Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 February 2005
Issue No. 729
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Emad Adly

Emad Adly: The salt of the earth

On reaching up to the furthest horizons, and down to the deepest roots

The Arab Office of Youth and the Environment (AOYE) lies on the main street in the quiet, spacious suburb of Zahraa Al-Maadi. Inside and out, the grey building is as unpretentiously quiet as its surrounds, but you have to negotiate an interminable series of spotless corridors and vestibules to reach Emad Adly's office.

Ageless and attentive, with a peculiarly focussed look on his round face, the 48-year-old environmentalist has about him the air of a man with a calling, a man truly committed to a freely chosen vocation. International recognition of his pioneering work -- in 2004 he was named "champion of the earth" for the Arab region by the UN Economic and Social Committee for West Asia (ESCWA), for his innovative contribution "in the service of the environment and sustainable development" -- has heightened an inborn confidence and conviction, perhaps, but Adly remains an admirably modest presence, capable of recounting his 27-year-long saga of environmental work in a matter-of-fact, almost nonchalant way, and engaging you in an absorbing, friendly conversation the while.

Interest in the environment developed at an early age, Adly explains. While a first-year medical student at Cairo University, he joined the "medical caravans" organised by a student initiative named the Scientific Society on expeditions into deprived urban neighbourhoods, where he noted that "adverse environmental conditions" were at the root of the vast majority of the most common diseases. This was not the only signal that prompted him: "I was also struck by one of our professors' mottos -- what requires treatment is the cause of the disease, not its symptoms." Two years later, in 1978, together with a group of like-minded friends -- Khaled Abdel- Aziz, Moataz El-Fiqi, Magdi Allam and Salah Galal, the Al- Ahram science editor -- Adly, a third-year medical student, managed to establish AOYE (a Tunisia branch, the only other, closed down almost as soon following the Arab boycott of Egypt in the wake of Camp David): "We decided that the organisation would be all Egyptian, and started work immediately, our activities hosted by Al-Ahram, through the science clubs headed by Galal."

They worked from the office of Al-Shabab wa Uloum Al- Mustaqbal (Youth and the Sciences of the Future), a magazine edited by the last mentioned, organising environmental awareness training camps and lectures in four schools -- the places where they were to recruit fellow workers and future leaders. The organisation undertook the full range of environmental activities single-handedly, at a time when the Environmental Affairs Agency, an organ of the government founded in 1982 (partly in response to demands made by AOYE), had not yet come into existence.

Adly upholds an unshakable faith in the young -- their energy, their drive, their indispensable importance to the future. "Civic concepts like public property should be instilled in children at the earliest possible age," he insists; hence AOYE's lectures in children's libraries, given more intensively during the annual Reading for All festival. The organisation has also held water conservation initiatives in primary schools and art competitions with an environmental theme. Nor are school children the sole beneficiaries: since 1992, AOYE has convened an annual conference with university students, discussing both the environment and development.

In a political environment in which the state is the sole arbiter of public affairs, however, the contribution of institutions of civil society, Adly says, are not as significant as they could be. It is almost paradoxical, he elaborates: "You have this official claiming that he believes deeply in working with NGOs, but restricting cooperation to certain NGOs and not others. This does not generate an atmosphere of equal opportunities -- the kind that would allow NGOs to make a truly effective contribution." With the new cabinet having announced the intention to work more extensively with the institutions of civil society, Adly adds, it is hoped that the situation will change to the better.

AOYE has never waited for governmental support. As early as 1979 the organisation responded to a proposal made by leading environmentalist Abdel-Fattah El-Qassas -- to implement a UNESCO environmental education programme in four governorates -- a project that gave AOYE much impetus and helped connect it with international organisations. Networking has since been key. In 1981, when he was only 23, a final-year medical student, Adly represented the organisation at a UN conference on new and renewable energy in Nairobi. His contribution placed AOYE at the centre of internationally recognised environmental work. The next breakthrough came in 1990 when Galal announced that it was time the institution moved out of its surrogate home at Al-Ahram and found its own headquarters. "Space was a problem," Adly recalls. "My father had bought me a flat in Manial to use as a medical clinic. There were no other options. So we used it as the organisation's headquarters instead..."

A year later, with poetic irony, both Galal and Adly's father died; it was as if, having ensured that AOYE existed, that it had its own headquarters, the two older men who had supported Adly through thick and thin felt free to leave him.

The appearance of the present office in Zahraa Al-Maadi is revealing of the way Adly works. It is sparsely furnished with a large table at the centre. There are no chairs for people to sit on -- this despite the number of meetings and seminars regularly held here -- and the place is almost entirely covered in documents and reports, the findings of which Adly treats as signals for immediate action. If such reports are not transformed into grassroots development, he says repeatedly through the conversation, they are of no value whatever. To this end, there are some days on which he does not even come into the office, spending his working hours in situ, as it were: AOYE has had temporary headquarters in the widest range of locations from old Cairo to South Sinai, where it was instrumental to the establishment of Ras Mohamed national park.

Adly's own informality is another key to the philosophy behind AOYE: he attributes his easy-going attitude to what he calls his "unassuming middle-class background". His father, Adly Nada, owned a clothing shop; his mother, Amal Shehata, was a housewife who never attended university. A talented woman, she nonetheless managed to make her way through a song-writing career. The environment has turned into a family affair, with Shehata writing the lyrics to a song about Cairo House, Adly's dream project, which brought young people together to the first capital of Muslim Egypt to learn a range of environmental skills. Adly's wife, an engineering student when they met, had also volunteered to work with AOYE after finding out about it in the newspaper -- this is how they met. Latif, who took on environmental work as a full time career in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, now works at the World Bank in Washington, DC. Both the Adlys' daughter Yara (15) and son Ali (11) are as committed to the environment as their parents.

Such a personal approach to issues of the environment has always informed Adly's work. His belief that environmental protection is beyond the scope of government action -- this despite his insistence that the government too should play its role -- is what gave rise to a string of campaigns -- Clean Up the World, for example -- targeting grassroots Egyptian life. Bringing the environment to public awareness is high on Adly's list of priorities; AOYE played a significant role in establishing 27 January, the day Environmental Law No. 4 was passed in 1994, as environment day.

Nearly three decades of unceasing activity have made Adly a master strategist: the model neighbourhood (which started in Adly's own district of Manial), the environmentally aware street, the environment hotline service are all ideas that emerged out of his experience of urban planning; so did a campaign to economise the consumption of water waged in several governorates. The scope of environmental work is endless.

Does Adly still consider himself a doctor, however? He has yet to make up his mind, the man responds jovially: "After graduating I thought I would combine my medical training with my interest in the environment by working in both domains at the same time." For a while, therefore, it was at the General Department for the Environment, a division of the Ministry of Heath, that he held council. He proved too ambitious for the job, however; and after a five-year unpaid leave he resigned. From 1984 to 1991 he was a member of the International Centre of Environmental Coordination, in Kenya -- the first Arab ever to hold such a post. Two years later -- once again, he was the first Arab to have such an honour -- he participated in a UN General Assembly Special Session on economic circumstances in Africa. A member of practically all the preparatory committees for the Earth summit conference held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, secretary-general of the preparatory committee for the NGO Forum at the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development, a member of the international committee for NGO's in the Habitat UN Conference in Istanbul: Emad Adly has hardly had time for medicine.

Intensive cooperation with environmental NGOs in the Arab world has led to the foundation of the Arab Network for the Environment and Development RAED -- a 17-state organisation working under the auspices of the Arab League which Adly currently heads. He is also the national coordinator of the UNDP's Small Grants Programme (SGP) and the Local Initiative Facility for Urban Environment (LIFE). Adly is particularly concerned with the Nile -- something he attributes to the fact that, apart from the river's importance to the environment from an objective standpoint, he has lived for many years on the Nile island of Manial. Adly has been elected to the position of head of the International Forum for Civil Society for the Nile Basin twice. In 2004 he was chosen as the figure of the year by one of Lebanon's leading environmental societies Amwaj Al-Bahr (Sea Waves) an honour he accepted wearing both his Mediterranean and Arab hats. Adly has just been honoured by Egypt's Society of Writers on Environment and Development. Such recognition has brought him not so much gratification as consolation, he says; it allayed his father's qualms about him giving up a career in medicine to devote himself to voluntary work.

For Adly himself, however, it is neither the success of institutions nor international connections that stimulates him; rather, it is the simple individual with whom he deals on a daily basis -- on streets, on the banks of the Nile and in his heart.

photo: Mohamed Wassim

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