Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1257, (6-12 August 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1257, (6-12 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

editorial: Bigger than a canal

Al-Ahram Weekly

When flags flutter in the wind, platforms are set up for speakers, and bands are flown in to play; when it is time to celebrate, to decorate, and to honour those who turned a dream into reality, we mustn’t forget the real work ahead.

The opening of the new Suez Canal is a defining moment, not because of the dazzle and festivities, but because we should use it to put our feet on the right path.

It is easy to take pride, and God knows we need it. But it is also easy to fall into the trap of exaggeration, and that’s a luxury we cannot afford.

Confidence is what we need, but not delusion, and the line between the two is sometimes too thin to identify.

Ours is no easy task, for we have to rebuild the country while keeping terror at bay.

So when the glow of the fireworks has faded, and the visiting dignitaries have flown home, let’s take a minute to think. Let’s have the wisdom to put things into perspective.

The day of 6 August 2015 will go down in history as a remarkable day. It was made possible by the $8.4 billion that ordinary Egyptians not the super rich and not the grand financiers collected in one week, a token of their dedication to their country.

When big business hesitated, ordinary Egyptians went ahead and did it, and that’s history for you.

That’s also a game changer, a sign that we need to introduce new policies to ensure that this middle class that gave us everything, that rose to the cause, will be allowed not only to survive but to grow. And so will its values and example.

The work was done on schedule no mean achievement in a country with a record of sluggish bureaucracy. The army is to be thanked for spearheading the effort, but we must expect it to turn over this kind of work to civilians, and focus on its normal work, which is to protect the country’s safety and the normalcy of its daily life.

We need the army to defeat terror, and we need civilians to take care of the rest.

We have proved ourselves worthy of great achievements, but we must also incorporate these achievements into a clear vision for the future.

This is what Gamal Abdel-Nasser did when, 59 years ago, he nationalised the Suez Canal. This wasn’t just a show of independence on Egypt’s part, but the opening shot in a battle for liberation that swept over the colonised world like wildfire. The revenue Egypt secured from the canal funded the High Dam, brought electricity to the neglected countryside, helped establish heavy industry, and accelerated the pace of social reforms in the country.

It wasn’t a lone step, but part of a pattern.

Standing on a platform in Manshiya Square in Alexandria on 26 July 1956, Abdel-Nasser inspired generations inside and outside this country, made Egypt a household name across the world, and redefined the meaning of national dignity.

Only two years earlier, in that same square in Alexandria, Abdel-Nasser was fired upon by an alleged Muslim Brotherhood assassin. But he remained defiant, not only taking on the Brotherhood, but challenging Britain and France into war, and winning.

The reason Abdel-Nasser won this particular battle is that he inspired a whole nation, a whole region and the world beyond.

He understood that depth of the people’s feelings about the canal, and their eagerness to assert their control over the country. Nasser understood the depth of the Egyptian wound in the canal. When he distributed guns to the nation to fight what could have been a long war, the confidence he inspired was mutual. When the invading forces left, the guns were collected almost overnight. The job was done, and the nation remained united.

Abdel-Nasser rewrote the history of the canal. But another man must be also remembered on this occasion. Khedive Ismail may not have been a brilliant financier, and the debts he incurred while modernising Egypt were nothing short of disaster. But let’s look at the bigger picture. Here is a 19th century ruler who had an ambitious vision for his land, that wanted his nation to be a world leader, and came close. His city planners transformed a major section of Cairo, turning it into one of the greatest cities of the world: vibrant, cosmopolitan and enviable.

Celebrating is a wonderful thing, but while we’re at it let’s use this energy to come up with a vision, one that involves the whole nation.

While we’re at it, let’s defuse the tension between the government and the young revolutionaries. Let’s release the activists from prison and integrate them into our vision of the future.

In 1869, when Khedive Ismail threw one of the greatest parties in history for visiting dignitaries and the royalty of the world, the Egyptian presence in the opening was almost folkloric, symbolic. We’ve sacrificed 100,000 men, some historians say, to build the canal, but the project remained foreign in operation, in management and in perspective.

We have to involve the whole nation in our bid for a better future. We have to set down the terms of our national efforts, making social justice an integral part of our way of life.

We must seek strength in national unity, in the diversity of our people and the dynamism of our young.

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