Environmental Civil Society in the Middle East

In 2015, rotting garbage sparked an unprecedented political movement in Lebanon. When the Naamah landfill closed and refuse piled up on the streets of Beirut, Lebanese citizens took to the streets to demand change. Protestors united across sectarian and political divides, ascribing the government’s mismanagement of waste collection with the endemic corruption of the political class. The “You Stink” movement mobilized tens of thousands of people pushing for greater sustainability and demanding accountability from failing political leaders. Civil society led the charge.  

Many governments in the Middle East strain to respond to environmental issues. As populations grow and economic crises multiply, it is increasingly difficult for governments to provide their citizens with clean water and clean air. Angry citizens from Morocco to Iran have taken to the streets to protest environmental degradation, pushing for policies that will make their states more sustainable. Those who despair about the possibility of constructive change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should take lessons from local environmental movements. These groups have achieved results in even the most challenging circumstances.

Environmental civil society in the MENA region comprises a wide range of actors. Climate activists are some of the most prominent voices. From Beirut’s “You Stink” movement to Iranian social media users who declared “I am Lake Urmia” in an effort to revive a salt lake in northwest Iran, activists have highlighted the effects of environmental mismanagement. But across the region, many others are also pushing for change. Academics are building the body of knowledge about the effects of environmental degradation, artists are working to build awareness about its effects, analysts are working to inform new environmental policies, and entrepreneurs are driving the search for innovative climate solutions.

Local civil society groups understand how to create space for change in the MENA region. They often have a far more nuanced understanding of the political contexts in which they are operating than international development actors, and they know the likely winners and losers of the transition to environmental sustainability. They understand how environmental issues affect societies and states in the region, they have practical experience of building coalitions, and they know where boundaries exist. For example, Jordanian groups understand that well-connected agricultural families who receive preferential access to water in Jordan are a critical pillar of the regime’s patronage network and will resist efforts to manage water in a more sustainable way. Similarly, environmentalists in Tunisia know that a successful energy transition must circumvent the interests of the powerful electricity utility, the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas, which has previously frustrated government efforts to integrate renewables in order to protect its monopoly in the electricity sector. Those understandings are essential to appreciate the urgency of the challenges and the complexity of addressing them.

A growing body of CSIS work has explored the ways in which civil society in Middle Eastern countries has enhanced social accountability, especially with regard to environmental regulations and the provision of more environmentally sustainable basic services. CSIS analysis has highlighted how rural Yemeni communities have installed solar-powered micro-grids to provide cheaper and cleaner electricity for populations on the frontlines of the conflict; how Tunisian environmental groups led an effort to integrate thousands of informal garbage collectors into the formal sector to protect them from health risks and exploitation; and how more than 200 local water committees in Lebanon operate independently of the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources. 

However, promoting change from below can incur serious risks. Some government actors and powerful interest groups see these groups as a threat and seek to curtail their activity and influence. In February 2023, veteran Iraqi environmentalist Jassim al-Asadi was kidnapped near Baghdad by unknown actors and held for two weeks, joining a list of environmentalists who have faced retaliation for their work. And in Libya, the government has recently waged a campaign to discredit the work of civil society actors, arguing that they are eroding the conservative fabric of Libyan society.

International support for civil society can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can confer legitimacy on a fledgling group, build their capacity, and enhance their ability to push for change. But it can also open them up to accusations of disloyalty or being a puppet of foreign forces, exacerbating the threats they face. International actors seeking to bolster local civil society actors’ ability to bring about better environmental outcomes need to find new ways to protect them. Technological advances allow for greater digital protections and enhanced systems of social protection. While the Middle Eastern social and political contexts are unique, more should be done to understand what is transferrable from elsewhere in the region and beyond, what is adaptable, and what new innovations can arise and be nurtured in the region.

This year, the CSIS Middle East Transformation Initiative will explore the extent to which civil society actors can shape environmental policies in the Middle East. CSIS will identify where civil society groups have already created space to operate alongside governments, raised awareness of community members, and garnered positive policy outcomes on environmental issues. This initiative will analyze the successes and failures of civil society groups in select case study countries, draw attention to the potential threats to their work, and amplify the lessons they learned, seeking to raise civil society voices and identify new ways for external actors to improve their effectiveness. With most governments in the region struggling to respond adequately to multifaceted and sharpening environmental challenges, civil society may hold the key to building more sustainable states.

Will Todman is deputy director and a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.