As Egypt's government appeared to move closer to a final decision to allow cement factories to import coal for energy, an unlikely coalition of activists from across the country met with the support of the Environment Minister to push for a campaign against what they call a "disastrous" decision.
The Arab world's most populous nation, hit by economic instability in three years of unrest, has been cutting back on natural gas supplies to energy-gulping cement factories, hoping to forestall a looming energy crisis this summer and the likelihood of sustained gas shortages.
But allowing the import of coal may force the country into a polluting and fossil fuel dependent future where Egyptians have little control over the supply, opponents of the change argue. Most importantly, the decision could further discourage a transition to renewable energy, they say.
The import of coal has been debated for months, with opposition from the environment and tourism ministries worried about potential pollution both from coal-powered factories and during shipment of coal from Egypt's ports on infrastructure poorly equipped for the load.
The industry minister announced on Monday that Egypt would allow cement firms to use coal, pending a review of stricter environmental regulations, but that was followed by contradictory statements from the interim cabinet. The pledge to look at stricter regulation did little to ease worries.
'THIS IS NOT JUST ABOUT COAL'
"This is not just about coal. It is about ensuring that this country has sovereignty over its own energy sources and guaranteeing that instead of moving in the opposite direction of the world, that we are working for renewable alternatives," said activist Ahmed El Droubi, coordinator of the Egyptians Against Coal campaign.
A loose-knit coalition of youth from across the country, concerned that the public debate over coal use has been dominated by powerful businessmen, gathered with environmental campaigners and representatives of non-governmental organisations in the Red Sea city of Hurghada to strategise and agree a grassroots campaign to reverse the decision to import coal.
"Our cause is simple and that is to protect Egypt from the coming disaster. If a decision is made for coal to be imported, that won't mean this campaign is over. We will keep working until they send it back," Amr Ali of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) told the session to applause.
Activists say Egypt's cement industry - dominated by foreign firms like Italcementi and Lafarge - has long disproportionately benefited from cheap labor and from energy subsidies that overall account for more than 20 percent of Egypt's budget and cost the state more than $17 billion in the last fiscal year.
The cement industry argues that it is in a bind - that since the government announced massive reductions to the supply of natural gas to cement firms, the sector either has to reduce its capacity, import cement or find alternative sources of energy.
The industry has been pushing for coal as a temporary stopgap to allow for growth and keep investment in the country.
COMMITMENT TO COAL?
But anti-coal campaigners warn that the implication of building costly infrastructure to support the import of coal would mean that investing in cleaner alternatives is unlikely for years to come.
Instead of coal being a temporary solution, they fear other Egyptian industries will follow suit and rising carbon emissions will further stress the already vulnerable nation, where climate change threatens to hurt key agricultural crops, submerge prime coastal areas, and dramatically reduce water supplies.
"Egypt's future has to be in clean and renewable energy. We must as a society understand that the decisions we make today will impact the future of this nation," said Environment Minister Laila Iskander, who flew in to support the workshop. "We cannot make a decision to secure the interests of a single sector without seeing the big picture."
Mainstream Egyptian media with close ties to business associations have portrayed Iskander as a "stubborn" minister standing in the way of economic growth. But those opposed to coal imports say neither Iskander nor others opposed to coal have been given sufficient prime air-time to push for alternative proposals, including waste-to-energy schemes.
Globally, the cement industry is moving away from a heavy dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, as an exclusive source of energy for production. Egyptian activists have pointed out that many factories currently meet 20 to 70 percent of their energy requirements from alternative fuels, such as energy from trash or other waste.
With Egypt already the world's largest wheat importer, the activists also argue that an industrial production system entirely based on imports further exacerbates the country's vulnerability to foreign markets.
Cement executives say they need an immediate solution to their energy woes, and waste-to-energy alternatives will take time to implement. But activists say such an argument is exploiting the current crisis to secure the interests of a few.
Using polluting coal as a temporary energy source "will do nothing to help find a long-term and sustainable solution to what we all agree is an energy crisis," Droubi said. "While the interests of business elites will be served in allowing coal imports, the real price will be paid by Egyptian citizens when a new problem they did not create is shouldered by them."
Dina Zayed is a Cairo-based sustainability expert who writes on climate issues.