Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 October 2003
Issue No. 658
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Aziz Sidqi:

The challenge was to turn vision into reality

Industrious still

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Aziz Sidqi
photos: Ayman Ibrahim

Mehdi Ali
Aziz Sidqi, former prime minister, is a man of many parts: a corporate executive, an academic and a politician. For years he combined a successful business career with the vigorous defence of socialism. Under Sidqi industrial and oil production soared. I enter his office on 26 July Street, Zamalek, to find him poring over a book and scribbling notes.

He lays down the pen and shuts the book.

"I spent 22 years as a minister and when I left office I came out with nothing. Some ministers spend three years in office and make millions by the time they step down," he blurts out in a gruff voice.

His eyebrows arch, his eyes flicker angrily.

"Maybe I am a fool." It is accompanied with a chuckle.

"I was forced to sell a little land to survive. I was accustomed to a certain lifestyle, nothing extravagant, but a certain standard, you understand." And then he catches himself.

Once dubbed Egypt's "industry czar", Sidqi today stresses that the industrialisation of Egypt in the 1960s was a collective effort.

"From the humblest factory worker to the president, everyone played a vital role."

He gives Gamal Abdel-Nasser much of the credit for the industrial achievements of the 1960s. Sidqi is, however, impatient with the idea that the closeness of his identification with the rapid industrialisation of the 1960s made it difficult for those who came after him. Getting industrial policy right in Egypt is not just a matter for the experts, he insists.

For Sidqi the experience of the 1950s and 60s was unique: "Those were momentous times. People in those days felt there was dignity in the work they did. They felt proud of their work. They were building a new Egypt. Workers were proud of their achievements," he explains.

Sidqi, the architect of Egypt's socialist industrialisation in the 1960s, insisted on a restricted role for private and foreign capital, compatible with his socialist ideals. He pioneered the five-year plans that catapulted the country from an agrarian-based economy with marked income differentials between rich and poor into a more egalitarian country that had established a significant manufacturing base.

Renowned for his sharpness of intellect and biting wit, Sidqi does not mince words when criticising policies such as the Infitah, the open-door policy initiated by Sadat in the 1970s. The open- door policies, he argues, offered neither universal nor long-lasting gains. The entire policy was based on what he believes is a misplaced faith in the mechanisms of the free market. And with a wave of his hand Sidqi dismisses all the tittle-tattle talk about privatisation.

He has only harsh words for those who advocate increased privatisation: privatisation, deregulation and economic liberalisation are the means, he argues, by which American imperialism penetrates the markets of developing countries and consolidates its stranglehold on their economies.

Sidqi launches into a scathing diatribe against current privatisation schemes. "It is all part of a strategy to undermine our economic independence. To open up new markets, to encourage consumerism."

He laments the sale of the country's assets which, he believes, has been done on the cheap. He makes a distinction between the consumerist economy of today and the poduction-oriented economy he fostered.

Sidqi puts down most of the country's current economic woes to Sadat's open-door policy which he summarily dismisses as a "piece of cheap opportunism".

Born on 1 July, 1920, Sidqi is a product of his age. He wears dark suits that appear to have been chosen to set off his steel-grey hair. His fine-featured face, aristocratic bearing and commanding voice lends this octogenarian a special aura.

Sidqi's detractors say he should move with the times. An outspoken critic of corruption, he counters that privatisation does not change the investment climate. More than 3,000 factories, he points out, have closed in the past few years as a direct result of deregulation and economic liberalisation. Thousands of workers, as a consequence, are now redundant.

After graduating from Cairo University's faculty of engineering, Sidqi left Egypt in 1946 for post-graduate studies in the United States. Having obtained two masters degrees -- the first in architecture and the second in planning -- Sidqi got a PhD in regional economic planning from Harvard in 1950, his thesis being titled Industrialisation of Egypt: the case study of iron and steel.

In 1951 he returned to Egypt and was appointed a lecturer at the faculty of engineering at Alexandria University.

Sidqi is concise, to the point. When I ask him, for instance, how big a decision it was for him to change from academia to public service, he pauses to think and then replies with one word: "Huge".

Those were fast-moving times. The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) assumed executive and administrative powers in 1953, and the Anglo-Egyptian Evacuation Agreement was concluded in July and signed in October 1954.

In 1956 the RCC was officially dissolved and Nasser became president. The US and Britain refused to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam even though it was initially approved by the World Bank. Political developments were moving at lightning speed. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, much to the chagrin of Western powers. With the nationalisation of the Suez Canal the stage was set for a showdown with the old colonial powers. First Israel and then Britain and France invaded Egypt in what became known as the tripartite aggression.

The following year, 1957, was equally tumultuous. The National Planning Committee assumed full economic planning responsibilities and Mohamed Hassanein Heikal became editor of Al-Ahram. The political and economic foundations of Egypt were being laid, and Sidqi was given a free hand to demonstrate his ingenuity and organising skills. He worked hand in glove with Nasser becoming, like Heikal, one of the most intimate civilian confidantes of the late president.

Sidqi was appointed to the National Planning Committee. He was hand-picked by some of Nasser's close associates who had spotted his talent and youthful enthusiasm. Sidqi, fresh from Harvard, immediately put plans into action. A blueprint of rural development was outlined: co-operative units were to be established all over the country. Each of the 15,000 co-operative units was to serve the fellaheen in the immediate vicinity. The co-operative units were to be the focal point of rural life -- health clinics and family planning units were set up at the co-operative units that dotted the countryside, along with a number of other vital social and welfare services. The goal of a hospital bed for every 1,000 people was soon reached. Sidqi and his colleagues at the National Planning Committee headquarters invited Nasser to review their plans.

The focus was on poverty alleviation, on upgrading health and social services in rural areas. "Nasser spent an hour and a half listening attentively to my description of the co-operative units and occasionally asking questions. He wanted to understand the entire plan," Sidqi mused. Nasser, he said, was interested in the minutiae of the plan. The attention to detail was all-encompassing.

The following day Heikal paid him a surprise visit and explained that Nasser was so impressed with Sidqi's plans that he had asked Heikal to find more about the plans. Heikal maximised press coverage of the National Planning Committee. Sidqi and Heikal were both young and spirited, and desired above all else to serve the interests of the country and further the advances of the revolution. A friendship between the two men struck up immediately. It has lasted for 50 years. It is a friendship as close today as ever it has been, and one which Sidqi says has taught him a great deal.

Nasser gave his blessing to the plans. "You are taking the first steps in the right direction," he told Sidqi. Next Nasser asked Sidqi to head the manufacturing sector at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Commerce. There was no separate industry ministry then. Sidqi was allocated a small office at the ministry. Mohamed Abu Nusseir, then minister of trade, industry and commerce, walked into Sidqi's office one day.

"Dr Aziz, you will need a secretary," he told Sidqi. Mohamed Murad Hassan, an old classmate, became Sidqi's first secretary. "Where do I sit," Hassan asked Sidqi. A corner was provided for Hassan to set up shop.

"This was the humble beginning of the Ministry of Industry," Sidqi explained.

The new face at the helm of Egyptian manufacturing, the hand-picked technocrat, was pragmatic enough to work both with Egypt's Soviet allies and with American transnational corporations to boost Egypt's productive capacity.

Known for his prudent stewardship of Egypt's industrial sector Sidqi had no qualms about using American expertise. He was, after all, Harvard- educated. He supervised oil exploration in the Gulf of Suez and the Western Desert, largely in cooperation with US corporations that had been permitted to set up joint companies with the Egyptian government.

Sidqi's pragmatism marked him out from the less compromising doctrinaire socialists who danced attendance on Nasser.

In those early days of war, revolution and liberation even ministers lived from hand to mouth. Western powers were unhappy with the turn of events. "They felt that the upstarts who led the Egyptian Revolution must be cut down to size," Sidqi said.

Egypt braced itself for repercussions.

"We had no choice but to turn to the former Soviet Union for support."

Western loans were prohibitively expensive and Western donors proved to be punishingly exacting. The Soviet Union asked for no down payments. Nasser dispatched Sidqi to Moscow at the head of a large Egyptian economic and trade delegation. On 28 January, 1958, an agreement with the Soviet Union was signed.

Other visits to the Soviet Union soon followed and he concluded important agreements for the development of Egypt's heavy industry, particularly aluminium and steel production. "Even so, our trade and commerce was not restricted to the Soviet Union. We did business with countries as far afield as Italy and Japan," Sidqi emphasised.

Egypt's industrialisation, especially the development of its textiles industry, meant the ruin of Britain's own textiles industry based on ruthless colonial exploitation.

"I closed down the Lancashire cotton factories. The British took low-priced top-quality Egyptian raw cotton and manufactured cotton textiles in Lancashire. Then they sold us the textiles at exorbitant prices."

These were the heady days of the Non-Aligned Movement, when African and Asian countries were reasserting their identity on the international stage. Egypt's considerable standing as a champion of developing countries in world politics gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, two decades that saw a marked improvement in living standards. The sudden and unsurpassed expansion of manufacturing coincided with a more equitable distribution of income and a rapid expansion of health, educational and social services.

Sidqi's star rose further. He both charted and supervised Egypt's indutrialisation programme and he became famous abroad, especially in Africa.

The July Revolution attracted the attention of newly-independent African countries, which wanted to emulate the Egyptian experience.

"There was no ministry of industry in any African country in those days. We were pioneers in African industrialisation. Africans understood that industrialisation was a perquisite for real emancipation from colonialism and underdevelopment," Sidqi says.

"I was the very first minister of industry in all Africa," he points out. "No African country had a ministry of industry before 1 July 1956."

But trouble was brewing on the home front. No wheeler-dealer politician, he shunned the power struggles and political intrigues of the 1960s and concentrated instead on his job. Sidqi kept himself aloof from the factions vying for power in the closing years of the Nasserist era. He owed allegiance to Nasser the leader but had little time for some of the more sycophantic of the president's lackeys and hangers-on.

The Arab Socialist Union (ASU) was founded in 1963 and dominated the political life of the country for the next two decades, for better and worse. Yet Sidqi jealously defends the revolution's record: "It accomplished a great deal. The revolution successfully realised many of its stated aims and objectives. Land reform. The redistribution of income. It liberated the country from colonialism."

In 1964 Sidqi was appointed deputy prime minister with special responsibility for industry. In 1965, after a squabble with Ali Sabri, a dejected Sidqi briefly left public office. Sidqi is loathe to be drawn into a discussion about this particular chapter in his life. He puts the dispute down to "differences of opinion". Nasser was his defender and Sidqi weathered the storm. Nasser would not let go of Sidqi and the following year he was appointed presidential adviser for production and industrial development, finally regaining the industry portfolio in 1967-71.

Sidqi's finest moment came in 1968 when he was named minister of industry, petroleum and mineral resources in a government reshuffle. Sidqi devoted his energy to expanding Egypt's industrial capacity and oil production after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war left Egypt without the Sinai oil fields. Untapped Red Sea and Western Desert reserves had to be exploited. The Aswan High Dam provided a golden opportunity for launching electric generation projects, and Sidqi took full advantage.

But the omens did not bode well.

The national enthusiasm to redress the wrongs of the past and the newly created wealth nationalisation generated was channeled into fighting expensive wars, mostly with Israel. "Those were wars that had to be fought. At stake was national self-determination and esteem."

Still, war was a disastrous drain on the country's meagre resources. Burdened by ever-increasing military spending and bureaucratic inertia the Egyptian economy, then characterised by the concentration of all economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralised government, began to waver.

The population explosion compounded the country's economic problems. Egypt's population trebled in half a century. On the eve of the July Revolution in 1952 Egypt's population was 19 million. Today Egypt has 72 million people. Growing youth unemployment exacerbates the frustrations of the young.

The flight from rural areas and uncontrollable urban development that accompanied the open-door policy came at a terrible social cost. Urban squalor became the norm. Public outcry over failing performance was a wake up call to address the evils of the open-door policy. Unscrupulous politicians were making a fast buck at the expense of their unsuspecting supporters. The accomplishments of the July Revolution were systematically being dismantled.

"Nasser made it possible for Egypt to win the 0ctober 1973 War," Sidqi contends. He was intricately involved with Nasser's plans to regain Sinai from Israel. After Nasser's death he worked closely with Sadat, who appointed Sidqi prime minister on 16 January, 1972.

"To achieve the outcomes we sought the support of the people."

Sidqi became more familiar to the Egyptian public after appearing on Talking with the People, a popular television show. He traveled extensively around the country holding "open meetings with the people". In a nationwide address televised in April 1972, Sidqi emphasised that the prime duty of his government was to prepare the home front for war with Israel.

"But you do lay down a plan beforehand. And, we did." Sidqi started to deal with the crisis with typical vigour.

Sidqi's cabinet of confrontation was facing unprecedented challenges. "The enemy will not hesitate to strike in depth but we are now capable of hitting back," Sidqi said. The battle was now joined on many fronts -- economic, political, military. "We did not waiver."

But in March 1973 Sidqi resigned.

"Sadat asked me to be by his side as adviser. He didn't appoint a prime minister after my resignation: Sadat assumed the office of prime minister himself."

In October, Egyptian troops crossed the canal, breaking down the formidable Israeli defenses in Sinai.

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