As Cairo transforms, Egyptians fight to save their trees

A woman walks past a recently planted tree on a narrow pavement which replaced a huge garden in Heliopolis, in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 14, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 13 March 2022

As Cairo transforms, Egyptians fight to save their trees

  • Egypt’s environmental record is under scrutiny as it hosts the UN clima te conference COP27 in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh in November

CAIRO: A few months ago, Choucri Asmar decided he wasn’t ready to give up hope. So he led a group of residents in “a peaceful demonstration to protect the trees” of his Cairo neighborhood.

Egyptian authorities were planning to clear out a large avenue of ficus, acacia and palm trees — part of sweeping urban redevelopment projects that are transforming much of historic Cairo. “It was like a war on green,” Asmar said.

Asmar and other residents of Heliopolis — an old neighborhood that boasts some of the city’s most important early 20th-century buildings — numbered the trees lining Nehru Street, labeling each of them after famous Egyptian figures. Five days later, police took the signs down and Asmar got a warning from security officials. The trees have survived, for now, while many others nearby have not, their wood sawed into pieces and towed away in trucks.

Part of the adjoining park was razed to erect a stone monument commemorating Cairo’s road and highways development, while a nearby public garden dating from the early 20th century was demolished to make way for a new street and state-owned gas station. Asmar said that between August 2019 and January 2020, Heliopolis lost an estimated 396,000 square meters (about 100 acres) of green space.

“And then we stopped counting, but lost much more,” he said. He described feeling disoriented on once-familiar streets.

That’s roughly 73 football fields worth of greenery in just one neighborhood of the sprawling metropolis that stretches from the Pyramids at Giza in the west, across the Nile River, to new modern developments in the east. Heliopolis accounts for no more than one-fifth of the capital in area. Cairo’s population of roughly 20 million is spread over some 648 square km, making it one of the densest cities in the world.

Egypt’s environmental record is under scrutiny as it hosts the UN climate conference COP27 in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh in November.

An official at Egypt’s Ministry of Environment did not respond to a request for comment on the loss of urban green spaces. Other officials have said that better roads will ease traffic, and promised that the new developments will include large parks and incorporate as much vegetation as possible. One plan, announced in government media, is for a park in the historic center, incorporating a large archaeological zone.

Much of Cairo’s redesign and new highways aim to service a new capital under construction on the city’s outskirts. It’s the flagship megaproject of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who says he is rebuilding the economy after years of political turmoil.

In recent years, grassroots groups have sprung up in different areas of Cairo to try to protect the city’s urban identity. Asmar is a member of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, founded in 2011.

Sarah Rifaat lives a five-minute walk from Mesaha Square, a rare leafy spot in Giza, a neighborhood of high-rises. A few months ago, she was jolted into action by a video of a forklift leveling the square’s garden. She joined a WhatsApp group where residents expressed concern over the loss of green space. Residents organized a petition, but paving over of the garden continued.

“There’s a sense of collective connection to trees that I haven’t seen before,” she said.

Activists have scored some wins, including halting the commercial redevelopment of the Fish Garden, a park in the city’s central Zamalek area. Rifaat has seen some urban improvements initiated by city officials as well, but says there is no accountability among decision-makers.

Cairenes are struggling to come to terms with a rapidly changing city, where many public spaces have been taken away or commercialized, she said. Rifaat believes that protecting neighborhoods has become a final form of protest, as the space for civil society in Egypt keeps shrinking.

Backed up by residential groups across the city, environmental lawyer Ahmed Elseidi is leading a case before Egypt’s highest administrative court that he hopes will oblige the government to replant trees and protect Cairo’s few remaining green spaces.

The government is required by law to carry out public consultations and environmental impact reports on highway construction that has torn through many old neighborhoods, he said. The law protects green spaces, designating trees as public property, he added.

Elseidi said he has submitted documents showing that no environmental studies were conducted ahead of any road projects, including in Heliopolis.

Rim Hamdy, a botany professor at Cairo University, said some types of trees could vanish from city streets. Thirty-five varieties of Australian eucalyptus once grew along Giza streets but dozens have been felled. Even the nearby Agricultural Ministry’s plant nursery has been bulldozed, she said.

Many tree species and public gardens are a legacy of Egypt’s 19th-century rulers, who planted thousands of trees as they rebuilt Cairo. They imported specimens — including flowering purple jacaranda and red poinciana — that became signatures of Cairo’s streets.

Hamdy plans to petition authorities to allow her to trim and protect a century-old sycamore fig outside her university.

In Maadi, an area known for its leafy squares and villas, the Tree Lovers Association is one of the city’s oldest neighborhood groups.

Association member Samia Zeitoun said the authorities have responded to some of the public complaints about development.

“Cairo was choking, so it’s a big challenge for the government to open up arteries,” she said, raising the issue of overcrowding in the city that grows by the thousands every day.

As Egypt prepares to host COP27, activists say green spaces help reduce Cairo’s heavy pollution and lower scorching summer temperatures in urban areas.

In fighting to preserve green spaces, the more well-to-do areas score more successes, with residents typically enjoying better access to officials than those living in poorer areas.

Asmar said he’s disappointed he hasn’t been able to do more to protect Al-Maza, a working-class area next to the more affluent Heliopolis. Authorities are removing its main tree-lined road and planning to evict residents along it, he said.

Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

Updated 5 min 10 sec ago

Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

  • Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said the attack was “an expression of the aggressive behavior of the child-killing Israeli regime.”

TEHRAN: Iran has condemned Israel’s deadly retaliatory strike on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah in Yemen that the miltia say killed six people and wounded dozens more.
Late on Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani “strongly condemned” the attack saying it was “an expression of the aggressive behavior of the child-killing Israeli regime.”
Israeli warplanes on Saturday struck the vital port of Hodeidah in response to a deadly drone attack by the Iran-backed Houthis on Tel Aviv, which killed one civilian.
The Houthis have since threatened a “huge” retaliation against Israel.
Kanani added that Israel and its supporters, including the United States, were “directly responsible for the dangerous and unpredictable consequences of the continued crimes in Gaza, as well as the attacks on Yemen.”
Regional tensions have soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthis, along with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza are part of a Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” against Israel and its allies.
The Islamic republic has reiterated support for the groups but insisted they were independent in their decision-making and actions.

Archaeologists in Bahrain unearth Gulf’s earliest Christian structure

Updated 4 sec ago

Archaeologists in Bahrain unearth Gulf’s earliest Christian structure

  • Located in Samahij, in the Bahraini city of Muharraq, the unearthed structure is considered “the first material evidence of this ancient community”
  • Digging at the site commenced at a mound within the Samahij cemetery, where archaeologists discovered the remains of a mosque.

DUBAI: Bahraini and British archaeologists say they have discovered what is believed to be the first Christian structure in the Arabian Gulf, dating back to the fourth century.

Located in Samahij, in the Bahraini city of Muharraq, the unearthed structure is considered “the first material evidence of this ancient community,” according to the Bahrain National Communications Center.

“While Christianity is not predominantly associated with the Gulf states today, the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, flourished in the region for centuries until the 7th century CE, coinciding with the widespread Islam amongst the communities in 610 CE,” the NCC said in a statement.

Archeologists said that radiocarbon dating of the Samahij site confirmed “the building was occupied between the mid-4th and mid-8th centuries CE, likely abandoned as Islam spread among the local population.”

Digging at the site commenced at a mound within the Samahij cemetery, where archaeologists discovered the remains of a mosque.

Further excavation revealed a large building with eight rooms, including a kitchen, dining room, workshop, and three living quarters. It is believed that the construction of the mosque on the site contributed to the preservation of the building below, the NCC added.

The findings suggest the building may have been the residence of the bishop of the local diocese, which included Samahij. Historical sources refer to this area as “Mishmahig” or “Mashmahig,” likely variations of Samahij.

Records also indicate a connection between the region and central church authorities, with one bishop dismissed in 410 and another condemned for challenging church unity in the seventh century.

The excavation project, a collaborative effort between the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities and a British team led by Prof. Timothy Insoll of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, and Dr. Salman Al-Mahari of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, began in 2019 and culminated in these significant findings in 2023.

This discovery is unique due to its location in the heart of a modern, densely populated town, unlike previous Christian structures found in remote areas along the Gulf coast.

Notable finds include three plaster crosses, two adorning the building’s exterior and one possibly kept as a personal memento, along with wall carvings featuring a fish symbol and part of the “Chi Rho” symbol, representing “Christ.”

Al-Mahari explained that the excavation, now in its final stages, is an important piece of Bahraini history, providing valuable insights into the Christian presence in the region.

Initial studies suggested the site dated from the sixth to eighth centuries, but radiocarbon dating confirmed fourth century origins, making it one of the oldest Christian buildings in the Arabian Gulf. Recent findings include a clear Eastern cross on a plaster slab.

The excavation also revealed details about the building and its inhabitants’ lives. Constructed with stone walls coated in plaster and plaster floors, the building featured sockets and holes indicating door and seat placements. The kitchen contained built-in ovens with bases and storage areas. Artifacts suggest the inhabitants enjoyed a good standard of living, consuming meat, fish, shellfish, and various crops. The discovery of semi-precious agate beads and broken Indian pottery indicates the occupants were involved in trade, particularly with India. Small drinking glasses and 12 copper coins suggest the use of Sasanian Empire currency. Additionally, spindle whorls and copper needles hint at the possibility of cloth production for religious purposes.

Insoll said: “We stress the importance of this site and the need to preserve it, highlighting its historical and archaeological value.”

He added: “We were amused to find someone had drawn part of a face on a pearl shell using bitumen, possibly for a child who lived in the building. This is the first physical evidence of the Nestorian Church in Bahrain, providing a fascinating insight into how people lived, worked, and worshiped.”

Iraq to import electricity from Turkiye

Updated 21 July 2024

Iraq to import electricity from Turkiye

  • PM Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani said the new line is a “strategic” step to link Iraq with neighboring countries

BAGHDAD: Iraq said Sunday a new power line will bring electricity from Turkiye to its northern provinces as authorities aim to diversify the country’s energy sources to ease chronic power outages.
The 115-kilometer (71-mile) line connects to Kisik power plant west of Mosul and will provide 300 megawatts from Turkiye to Iraq’s northern provinces of Nineveh, Salah Al-Din and Kirkuk, according to a statement by the prime minister’s office.
PM Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani said the new line is a “strategic” step to link Iraq with neighboring countries.
“The line started operating today,” Ahmed Moussa, spokesperson for the electricity ministry, told AFP.
Decades of war have left Iraq’s infrastructure in a pitiful state, with power cuts worsening the blistering summer when temperatures often reach 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).
Many households have just a few hours of mains electricity per day, and those who can afford it use private generators to keep fridges and air conditioners running.
Despite its vast oil reserves, Iraq remains dependent on imports to meet its energy needs, especially from neighboring Iran, which regularly cuts supplies.
Sudani has repeatedly stressed the need for Iraq to diversify energy sources to ease the chronic outages.
To reduce its dependence on Iranian gas, Baghdad has been exploring several possibilities including imports from Gulf countries.
In March, a 340-kilometer (210-mile) power line started operating to bring electricity from Jordan to Al-Rutbah in Iraq’s southwest.

Yemen’s Hodeidah battles port blaze after deadly Israel strike

Updated 4 min 49 sec ago

Yemen’s Hodeidah battles port blaze after deadly Israel strike

  • Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the militia’s “response to the Israeli aggression against our country is inevitably coming and will be huge.”
  • The strike killed six people and wounded 80, many of them with severe burns

HODEIDAH: Firefighting teams on Sunday were still battling a blaze at the Houthi-run port in Yemen’s Hodeidah, hours after an Israeli strike on the harbor triggered a massive fire and killed six people, according to the militia.
Saturday’s strike on the vital port, a key entry point for fuel and humanitarian aid, is the first claimed by Israel in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country, about 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) away.
It killed six people and wounded 80, many of them with severe burns, the rebel-run health ministry said in a statement carried by Houthi media.

On Sunday, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the militia’s “response to the Israeli aggression against our country is inevitably coming and will be huge.” 

Israel said it carried out the strike in response to a drone attack by the Houthis on Tel Aviv which killed one person on Friday.
More operations against the Houthis would follow “if they dare to attack us,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said.
Following the strike, the Israeli military said Sunday it intercepted a missile fired from Yemen toward the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, noting that “the projectile did not cross into Israeli territory.”
Saree, the Houthi spokesman, said the militia had fired ballistic missiles toward Eilat, the latest in a string of Houthi attempts to hit the port city.
The militia announcement came as firefighters struggled to contain the blaze at the Hodeidah port, with thick plumes of black smoke shrouding the sky above the city, said an AFP correspondent in the area.
Fuel storage tanks and a power plant at the port where still ablaze amid “slow” firefighting efforts, said a Hodeidah port employee.
The port employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security concerns, said it could take days to contain the fire, a view echoed by Yemen experts.
“There is concern that the poorly equipped firefighters may not be able to contain the spreading fire, which could continue for days,” said Mohammed Albasha, senior Middle East analyst for the US-based Navanti Group, warning that it could reach food storage facilities at the harbor.
Hodeidah port, a vital entry point for fuel imports and international aid for militia-held areas of Yemen, had remained largely untouched through the decade-long war between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government propped up by neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis control swathes of Yemen, including much of its Red Sea coast, and the war has left millions of Yemenis dependent on aid supplied through the port.
Despite Houthi assurances of sufficient fuel stocks, Saturday’s strike triggered fears of worsening shortages, which war-weary Yemenis are ill-equiped to handle.
The attack is “going to have dire humanitarian effects on the millions of ordinary Yemenis living in Houthi-held Yemen,” Nicholas Brumfield, a Yemen expert, said on social media platform X.
It will drive up prices of fuel but also any goods carried by truck, the analyst said.
Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, which has been battling the Houthis for nearly a decade, condemned the strike, and held Israel responsible for a worsening humanitarian crisis.
A statement carried by the official Saba news agency said the Yemeni government holds “the Zionist entity fully responsible for any repercussions resulting from its air strikes, including the deepening of a humanitarian crises.”
It also warned the huthi militia against dragging the country into “senseless battles that serve the interests of the Iranian regime and its expansionist project in the region.”

‘Deeply concerned’ UN chief calls for restraint after Israel’s attack on Yemen

Updated 21 July 2024

‘Deeply concerned’ UN chief calls for restraint after Israel’s attack on Yemen

  • The internationally recognised government of Yemen also condemned Israel's airstrikes as a violation of international laws

DUBAI: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern over Israel’s airstrikes on Saturday in and around the port of Hodeidah in Yemen.

Guterres called on all parties to “avoid attacks that could harm civilians and damage civilian infrastructure.”

In a statement, the secretary-general said that he “remains deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation in the region and continues to urge all to exercise utmost restraint.”

Israel’s stike on Hodeidah, apparently in retaliation for the Houthi drone strike on Tel Aviv earlier this week, left several dead and more than 80 people injured.

Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV reported that Israeli planes struck a power plant and a fuel storage facility.

Meanwhile, the internationally recognised government of Yemen on Sunday condemned Israel's airstrikes as a violation of international laws, holding Israel responsible for worsening the humanitarian crisis and strengthening Houthi militias.

The government, in a statement, urged the Houthis to prioritize national interests and engage in peace, while calling on the international community to support Yemen's authority and implement Resolution 2216.

The government also reiterated support for the Palestinian people and called for an end to Israeli aggression.