Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Boosting Egyptian-Cypriot relations

An Egyptian delegation was in the heart of Cyprus recently to celebrate the Creative Geo-Tourism Festival, writes Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

To the beats of drums, the Egyptian delegation was welcomed in the Troodos Mountains, the green heart of Cyprus, where a gala conference and exhibition on geo-tourism was recently held. The event aimed at enhancing tourism, youth and green entrepreneurship and business collaboration between Egypt and Cyprus, as well as innovation and skills development.
The Geo-Tourism Conference, Exhibition and Business Forum had been organised under the auspices of Cyprus’s commissioner for the environment and commissioner for volunteering and non-governmental organisations with the support of the Egyptian embassy in Nicosia, the Mawared Foundation for Sustainable Development, the Cyprus-Egypt Business Association and the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as St Catherine’s and YPM Business Consultants.
“It is a great honour to have the largest Egyptian delegation to visit Cyprus since the early 1960s,” said Panayiotis Papadopoulos, president of the Platres Community Council (PCC) in Cyprus, who added that the presence of Egypt’s minister of the environment, Laila Iskandar, at the event would encourage steps being taken to built cooperation between Egypt and Cyprus in different fields.
The twinning of Platres in Cyprus and St Catherine’s in Egypt had also added to the event, he said. Papadopoulos said that Egypt and Cyprus had always had very strong cultural and economic links, and the Troodos Mountains had long been a destination of choice for Egyptians.
One of those visitors was the former King Farouk, with the result that Platres is known as “King Farouk’s resort” in Cyprus, and the Platres Community Council has named one of its meeting halls after Farouk. The hall is painted white, and the middle of each wall is decorated with a motif depicting the Egyptian crown. There are black and white photographs depicting Farouk with family members, officials and other royal family members on the walls.
Papadopoulos said that Cyprus had borrowed the recipe for some of its local traditional sweets, called loukoumia and made at the village of Fini, from Egypt. Both countries had shared a similar history, he said, since both had been colonised by the British in the late 19th century.
The development of tourism in Platres had been thanks to Egyptian efforts, he added. In the early 1900s, Greek Egyptians came to Cyprus, particularly Troodos, and built hotels for businessmen in the Platres Mountains, now a world heritage site. Manal Abdel-Tawab, head of the commercial section at the Egyptian embassy, said that investments between the countries had been flourishing since the 1970s.
Cyprus has 140 investment organisations in Egypt, half of them working in services and construction. The export capital of these organisations has reached LE4.763 billion. At the beginning of 2013, Abdel-Tawab said, Egyptian exports to Cyprus had stood at 10.2 million euros, with imports at 11.6 million. In 2011, commercial exchanges between the countries had reached 92.6 million euros, an increase of 24.3 per cent over 2010, when the figure had stood at 74.5 million.
Egypt’s ambassador to Cyprus, Heba Al-Marassi, described the conference as a great opportunity for Egyptian and Cypriot representatives to discuss various fields of development, tourism, trade and investment. She highlighted the fact that in spite of the many initiatives made by the private sector to consolidate trade between the two countries, there were still few business-oriented visits.
But, she said, the presence of Egypt’s minister of environment and the Cyprus commissioners of the environment and volunteering and NGOs, together with the delegation of businessmen from Egypt at the conference, could well be a stepping-stone towards the development of deeper relations between the private sectors of both countries.
“Bilateral trade and investment between both countries has its own share to contribute to both countries’ development, but it still does not match the desired targets and most certainly does not reflect the level and prospects of our excellent bilateral relations,” Al-Marassi said. She added that efforts had been made to identify fields in which the two countries had a mutual interest and where new opportunities could lie.
Egypt had been implementing an array of different measures and laws to facilitate and encourage trade with the outside world and to attract foreign investments in a more globalised economy, she said. The Egyptian-EU Partnership Agreement also provided the legal framework for Egyptian products to penetrate the Cypriot market. Moreover, Egypt, due to its strategic location and its accession to a large number of bilateral and multilateral accords had every prospect of boosting its Mediterranean trade.
The unmatched geographical location of Cyprus and its proximity to Egypt was another key factor establishing the country as a gateway for Egyptian products to reach the EU market, she said. “Egyptian products having high added value, including agricultural products and others, could very well be re-exported from Cyprus to other EU countries,” she said. Tourism and energy were other significant sectors with a huge potential of cooperation and promising positive results.
Al-Marassi said that the on-going exploration for hydrocarbon reserves in the exclusive economic zones of Cyprus and Egypt in the Mediterranean had opened great windows of opportunity for cooperation between the two countries, either on the governmental level or on that of the private sector.
“I sincerely believe that the deliberations and business match-making meetings which took place during the conference will stand as firm proof of our intention to take our economic and trading relation in various sectors to new horizons, with a direct positive benefit for our two people,” she said.
Khaled Fahmi, the former minister of environment, said that the event could help particularly in exchanging information and experience of the St Catherine’s medicinal plant project and similar projects in Platres, and that it could help promote marketing activities, making tourist destinations in the two countries more sustainable.
Iskandar, the present minister, said that when she had heard that she had been appointed as minister she had felt “quite choked” since she had come from an NGO and civil society background and her views had not in the past necessarily been pro-government. “When Tarek Al-Baz, a representative of the Mawared Foundation for Sustainable Development, approached me to come to Troodos and witness the signing of the twinning agreement in my official capacity, I was very enthusiastic because now the government is promoting actions that start with NGOs and finally the civil society is leading things,” she said.
“Mawared is an NGO, and it is working with St Catherine’s, also an NGO supported by the UNDP, and all this has been really encouraging.” Iskandar said that before the 25 January Revolution in Egypt there had been little community participation in such projects, “but now I am hoping that we can take further the work we have done and not just the exhibits and twinning agreement.”
“During my work outside government, I saw lots of good intentions but still the gap was widening between rich and poor. The corporate world was getting all the privileges and the communities getting none. A lot of lip service was being paid to partnerships with communities, but actually communities did not gain empowerment. They wanted to lead initiatives in their own right,” Iskandar said.
“So, I am hoping that as we are now looking for a new paradigm of economic development in Egypt, we should bear in mind what we have seen here.” Iskandar said that communities did not want the corporate sector to give them handouts or welfare or what was left over from commercial development, but on the contrary they wanted empowerment and to be equal partners in business. The Cyprus event, she said, was testimony to that.
“St Catherine’s is unique, just like Platres is unique, and I am delighted that Mawared and Platres have gathered here to cooperate together.” St Catherine’s is one of 13 environmentally protected areas in Egypt, covering 15 per cent of the landmass of the country, and it is considered to be a unique conservation area. It has 472 wild medicinal plants, 19 of them endemic, representing about 45 per cent of the total in Egypt.
“This makes the area a good opportunity for enterprise, and it also means that the area can be a pioneer in introducing change to government. We all know that the knowledge these plants represent is held in the communities that care for them. If we succeed in teaching the local communities to acquire the intellectual property rights to these medicinal plants, then we are truly on the path towards empowering the community of St Catherine’s,” Iskandar said.
One of the main reasons behind the 25 January Revolution had been growing inequality and the wide gap between rich and poor. “I want to ensure that the current cabinet is committed to removing this unacceptable gap, and happily the corporate sector has come forward and wants to be engaged and learn how to do this too. In some cases, the corporate sector does not know enough about the empowerment of communities,” Iskandar said, adding that the Cyprus event could be the beginning of a new dialogue based on an equal partnership in which everybody could enjoy the fruits of economic development.
“I am really happy to be in a town that has done this, and I hope that the knowledge of this experience can be transferred and contextualised in Egypt as we go forward together,” she said.  

THE TWINNING AGREEMENT: During the event a twinning agreement was signed between the Platres Community Council (PCC) and the St Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA), in order to create a network of NGOs in Egypt and Troodos that have an important role to play in the development of both societies.
Papadopoulos said that the twining agreement was a good opportunity to promote the two areas’ roots and cultures, as well as to provide new development and job opportunities on both sides.
Gamal Suleiman, head of the SCMPA, said that the twining agreement aimed at exchanging experiences in the field of the propagation of medicinal plants in an attempt to increase the capacity and skills of local communities to develop their own environmental products and to improve the quality of their local handicrafts. This, he continued, could help the local communities to export their goods and find opportunities in international markets, creating new job opportunities which in turn would increase living standards.
The twinning, he said, would also employ the best experts in medicinal plants in order to execute development programmes. “We are now on the right track,” Suleiman said, adding that after almost ten years since the establishment of the SCMPA, the association had reached an international level and had succeeded in gaining a foothold in EU markets thanks to the twinning agreement.
The SCMPA is a local NGO established in 2003 immediately after the establishment of the Medicinal Plants Conservation Project (MPCP), with the aim of improving the position of Bedouin women and reducing poverty through supporting women’s equality in access to resources and other rights. The NGO depends on voluntary efforts in playing an effective role in the community.
According to Adel Abdallah, director of the MPCP, women’s membership in the SCMPA had reached 296, representing one third of the association’s members.
He said that the SCMPA had been providing raw materials and financial support for women to enable them to produce their traditional handmade products through handicraft programmes that included honey production, medicinal plants production, micro-loans and market programmes, as well as a collectors’ association.
They were also involved in the packaging of dried products and the creation of packaging materials for plants and gifts such as handmade bags, necklaces, bracelets and wall ornaments, he said.
Sheikh Attia Suleiman, a senior board member of the SCMPA, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the association had given loans from its revolving fund to buy cookers and butane cylinders that would help reduce firewood collection and improve the quality of life in the community. He said that loans for small honey production businesses had also been given.
In 2012, the SCMPA won the prestigious Equator Prize for its efforts to preserve the wild medicinal plants and rare and endangered species in the St Catherine’s protected area. The SCMPA was selected from 818 submissions from more than 100 countries for the prize because of its positive work to improve sustainability, innovation and women’s empowerment.

THE MEDICINAL PLANTS PROJECT: St Catherine’s has 472 species of rare medicinal plants, 19 of them endemic. However, these are now under threat, and they may face extinction due to poor farming practices and growing tourism.
In order to save these rare plants and at the same time improve the standard of living in the Bedouin community at St Catherine’s, which has developed extensive knowledge of the medicinal plant species and their usages over the past millennia, the Medicinal Plant Conservation Project (MPCP) was established in 2003, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA).
Abdallah, MPCP head, said that the project aimed at examining and eliminating the root causes of the loss of biodiversity in the area, addressing threats to the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants in Egypt through a number of interventions while at the same time empowering the Bedouin community at St Catherine’s to use and manage its resources in a sustainable manner.
It was also designed to address the unsustainable use of medicinal plants at St Catherine’s and to promote their sustainable use, while at the same time conserving the indigenous knowledge of the local Bedouin who use the medicinal plants. The project’s main objective was to conserve globally significant medicinal plant species through four lead programmes.
The first of these aims to implement in-situ and ex-situ conservation programmes; the second applies community-based natural resources management programmes at St Catherine’s; the third helps local community development through capacity-building programmes, the development of new marketable products, the strengthening of the market value chain, and the enhancement of livelihoods; and the fourth supports medicinal plants conservation and management through a national strategy and action plan that will enshrine benefits sharing under a national law.
Abdallah said that the MPCP was developing the capacity of the Bedouin community to cultivate, harvest and process wild medicinal and aromatic plants on a sustainable basis, as well as to inform people of the benefits of their production. Training in conservation practices, public awareness, and biodiversity education also formed part of the project, commensurate with the tourist nature of the region.

THE CYPRUS-EGYPT BUSINESS ASSOCIATION: This is a newly established NGO, which aims to gather Egyptian and Cypriot businessmen in order to help small entrepreneurs to market their products, handicrafts and industries.
George Ayad, the owner of an oil services company who is a member of the association, told the Weekly that it was waiting for the approval of the Foreign Ministry before all the legal procedures required for its establishment could be completed. He said that the association aimed at helping small entrepreneurs to market their products, while also providing opportunities for small investments and handicrafts production.
After the 30 June Revolution in Egypt, Ayad said, businessmen had had a role to play in restoring Egypt’s reputation abroad. “This event in Cyprus is a great opportunity for businessmen,” he said, adding that it did not matter what the purposes of the meeting specifically were. What was important was that it was the largest such gathering to have taken place after the 30 June Revolution.  
Cyprus was an important country, Ayyad said, not only because it was going through a similar economic situation to Egypt, but also because it was the nearest country to Egypt in terms of related economic interests. In two weeks’ time, he said, an important conference on oil and gas development would take place in Cyprus. While in the past such conferences had been organised in Egypt, this has not happened this year owing to the country’s difficult political situation. Because of Cyprus’s neighbouring location, and the fact that it has similar interests in oil and gas production, the conferences are now held there.
“Our common borders and territorial waters with Cyprus allow us to carry out joint venture work in the oil and gas industry. Egypt has great experience and excellent production in oil services, similar to its counterparts in Europe. Together with Cyprus, we could form a good working team in such oil services,” Ayad said.
He added that Israel had taken control of the largest oil well found in Egypt’s territorial waters over the last two years because it had not experienced any resistance from other countries. Israel had taken advantage of the turmoil in Egypt to take control of the oil field, and in six months’ time it would be producing oil from it, Ayad said.

A VIRTUAL CULTURAL CENTRE: Among the suggested joint ventures mentioned at the conference was that of a “virtual cultural centre” suggested by the Greek-Egyptian interior designer Thomas Vayonitis. His idea is to create a high-tech cultural centre in Egypt and Cyprus to educate children and take them on a virtual trip through Egypt’s monuments and through those of Cyprus.
The centre, Vayonitis said, would be an audio-visual online centre that would enable each person to watch, enjoy and roam around the countries’ different sites without leaving his or her country. It would be implemented through a high-tech computer system created by top computer companies and carried out in collaboration with Crete University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
In addition to being an education centre, Vayonitis explained, it would also help foster an innovative style of tourism that would allow tourists to visit a site or place in a country without leaving their computer terminals. Thanks to this technology, a Cypriot could enjoy a walk through historic Cairo without leaving Cyprus, he said.  

THE TRADE EXHIBITION: Dozens of Egyptian businessmen and tourism, environment, oil and renewables experts, as well as representatives of agro-food companies, educational and training institutions, and journalists gathered with their Cypriot counterparts at the PCC to attend the opening of the exhibition and the allied events.
The main hall of the PCC had been used to host some two dozen pavilions displaying local handicrafts and food products from Troodos and St Catherine’s.
There were cosmetics and perfumes made from roses, limes and oranges; jams made from Platres varieties of cherries and cantaloupes; and handmade Cypriot and Egyptian jewellery. In one corner of the hall a large pavilion displaying home-made chocolates made with Cypriot goat butter was located. Among the products were chocolates made in pyramid and sphinx shapes.
“I made these to welcome my Egyptian friends,” chocolatier John Adams told the Weekly, adding that they had been made using the finest Cypriot chocolate and in different flavours.  
Thomas George, a Cypriot who was selling local traditional sweets and peanut brittle carob honey and nuts, told the Weekly that he was giving special discounts to Egyptians because he loved Egypt where he had spent his childhood in Alexandria. He said that the techniques and recipes used for the sweets had originally come from Egypt.
The hall also featured a display of herbal tea blends and medicinal plant products from St Catherine’s, including horsemint, rosemary, candles, soaps and honey. St Catherine’s handicrafts such as scarves and bags embellished with decorative coloured threads were also on show.  
At the far end of the hall, two Bedouin were kneading dough beside an aluminium pan and gas heater. “We are baking farashih,” said Badria Mohamed, explaining that this was a Bedouin pie made of flour, water and salt and cooked inside a special pot. Mohamed said that farashih was Bedouin bread and that it could be eaten with cheese, honey, thyme, or jam. In fact, farashih is a very thin, large pie that looks like a pancake but has a different, salty taste.
Among the strangest collections of bags on display were those made by Heba Fares, a creative designer. Her bags are made of ostrich leather and decorated with early photographs depicting well-known places in Egypt such as the Old Opera House and the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge in Cairo. Photographs of King Farouk and members of Egypt’s former royal family had also been used to decorate the bags.
Rania Hilal, an Egyptian handmade jewellery designer who creates dramatic sculptured designs working with beads and semi-precious stones, was also at the fair, showing off her wire structures and earrings, necklaces, rings and bracelets. “I participated in this event not only as a member of the Mawared volunteers, but also as a designer who wants to introduce a new style of Egyptian jewellery that mixes the oriental theme with a modern touch,” she said.
Paintings depicting Egyptian faces and scenes of historic Cairo such as Al-Muizz Street and mawlawia dancing were also on show.

KING FAROUK IN PLATRES: At the Forest Park Hotel in Platres where former King Farouk used to rest on his trips to London, the royal theme is still evident. Farouk’s red 1936 Chevrolet, used by the king on his way to and from Limassol, is parked in front of the hotel’s entrance. A small handmade carpet that Farouk offered to the hotel owner’s father decorates the car’s interior.
To commemorate Farouk as well as the other dignitaries who once visited the hotel and stayed within its walls, the hotel’s owner, Heraklis Skyrianides, has put on display photographs of these dignitaries on the walls of the main corridors. He has also named two dining rooms of the hotel after the name of Farouk and the British Queen Mary.
At the heart of the Farouk hall, Skyrianides has hung an old Egyptian green flag with the crescent and three stars. This flag, Skyrianides told the Weekly, was a gift from the king to his father so that it could be put at the entrance of the hotel beside the flags of Cyprus and Platres during the king’s two weeks stays. In a niche, there is a set of green glasses in a special silver chest with Farouk’s royal stamp. This set was offered by Farouk to the hotel so that he could drink out of them.
A photograph of the king with his dog is also on display. Skyrianides said that the room was now dedicated to Farouk and anyone dining there could feel his presence. He also said that a collection of a dozen photographs showing the king with top officials would be on display soon. He said that the daughter of one of the king’s prime ministers had originally given him these photographs.
The neighbouring room was dedicated to Queen Mary and it had been furnished with a typical English sofa, chairs and a table.
“The visit of the Egyptian delegation of 85 businessmen to Cyprus was very successful and reached its goals,” Al-Baz said of the trade exhibition as a whole, adding that the main goal of the trip had nevertheless been to provide an opportunity for NGOs in the poorer areas of Egypt to cooperate and get in connect with their counterparts in the EU. The conference had been a great opportunity for them to do that, he said.
Iskandar’s support had given the Bedouin of St Catherine’s, who are members of the SCMPA, the opportunity to make their presence felt in the international market, Al-Baz said, adding that “this is the first time that an NGO has had the opportunity to introduce its products abroad directly and not through a mediator.”
He said that the presence of the eight people from the SCMPA representing the members of the association and the role they had played in the exhibition had been very important in helping them to asset ownership of their activities. The event also reflected the innovative role played by Egypt’s government, through the participation of Iskandar, in supporting the initiatives of the Bedouin, he said, as well as the twinning of Egyptian and Cypriot NGOs.
“It is about time that the government was not seen as the only entity able to sign agreements and take actions, though it still has a very important role to play in supporting the green job opportunities required by the younger generations,” Al-Baz said.
Iskandar’s presence had not only given moral support to the SCMPA members, but it had also lifted the event to the diplomatic level. The Cyprus government had sent two ministries to host the event and to meet Iskandar, the commissioner of the environment and the commissioner for volunteering and NGOs had been present, and these things had helped to attract attention to the SCMPA, also helping to overcome any obstacles.  
“I take off my hat to Iskandar,” Al-Baz said, “because despite her political engagements she came to give an opportunity and a space to NGOs to voice their opinions, participate and lead the dialogue. The government this time played a supportive role, and it is very important that it continues to do so.”
The presence of the former and present ministers of the environment at the Cyprus conference had also sent a concrete message to the EU and Cyprus that there was continuity in the Egyptian government, he said.

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