Saturday,24 June, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Saturday,24 June, 2017
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Geography as destiny

In his memoirs, published posthumously in 1996, the late geographer Gamal Hamdan wrote:

“Today, Egypt is faced with either power or extinction, vitality or death! If Egypt fails in its bid to evolve into a great power that dominates the entire region, everyone — enemies and brothers and friends, near and far and farther away — will try to grab a piece of it, a slice of the big pie!” (Safahat Min Awraqihi Al-Khasah, p.31)

The renowned academic continued:

“When we say strong Egypt, we mean a dignified and powerful Egypt, abroad and at home. But power alone is not enough. A singer needs a strong voice, but that voice must be beautiful as well... Power is all about national liberation and sovereignty, about pride and freedom from submission and imperialism, from Zionism and Israel. But beauty is all about dignity of the people living in this country, about justice and equity, about the redistribution of wealth and income. Give and take, depth and outreach: This is what Egypt signifies.” (Ibid, p.41)

What Egypt lacks, argues Hamdan, is not just power, but something more: energy and vitality for the individual and the country, both abroad and at home. Egypt is yet to step into its rightful place, reclaim its dignity and status, and inspire its citizens with a sense of belonging and lasting pride.

This is how Hamdan sees Egypt, a country with a place in history and far-reaching influence in its Arab, African and Middle East milieu. A country with a position to claim and maintain; a country with a destiny and a message.

We at Al-Ahram Weekly have chosen this review of events in 2015 from across the kaleidoscope of geography, bringing into sharper focus the main themes and players of the year.

Whereas the course of the Arab Spring, multiple eruptions of violence, and altered lines of power and politics in the region inspired our end-of-year headlines in 2012, 2013, and 2014, for this issue, we bring a distillation of what the media reported — on paper, online and via satellite channels.

Taking our cue from geography, we examine events at home and abroad, shedding light on the boundaries that geographical realities impose on us, and on others.

A major role in formulating regional and international policies, as Hamdan said, is what everyone expects of Egypt in times of peace as in times of war. This role stems to a great extent from its unique locale in the world, and its geographical proximity to Asian and African nations.

A major player in the region since time immemorial, Egypt is a nexus of politics, a cauldron of politics, and the place where East meets West. Sinai connects Egypt to Asia, the Nile connects it to Africa, and the Suez Canal makes it a vital connection for all international maritime trade.

 All of the above defines not only our place in the world, but the way that we perceive ourselves, understand our culture, and formulate our views.

Now that the region has become an unfortunate hub for violence and international intervention, for fanatics and foreign armies, with fleets roaming its shores and aircraft zooming in on its targets, Egypt is gaining in importance once more.

In the midst of the uncertainties and ruptures, of the confrontations and mistrust, of wanton bloodshed and ineffectual diplomacy, Egypt has stood its ground. Its army didn’t fall apart, its people kept their focus on the future. Egypt has been fighting terror without anybody’s help, and will continue to do so.

While the region seemed to have lost its compass, we pushed ahead with development, opening a new branch of the Suez Canal that will have a decisive long-term effect on the country’s economy. For this project to get off the ground, Egyptians contributed billions of dollars in a matter of only days, voting with their pockets, showing their confidence in a future of prosperity and excellence.

Speaking of the Suez Canal, Hamdan had this to say:

“The Suez Canal sums up Egypt’s geographic and strategic location. Egypt has become synonymous to the waterway, or almost so — for the canal has reinvigorated our location, turning our land into a golden gate for commerce. We are no longer a pivotal nation for the region, but for the entire world.”

Following in Hamdan’s footsteps, we have attempted in this issue to illustrate the connection between the local and its place in history, and to demonstrate how 2015 added significance to various parts of the country.

Take, for example, parliament. We will review the role of this venue in our current and past politics, up to the point where elections would once again populate this venerable edifice with new faces, in keeping with the roadmap of July 2013.

Then we will look at the Prince Shwikar Palace, which now serves as the cabinet offices, and speak about the successive governments that worked in this place, and the Sherif Ismail cabinet, which is currently working on the programme it will present to the new parliament.

Then there is Al-Mugamma, the massive government complex on the southern edge of Tahrir Square, a place that has often been associated, fairly or unfairly, with red tape and sluggish administration; all of which offers us a chance to discuss government restructuring plans and the new civil service law.

A discussion of the stock exchange and the Central Bank buildings provides an opportunity to discuss fiscal and economic policies, and the future of the Egyptian pound.

Tahrir Square was the site of the rallying cries of the January 2011 and June 2013 revolutions, and we approach it in connection with the aspirations and outcomes of both revolutions.

At a short distance from Tahrir, we proceed to the Supreme Court, the complex of courts that houses the High Judiciary Court, the Appeals Court, and the Office of the prosecutor-general. In connection with this particular venue, we discuss the judiciary, its performance, and certain attempts that were made to undermine its authority.

Al-Ittihadiya Palace, in Cairo’s eastern suburbs, is where the president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, works. The place has an interesting history, and while reviewing some aspects of its past, we also take a look at the presidency, its powers and responsibilities, and what is expected of it.

A hop to Sharm El-Sheikh in Southern Sinai is also in order, to discuss the outcome of the economic conference held earlier in the year, and the recent blow to tourism caused by the downing of a Russian civilian plane with 224 passengers aboard.

Then we will take a look at Al-Dabaa, on the northern coast, which will soon be the site of a power station driven by nuclear reactors.

In North Sinai, we review recent events in Rafah, Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, where the army and security forces are still waging a war on terrorists.

The building of Al-Azhar in Fatimid Cairo offers us a chance to discuss the policies of Al-Azhar under its current grand imam, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and the ongoing bid to renew religious discourse.

The building of the Police Academy is discussed in connection with the country’s bid to restore law and order.

Rabaa Al-Adaweya, famous for the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in, has been named after Egypt’s late prosecutor-general, Hisham Barakat, who was killed by a bomb placed in his car on 29 June 2015. The square came to symbolise the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathisers, and the war they waged against the country’s security and legal apparatus.

The Maspero Building, where the country’s television and radio service is located, offers a chance to discuss media issues and problems, and its code of honour. The Press Syndicate, famous for protests on its steps, rounds up the discussion of journalism and press freedom.

The Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya is not only the most prestigious place of worship and administrative centre for Copts, but also a locale that inspires us to discuss the rights of citizenry and the equality of all Egyptians, regardless of faith, which the Salafis have challenged of late.

The Maspero Triangle, to the north of Tahrir Square, is now the subject of an urban renewal project, one we discuss in connection with the country’s policy for upgrading informal settlements.

A visit to Saidieh School, established in 1908 in the vicinity of what was to become Cairo University, offers an insight into the country’s education policies. And a trip to Qasr Al-Aini Hospital provides us with insight into the conditions of the health sector.

Visits to various villages in the south and north of the country shed light on rural conditions and the problems facing our farmers.

Abroad, we contemplate two palaces in Yemen, and the continuing civil war between the Houthis, backed by former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, and the legitimate government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Syrian refugee camps, and the unfortunate fate of Palmyra, are part of our discussion of the ongoing conflict in Syria.

We also visit Baghdad’s Sahat Al-Tahrir, or Liberation Square, in Iraq. We discuss political alliances in the city of Derna in Libya. And we tour the city of Sousse, in Tunisia, where gunmen killed 39 people, mostly foreigners, in June.

Also in this issue, we review past and current developments in Sahat Riyad Al-Solh in Beirut, Lebanon; Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey; and the Holy Shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

We wrap up the tour with a look at the Arab League and UN headquarters in Cairo and New York respectively.

It is our wish that this review illustrate to our readers that some things do not change, and one is geography.

Because of its place and size, Egypt will always be crucial to the region and the world, and it has to act with this in mind. Egypt must keep in mind that its higher interests are related to the fate of its sister countries that are fighting for survival in turbulent times.

We have to keep an eye on what happens in Syria, in Yemen, and in Ethiopia. We must pay attention to what is happening in the Strait of Aden, which leads to the Suez Canal; and with the Grand Renaissance Dam, which has ramifications for the volume of water in the Nile. None of this is optional, but is a consequence of where we live, and who we are.

The late philosopher and essayist Abbas Al-Akkad made this point clear in an article entitled “We, Egyptians,” which appeared in the magazine Al-Hilal:

“The world cannot have peace if our region is turbulent, and the world cannot have trouble if our region is stable. Nothing of significance happened in recent memory that didn’t have consequences for our part of the world. If we become in charge of our destiny, we will become a barrier of safety between East and West and between rivals everywhere in this world. We have the ability to distil cultures and messages. If we were to take something from the West and something from the East, there is no one more capable than us of bringing meaning to all of humanity, of producing a fruit that is neither eastern or western, but pure light, minus fire.”

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