IN one of the world's most polluted cities, it may seem that establishing a Green party is a triumph of faith over reason. But last month the Arab world's first Green party broke ground in Egypt. Facing fast-rising prices, a moribund economy, and collapsing public services, residents of this capital city have enough to preoccupy them. But the city is also becoming clogged with traffic so noisy that it is impossible to have a conversation in the street, and its air is among the most polluted in the world.
Pollution is probably important, but it's not yet urgent, is the general view.
Hassan Ragab, president of the new Green Party, and a group of like-minded people took a different view: Protection of the home environment is important and has to be tackled now.
``Cairo is one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world,'' he says. ``There is no respect for green things in the city. They [the government] have neglected our public gardens and cut down millions of trees in this once beautiful city, to make bus stations, widen roads, and to build apartment blocks.''
Dr. Ragab has been an engineer, military officer, director of an arms factory, and was appointed Egypt's first ambassador to China by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since retiring from public life in the early 1960s, Ragab has also rehabilitated the ancient Egyptian craft of making papyrus - a cottage industry that currently earns Egypt more than $30 million a year.
He has adopted the papyrus as his personal symbol: ``The ancient Egyptians used the papyrus as their hieroglyph for things green and fresh,'' he says. ``It is something to bear in mind in this new endeavor.''
The daily assault on Cairene sensibilities leaves little respite. Noise from moving traffic and vehicle horns, vehicle exhaust, and dust from the massive cement factories to the south of the city pollute the air. And the river - source of all water used for domestic consumption, irrigation, and industry - has become heavily contaminated by human waste and industrial effluents; especially around Cairo and in the Nile delta.
Egypt's Green movement began in late 1986, when a leading newspaper columnist Abdel Salam Daoud wrote a column wondering whether there was the same interest among Egyptians in protecting the environment as he had observed among Europeans.
``The response,'' says Mr. Daoud, now the party's vice-chairman, ``was overwhelming. I received more replies to that column than to any other single piece in more than 40 years in journalism.''
The Greens now boast more than 3,000 members, and Ragab says that the party will organize political campaigns and fight parliamentary elections.
``The existing parties - whether the government or the opposition - say not one single word about the environment. In any event, government departments are not enough for this kind of work. We must all help,'' he says.
The Cairo city authorities say they are taking the environment seriously. Cairo governor Mahmoud Sherif has launched a campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees throughout the city. A ring-road is being built around the city, that will be tree-lined to a depth of three kilometers. The first stage of the new road will be opened next month.
Dr. Sherif has also taken steps to cut air pollution. Research has shown that more than 200 tons of dust fall every month on one square mile of central Cairo.
South of the city at Helwan, formerly a spa and beauty spot but transformed by socialist Egypt's heavy industrial program of the 1950s and 1960s, the dust-fall is more than twice that figure, and lies scattered like fine deadly powdered sugar over every green thing and kills it.
But Ahmed Shakr, head of the government's Environment Monitoring Agency says that the pollution is for the most part caused by sand blown from the desert and cement dust, which are not toxic to humans.
Sherif says the cement dust problem will be resolved by the end of 1991. A local company has designed a prototype cement-plant filter which has been under test for 18 months.
Cairo's 33 cement-producing ovens will all have filters installed by the end of next year, and their use will be enforced by the local authority.
``I am optimistic,'' says Dr. Shakr, ``that the short-run situation will not get worse, and that in the long run it will get much better.''
The question of legal enforcement is probably nowhere more necessary than in noise control. New by-laws have recently reduced the use of amplifiers by mosques and schools. But the promiscuous use of the car horn is the principal offender.
Against these forces and the generally closed nature of Egypt's political system, it is difficult to be optimistic that the Greens can flourish. And few observers believe that they will have a serious political impact. Egypt's Greens do not come from the radical end of the political spectrum and tend to take their politics gently.
``But,'' says Ragab, ``plants will grow in the least fertile of soils.'' Given even a modicum of support, these first green shoots might yet grow to find a permanent and useful niche in Egypt's otherwise inhospitable clime.