Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Where is the truth?

Ahmed Eleiba writes on the controversy over the Qatari role in the Suez Canal development project

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Suez Canal was inaugurated in November 1869. It was an international marvel, and it became a strategic cornerstone of the Egyptian state and a chief motive behind the foreign occupation of Egypt. The canal was dug by some million Egyptian labourers who were conscripted into forced labour. The rights to operate the canal were held by an international firm in accordance with a 99-year concession. There was an attempt to prolong this concession beyond its expiration date, which fell in Egypt’s post-independence period. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s campaign to nationalise the canal shortly after he came to power was part of a drive to restore dignity to the Egyptian people and claim justice for the lives of the thousands of their forebears that were lost during the process of construction. His independent nationalisation of the Suez Canal triggered the Tripartite Aggression of 1956.
Every Egyptian could relate the foregoing account of the Suez Canal. In the Egyptian consciousness, this international waterway is not just a source of billions of dollars in national revenue. More importantly, it is an integral part of Egyptian history, culture, identity and civilisation.
There have been other narratives that favour notions that hold that the canal was originally a foreign brainstorm that originated with the French and was carried out by the British, even though the Suez Canal Company was French. Such narratives omit the crucial roles played by Egyptian rulers. Perhaps the most famous is the Khedive Ismail, under whose reign the canal was completed and whose enthusiasm for the project inspired him to construct the city of Ismailia. Before him came his uncle, Said Pasha, who initiated the project as well as the construction of the city of Port Said at the northern mouth of the canal. Nor do such narratives mention that one of the Egyptian government’s senior engineers, Oglebey Kebir was among the first architects of the project’s conception.
The socio-historic panorama of the Suez Canal is an exciting backdrop to the perhaps even more exciting project for the development of the Suez Canal and the surrounding area. A comprehensive development project, it envisions not just the expansion of the canal but also the development of ports, industrial cities, large residential communities, a silicon valley and putting 450,000 acres of land under cultivation. Such visions, which had long been kept in the drawers of development planners in the country, have recently been put back on the drawing boards of political and economic decision-makers as a possible key to triggering a strong economic recovery. However, to many Egyptians who are increasingly worried by how to put food on their tables the project looms more as a nightmare than as a dream of prosperity for a country gripped by poverty and stagnation.
One source of the anxiety is the fact that Qatar has emerged as a chief player in the project. Rumours have been circulating widely of a Qatari bid to purchase the canal or a new long-term concession on the canal. Government spokesmen have adamantly denied such reports, but such denials have not gone a long way in view of the government’s current confidence crisis. During his recent visit to Cairo three weeks ago, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamid bin Jassim also tried to put anxieties to rest. A country such as Qatar could not have such power and influence over a country with the political weight, history and civilisation of Egypt, he said. Such assurances coming from one of the deep pockets of the Gulf, too, had little impact.
It was only when Minister of Defence General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced last week that the army would never abandon the canal that public anxieties began to subside. In a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, an Egyptian military expert residing in Doha said, “the [Egyptian] army cannot allow any infringement on this question”. The implication is that the army command will continue to assert its influence on this matter, albeit indirectly in view of US pressure on the army not to intervene in political issues.
A well-informed source who was a former senior Egyptian General Intelligence officer agrees. He told the Weekly, “the [security] agencies will never permit a repetition of the abuse scenario that Mubarak and his men played under the guise of so-called Sinai development projects. Regardless all the technical projections we furnished them with respect to projects in that area, such as the ‘Peace Canal’, they would proceed in the totally opposite direction. That could only mean that they had been working on behalf of other parties that were telling them what to do. This will never happen again in the Suez Canal projects that are being planned. National [security] agencies will play a role in fighting and exposing any foul play regardless of who is involved or of the weight of the players abroad.”
To a large extent, Egyptian anxieties, with regard to Qatari designs on the Suez Canal in particular, stem from their suspicions surrounding the relationship between the oil-rich Gulf states and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Gulf states had offered refuge to Muslim Brotherhood dissidents during the former regime and were politically influential in determining the direction of the Arab Spring revolutions. Qatar, for example, may now be expecting payback from the Muslim Brotherhood and many Egyptians fear that this would come at their expense and the expense of national interests and security. Such anxieties are augmented by Qatar’s reputation for sustaining secret commercial relations with Israel.
A highly-placed source, at the level of assistant minister in the government’s economic group, told the Weekly that there are strong indicators of a close Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood relationship even if concrete evidence is lacking. During the Qatari foreign minister’s recent visit to Cairo it was clear that there was a munificent financial injection into the process of making bank deposits, reducing interest rates and extending repayment periods. In addition, he said, it was reported that Qatar intends to furnish some additional $3 billion in loans outside of the Central Bank channels. This report was based on leaks from the records of the meeting between Hamad bin Jassim and President Mohamed Morsi and his minister of finance. Qatar is making generous offers, that are very tempting to Cairo, in order to obtain investments everywhere in Egypt from Sharq Al-Tafria in the Suez Canal area to Halwan, and in order to establish joint ventures in Africa in fields ranging from electricity generation and steel production to aviation, he pointed out, adding that it was amazing how quickly all the business regarding the Qatari-owned Diyar and Barwa companies was settled.
The government source went on to say, “With regard to the Suez Canal zone projects, Egypt has received investment offers from countries around the world.” Among the countries he named were the US, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Britain, India, Holland, Russia, China and Japan. He explained that the G8’s Deauville agreement provides for a package of investments in Egypt and that the Suez Canal development project is a chief component of this. “If there are attempts on the part of the Muslim Brothers to play outside this fund by enabling Qatar to enter the [Suez] project through a policy that gives it possession rights, they will never pan out. There is an international agreement and there are countries that are keeping a very close eye on everything concerned with these projects and there are billions of dollars of global investments ready to pour into them.” The assistant minister is of the opinion that the US, above all, should pay close attention to Qatari actions in this regard. “We know that Qatar realises that the petroleum potential it has today needs to be invested in the future. But this should not come at Egypt’s expense,” he added.
The Muslim Brotherhood has strenuously and repeatedly denied the above-mentioned rumours and leaks. An official from the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, told the Weekly, “Qatar will come on board the Suez Canal project as an economic front for four countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US. There are companies with a multinational orientation that will be involved. Therefore, there is no problem.” He stressed that the appointment of a presidential commissioner with the ranking of assistant prime minister to oversee the project has no other purpose than to help the project from becoming bogged down in red tape and to speed up the resolution to any problems that might arise.
Mohamed Gouda, a Muslim Brotherhood economic expert, objects to what he described as the “policy of distorting” the project simply because it is the Muslim Brothers who are promoting it. In an interview with the Weekly Gouda explained, “Although it is true that the project has been with the Egyptian government for a long time, it was the Muslim Brothers who have since developed it. Therefore, they are now responsible. But it is being supervised by specialists under the supervision of Walid Abdel-Ghaffar.”
He continues, “what we see happening today is an attempt to obstruct the president’s course in this direction. The counter-revolutionary forces have united in order to put a halt to this project that can have a huge economic impact for Egypt, generating some $100 billion, and that will change the balance of political power in the entire region.”, Gouda stressed, “the Muslim Brotherhood does not treat Egypt as a plantation of its own and does not deserve to be blamed for everything. We are the most sincere [of all parties] in our intentions to this nation and we know that history will show no mercy. Why did no one raise the matter of the infringement on Egyptian sovereignty when the Mubarak regime handed the whole of the Ain Al-Sokhna port to the UAE?” He added, “everything will be subject to government control in accordance with the rules of transparency. But what we are facing is vicious waves of treachery from at home and abroad with the aim of obstructing our democratic and economic course.”
The subject of Israel has been present in the background on this issue, not so much because of its relations with Qatar or the US as because of strategic and regional security considerations. Some believe that Israel is keen to obstruct the Suez development project because it does not want to see Egypt prosper. Others believe that the UAE also harbours such sentiments. Certainly many Muslim Brotherhood officials are of this opinion. As one source put it, “the UAE is financing the violence we see in Egypt today. It is pouring money into everything and everyone that can harm the Muslim Brotherhood. What is happening in the cities of the Suez Canal today is the best proof of this intervention. Israel is doing the same.”
Egyptians will never forget the story of the million Egyptian labourers who built the Suez Canal or of blood of the thousands of workers that flowed through the basin of the canal before it was filled with water that would create the maritime link between the East and West and North and South. In this spirit, perhaps, military expert General Safwat Al-Zayat prefers to take the long view. He said that people should not be hasty in passing judgements or accusations regarding “treachery” or “selling out” the country. “We need to understand that the countries that are being accused today will be turning to Egypt when they fall into stagnation. We also need to realise that there will be a law promulgated to govern the project and an organisation created to oversee it. This law and this organisation will not carry the name of the Muslim Brotherhood but of Egypt. Moreover, no Egyptian, let alone the army or the government, will permit for any negligence or remiss on this issue because it stands for the blood of our forebears that runs in our veins. Whatever our political affiliations may be, our affiliation to the nation is the chief and overriding determinant.”

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