Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 October 1998
Issue No.397
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Eye on the times

By Ibrahim Nafie

Hosni Mubarak
Mubarak, who as an air force commander (above) opened the 6 October War, spoke to Nafie (below) of the history-making day
During the interview
photo: Shawqi Mustafa
President Hosni Mubarak says the mega economic development projects being implemented at present mark not only an exodus from the Nile Valley but are intended to launch a new civilisation. Speaking to Al-Ahram's board chairman and editor-in-chief Ibrahim Nafie on the silver jubilee of the October 1973 War, Mubarak said: "The exodus from the old valley is not only a slogan. Our target is to build a new civilisation as we stand on the threshold of the 21st century."

These projects include the construction of a harbour and a free trade zone east of Suez, and another harbour and industrial and touristic zones east of Port Said, Mubarak said. They also include the ambitious land reclamation project at Toshka, in the southern section of the Western Desert. Mubarak said that a 28 km-long stretch of an irrigation canal has been dug already to bring in water from the Nile to turn the desert into greenery. There is also an iron ore exploitation project southeast of Aswan, where German, American and French companies are planning to establish a steel complex. In the Sinai desert, the Al-Salam irrigation canal, a project Mubarak described as unprecedented, will result in the cultivation of 400,000 feddans of desert land in addition to 220,000 feddans west of the Suez Canal.

As to financing, Mubarak said that "in addition to what our Arab brothers are offering," the government was counting on private enterprise, both Egyptian and non-Egyptian. But he emphasised that no additional taxes will be imposed to raise the necessary funding and that public services would not be curtailed to reduce expenditures.

Mubarak complained of "arbitrary and discriminatory practices" in international economic relations. "Not everybody is committed to the rules of fair play," he said. "It is illogical that developing nations alone are required to observe these rules, but not advanced countries, particularly since the trade balance is usually tilted in favour of the latter."

Referring to the dumping sanctions some European countries threaten to impose against Egyptian exports, Mubarak said Egyptian imports from Italy amount to $1 billion while Egypt's textile exports account for a meagre $2.7 million. The same is true of France.

"How can they threaten dumping sanctions against Egyptian exports?" Mubarak asked. "This is a strange position which is not easy to understand... But it gives credence to what I have always affirmed about the necessity of diversifying the markets for our imports and exports so that we are not at anybody's mercy."

Asked about the lessons drawn from the financial crisis faced by the Asian "tigers," Mubarak said that "gradualism" was a prerequisite in economic development. "Joining the club of the giants is not easy because any attempt to cut short the process that is necessary for an economic upsurge could lead to dire consequences," he said.

"In Egypt, we are following a preventive strategy that makes it possible for us to learn from others and avoid the problems they are facing. In the meantime, [their] failure sounds the alarm that the era of globalisation does not only bring opportunities for success but also the possibility of failure," Mubarak added.

Answering a question on the nation's foreign debts, the president said they amounted to $50 billion at the beginning of the 1990s but, thanks to a major political and economic effort, they have been reduced now to $30 billion. At the same time, Egypt has managed to raise its foreign currency reserves to $20 billion which makes it possible to re-pay these loans without imposing additional financial burdens on citizens. Mubarak said the reduction of US financial aid would have no impact on the Egyptian economy.

Asked about allegations by some expatriates concerning the persecution of Copts, Mubarak said: "The Egyptian people are one fabric. There is no sectarianism because we are one society, living on the same soil with no distinctions... All Egyptians, Muslims, Christians and Jews, live in the shadow of the Egyptian banner, have the same rights and the same duties."

On foreign policy issues, Mubarak said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi feels that the UN sanctions imposed against his country have continued for too long. "He has a right to be angry because he has wearied of the situation faced by his country. He has cut his links with terrorism, stopped financing terrorists, got rid of chemical weapons and expelled all extremists from Libya and yet he has not met with a positive response," Mubarak said.

Mubarak added that Gaddafi has the right to demand guarantees for a fair trial of the two Lockerbie bombing suspects in Holland. "Clarifications are needed to allay Libya's fears," Mubarak said.

Asked about Sudan, the president said he was sympathetic with the Sudanese people but not the Sudanese government. "I cannot say that I support the Sudanese regime because it is a prevaricating regime. They say they want to improve relations with Egypt but when we ask them to restore confiscated Egyptian property they respond that this will require several years," Mubarak asserted. "When we tell them that they shelter terrorists, they invite us to come and see for ourselves. But who can tour the Sudan searching for terrorists? Any serious government should be responsible and aware of what is happening on its territory."

Asked about the US military strike against the Al-Shifaa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Mubarak said: "We know that it is a pharmaceutical factory but it is capable of producing ingredients for chemical weapons... There is another chemical factory close to it."
"The success of the air strike raised the morale of our armed forces sky-high. Some forces did not even wait for orders and crossed to the eastern bank of the Canal once they saw our warplanes return safely after delivering the strike"

On Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Mubarak said: "I cannot ask Yasser Arafat to make concessions. This is a Palestinian leadership responsible to its people. The decision rests with them."

Mubarak added that he was surprised by the assertion made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Egypt was taking a "negative" position on peace-making. "Does he want me to be positive with him and put pressure on the Palestinians to accept what they are rejecting... It is the Israelis who are negative because they do not want to restore the rights [of the Palestinians]," he said.

Asked about his 1973 war memories, Mubarak, who was air force commander at the time, said he was told by Russian advisers that the air force would lose 25 per cent of its warplanes in a first strike against Israeli positions in Sinai and 33 per cent of its warplanes in a second strike.

"In fact, our losses in the first strike were minimal," Mubarak said. "We lost 11 warplanes out of 230 that delivered the strike. And there was no need for a second strike. The objective of the Russians was to drive us to despair. They told us that in order to cross the Suez Canal we would need a nuclear bomb. The success of the air strike raised the morale of our armed forces sky-high. Some forces did not even wait for orders and crossed to the eastern bank of the Canal once they saw our warplanes return safely after delivering the strike."

Mubarak said the beachhead established by Israeli forces on the western bank of the Canal shortly before the war ended was "a desperate attempt by Israel to shake the victory of our armed forces."