attending previous COPs, he explained that COPs are considered the driving force for climate change action. People look forward to those conferences because of what they could achieve or provide for the MENA region, but they are not driven by the youth’s clear messages and demands. Shafi highlighted that the level of climate activism is considered low in the region and is perceived from a social media lens rather than from an organizational perspective. 

“COP will come and go to the region but the problem is with the grassroot work that must be conducted and sustained to keep up the advocacy and hold governments accountable,” he explained. COP could act as a medium to amplify those organizations’ work and demands, but these have to be consistent with their work, in order to gain national and regional recognition. 

Although, Egypt is expressing an insistence on youth activists participating in COP27, in reality, it is using it as advertisement to keep the momentum during the conference and this will most likely fade right after the end of the conference. Adding to this, the Egyptian government has a long track record of human rights violations of activists—political and environmental—who have been imprisoned, detained, tortured, and silenced. Concerns around freedom of expression and protesting have been very high as COP27 started. In addition, human rights activists and experts have called the Egyptian government to safely let civil society and youth activists fully participate during the climate change conference. However, media outlets have reported that youth-led organizations and activists were either denied access or have decided to not attend, including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, given the high intensity around greenwashing and security concerns as the Egyptian government is tightening its grip and amplifying its surveillance measures.

In these crucial and difficult times for the MENA region, it is high time for authorities and governing institutions to properly address climate change and to fully include the youth in all strategies to combat it. One way of doing so is through supporting skills development and empowerment through knowledge and active-learning. These will help elevate potentials to ensure comprehensive mitigation and adaptation to climate change. 

Correction: Amendments were made to reflect that the data from the Arab Barometer survey were from the 2018-2019 survey and not their latest 2022 survey.

Malak Altaeb is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on food security in North Africa.