Egypt’s only public interest environmental lawyer visits Eugene
By Alicia Santiago
Raised as the son of a lawyer, Ahmed Elseidi grew up surrounded by legal lingo and strategies. Coming from a position where being a lawyer was at his fingertips, Elseidi took a slightly different approach — becoming the only public interest environmental lawyer in Egypt.
Elseidi’s had few people to guide him through the country’s environmental challenges. “When I started there wasn’t any environmental lawyer in Egypt, but I think now today, I have young lawyers that can learn more about what I do,” he says.
Unlike the U.S., Egypt lacks advanced legal education courses that detail environmental rights and justice, hindering citizens from understanding the severity of their country’s issues, Elseidi says. He noticed during law school in Cairo that there were no specialty courses in environmental law and, on a larger scale, no implementation of the laws Egypt did have.
“After I finished my study, I was surprised because there isn’t any course in universities or any schools in Egypt, which focus on environmental matters,” Elseidi says.
He was driven to start his own firm and meet colleagues worldwide — but first, he began mentoring those who were once like him and had little access to environmental rights knowledge in Cairo.
“I studied law in Cairo, and after that, I worked as a lawyer in my father’s office — he worked as a regular lawyer. After that, I started to work in human rights and then I went to Habi to start my work in environmental rights,” Elseidi says.
Habi was the Habi Centre for Environmental Rights, which began in 2001 and worked to guarantee environmental rights to Egyptian citizens and sought change in the country regarding climate change and sustainability.
“It’s the only center focused on environmental rights,” Elseidi says. “I joined Habi and worked there for five years as a volunteer first and as a lawyer and then became the head of the legal unit.”
In 2018, the center’s founder, Mohamed Nagi, died, but Ahmed continued doing pro bono environmental work for the environmental community in Egypt. He says during his time at Habi, they filed many lawsuits against the government and multinational companies to learn more about what the court thinks about environmental violation and punishment.
Elseidi decided that environmental law was his chosen path and that he wanted to work with the next generation of lawyers to ensure he would no longer be the only environmental lawyer in Egypt. He founded his own practice, Ahmed Elseidi Law Firm, which continues Habi’s work, tackling climate change, stopping the cutting of Cairo’s street trees and fighting pollution from cement factories.
He came to Oregon April 1 through the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide fellows program and enrolled in a 10-week intensive English program and collaborated with colleagues from around the world.
Elseidi met judges from the Wayne L. Morse Courthouse and toured the Greenhill Humane Society to learn more about how the community responds to stray and abandoned animals. He also practiced his English at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute. He collaborated with fellow environmental lawyers and learned about plans and legislation happening in other countries.
The ELAW fellows program allows public interest lawyers from around the country to protect their communities and learn through the UO’s law school and other programs designed to meet their needs. This collaboration helps connect communities and show what issues lawyers have in common with their homelands.
Before the fellowship starts, Maggie Keenan, ELAW communications director and fellows program coordinator, meets with each fellow one-on-one to discuss what they both want the experience to look like.
“Before fellows come, we always set a list of goals and objectives,” Keenan says. “One, of course, is to strengthen English, and another one was to connect with the ELAW team.”
Keenan says the ELAW goal is to give a voice to communities around the world and create a vision for the future.
“Our goal at ELAW is to help communities around the world speak out for clean air, clean water and a healthy planet,” she says, “Our team envisions a world where ecosystems and communities are respected and protected, and decisions are grounded in the rule of law, sound science and principles of environmental justice.”
The ELAW program paused for two years due to the pandemic but reopened in March 2022 and is again bringing grassroots leaders like Elseidi to Eugene to advance their work and organizations.
Working on his own in Egypt, this program gave Elseidi the opportunity to work with other environmental lawyers from countries such as Lebanon, Indonesia and Morocco, and learn what policies and tactics would be best for his community. He says it also showed him how different the laws were in the U.S., Egypt and globally.
“The difference is there isn’t any implementation [in Egypt] while there are many people in the U.S. understanding what the meaning of environmental law is and how they can participate in saving the environment,” he says. “In my country, no one knows that there are environmental laws.”
Cairo is one of the most densely populated and polluted areas in Egypt, Elseidi says, and it affects the lower class the most. With the Nile River, the longest river in the world, nearby, he says industries need to be held accountable for their actions. He focuses on challenges affecting air and water pollution and how to mitigate these issues.
Elseidi says the priority in establishing environmental justice is teaching more in schools about these laws in Egypt. He says that other universities in Egypt have environmental law courses but focus on the laws of other countries rather than on Egypt. Although this is important, he believes that this is working against what needs to be done in the community.
“If there are many people that know about environmental laws and environmental requirements then they can save the environment, and we can file lawsuits and many complaints,” Elseidi says.
Within ELAW’s cross-cultural program, Elseidi was able to look at the structures and policies that other lawyers have worked with in countries around the world.
“We should focus on education and implementation. For example, we already have many laws without any implementation,” Elseidi says. “If we found many people who could observe and catch all violations they can make circumstances different. I think we should make a big effort because we have more than 500 industries in my city.”
These industries, Elseidi says, are going against outdated laws, and no one is punishing the industries for not abiding by the regulations pertaining to air, land and water that will prevent the severities of climate change.
“I think if people know more about environmental news, they can stop a lot of violations in my country because there aren’t any books on environmental interpretation or environmental law in Arabic, and this is a big problem,” Elseidi says.
At his firm now, he works on creating training courses and mentoring the next generation of lawyers so that they too can have access to environmental law.
“We have good knowledge and good laws and no one knows,” Elseidi says.
His trip to Oregon concluded June 14 and he continued his program in Cebu, Philippines, in late June participating in the annual international ELAW meeting and exchanging views and model practices between ELAW partners worldwide. Keenan says this was the first time ELAW has held the meeting since the pandemic, and they expected more than 100 people from roughly 30 countries.