Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Guardian of the Nile

Obituary: Rushdi Said (1920-2013)

by Aziza Sami

Al-Ahram Weekly

Rushdi Said, who studied at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and obtained his PhD from Harvard, was a pioneer in the study of Egypt’s geology. Long dubbed the “Father of the Nile”, he was a passionate ecologist before ecology was the fashionable cause it is today, spending the greater part of his career arguing that preserving the ecology of the River Nile was the fundamental factor in safeguarding Egypt’s future.

He was involved in public life as a university professor, the founder and head of Egypt’s National Mining Organisation (later the Egyptian Geological and Survey Authority Mining Centre), as a minister of industry and member of three successive parliaments between 1964 and 1971.

Said produced several authoritative works on Egypt’s topography and demographic development including The Geology of Egypt, River Nile Geology and Hydrology and Utilisation. His writings not only charted the history of the River Nile but examined the river’s future capabilities.

A scientist with a social vision, Said was an articulate advocate of opening up new frontiers for population settlement in the desert, arguing that it was the only way to prevent further degradation of the Nile and its valley. He delineated an ambitious project that involved linking the Western Desert to the Nile Valley, paving the way for a comprehensive demographic resettlement far beyond the limited efforts at land reclamation on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly in 2000 Said argued that “reclaiming the desert for agricultural purposes is not a sustainable goal since it depends on underground water that will sooner or later run out.”

“Even extending canals from the Nile into the desert is too costly: whether through Al-Salam Canal or Toshka Canal… the pumping stations make agriculture too expensive an activity to achieve its goals.”

His vision for the Nile and its valley was, in the end, a vision for all of Egypt.

“Let me share with you my vision for the Egypt I want you to inhabit,” Said told the graduating class of the American University in Cairo in 2005. “It is an Egypt in which the Delta and the Nile Valley have been transformed into one great garden, a natural reserve free of industry, wholly devoted to agriculture, inhabited by a population limited enough in numbers to live in harmony with their environment and maintain a balance with natural resources. I envision the deserts of Egypt strewn with well-spaced and well-planned habitation centres, built around extensive industrial bases and fuelled by locally available energy resources.”

It was a vision of development more in tune with the socialist policies adopted by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, with their emphasis on industry and production, than with the laissez faire economic policy adopted by Nasser’s successor Anwar Al-Sadat which relied heavily on the volatile service sector, including tourism. It is no coincidence that it was under Sadat that Said withdrew from public life, submitting his resignation as minister of industry in 1977.

In September 1981 Said was included among the 1,500 public figures whom Sadat ordered detained in a massive crackdown against the Egyptian opposition.

Notwithstanding the breadth and scope of his writings, Said’s most definitive work was, perhaps, his autobiography, published in 2000 under the title: The Journey of a Lifetime: Egypt’s Wealth under Abdel-Nasser and Sadat.

Said identified himself as the son of Egypt’s “liberal era”, the period immediately preceding the 1952 Revolution: born in Cairo to a middle class Coptic family which originally hailed from Assiut, he was acutely aware of the interplay of his family’s Coptic identity with the surrounding social and political environment while remaining to the last a firm believer in the values of secular liberalism.

Having worked within the administrative structures of the Egyptian regime under both Nasser and Sadat he was in a position to diagnose the shortcomings of both: “There was a persistent lack of transparency and a consistent blocking of the flow of information,” he wrote. “Too often state officials were not accountable, and citizens remained unengaged in civil society organisations.”

In 1981 Said settled in the United States, returning to Egypt every winter with his wife Wedad, a former professor at the American University in Cairo. His annual homecomings were as regular as the inundations of the river to which he devoted so much of his life, ceasing only when ill health overcame him.

Rushdi Said is survived by his wife Wedad, his children Sawsan and Karim, and six grandchildren.


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