Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Time for revision

Destruction or construction: this the fundamental choice faced by Egypt and its political players, writesAbdel Moneim Said


Al-Ahram Weekly

There seems to be an opportunity to avert another historic failure. There is no reason that two centuries of emerging from one debacle only to land in another has to be some kind of inexorable fate. Modernism, democracy, sovereignty of law, tolerance, catching up with the developed world, and all other such values and aspirations are possible.

We just need to find a way to re-evaluate and revise, so that we can recognise when we are racing headlong towards a precipice and catch ourselves before we topple over the brink. Otherwise, we will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort saving ourselves from the disasters we have fallen into.

There is no need for me to cite examples here because you are familiar with them. What you may not know is that we could have avoided the Treaty of London, the British occupation, minority governments during the monarchical era and the supreme president in the republican era, the defeat in 1948 and the subsequent defeat in 1967.

We could have avoided crossing the threshold into the twenty-first century with 28 per cent of our people still unable to read and write, and 26 per cent of us below the poverty level. We also could have avoided having to discover after three years of revolution that we have destroyed a country that was once at a respectable level among emerging nations.

None of this was inevitable. We simply had to know how to reassess and, perhaps more importantly, check ourselves. If we had done those two things we would see that we have two camps in our country: one that wants to build and the other that is thirsting for a war of some sort or other. To make this simpler, I will illustrate by two recent events.

The first was President Al-Sisi’s surprise announcement of the Suez Canal development project. The second was the scene — more a vision from hell — of the walls of the Mediterranean resort city of Marina in flames, the charred remains of a police officer and four conscripts, and a plume of black smoke rising from a police vehicle.

Oddly, the Egyptian public was divided by these two scenes in much the same way that it is divided on the question of construction or destruction. I doubt that this was due to some plot. Most likely it is genetic. In any case, neither has prevailed over the other. Or at least this is how the situation appeared to me from afar, with the fury of demonstrations, angry commentaries, noisy meetings and hoarse voices triggered by the Israeli assault on Gaza.

We saw nothing of that sort in the wake of the terrorist attack against Farafra. Many appear to have missed the fact that there are bloodbaths in Syria that have claimed the lives of 200,000 Syrian civilians, that Christians are being uprooted from Mosul, a phenomenon that had never occurred before in the history of Islam, or that, for some reason, no one in Egypt knew what was happening in Libya until Egyptian expatriates there fled to that country’s eastern and western borders after harrowing experiences of violence and theft and mourning their casualties.

From the Atlantic to the Gulf, and even with regard to developments in Egypt, the lion’s share of wailing and thirst for revenge has been reserved for Gaza alone. You have to be Palestinian in order to garner a share of attention and for noble-minded protestors to make a stance on the stairs of the Journalists Syndicate, thundering against Egypt because it failed to do its duty which, apparently, is to heed the beck and call of plans and strategies with respect to which Hamas has kept Egypt in the dark.

The details are not the issue here. We have discussed them elsewhere and the story is well known. What is new is that as those details were unfolding, thinking turned not so much to the idea of the Suez Canal project but rather to the idea of actually carrying it out. The news of this took me back to 1995 when Ambassador Raouf Saad suggested that I go to the foreign ministry, where preparations were being made for the Middle East Summit that would be held in Cairo the following year.

It was at that meeting that I first heard about the Suez Canal project, a project to lead Egypt from the confines of the Nile Valley to the sea, from agriculture to industry and trade; indeed, from the past to the future. There was a sense of alarm that Cairo would be the birthplace of the “golden triangle” — an entity consisting of Palestine, Jordan and Israel, which would become the Middle Eastern version of Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg).

If this happened, what country in the world would think of Egypt? But at the same time it was not difficult to realise that Egypt was itself filled with “golden triangles” and even “golden quadrangles”. The one with the brightest gleam was the Suez Canal project, which had begun to expand and diversify into a myriad of plans. All of these were compiled into a book to which I wrote the introduction, in which I explained the concept of the project and its significance with respect to development in Egypt and in the Middle East in general.

But when the conference came to an end, the project came to a halt as well. It vanished into some oblivion after which we forgot about the sea. Once again we returned to the river and namely to Toshka, far away from trade routes, remoter than ever from the developed world and where a lot of hydraulic engineering would be needed to develop agriculture.

Then, in late 2009, I received a phone call from Dr. Hossam Badrawi. Badrawi has an extensive resume but what is relevant here is that he served as the chairman of the Egyptian Council for Competitiveness. He told me that the council was studying how to make Egypt more globally competitive and that it had engaged a specialised British firm.

The conclusion of the firm was that the Suez Canal is the basis for Egypt’s competitive power. It connects two seas. It is a stone’s throw from the Delta. On the other side lies Sinai with its treasures of turquoise and other precious stones. I asked Badrawi whether he had heard of the previous Suez Canal project. He answered that he had not. He then arranged to meet Ambassador Saad who shared his ideas and his documents on the project.

Then came the age of the revolutions. One government followed the next and with every new government the Suez Canal project was reborn. Now, nearly two decades after the project was initially proposed, the project has assumed its final form, including the steps for carrying it out.

More importantly, it has resurfaced amidst a host of other projects that vary in their areas of focus and methodology, but all of which fall under the heading “construction and development.” Prime among these are a project to reclaim three million acres of land and another to build 3,000 kilometres of roads. What remains is to orchestrate these in the framework of an overall strategy that marshals the human, material and moral resources required.

In this regard, I have a proposal to put to those whom it may concern. I suggest we introduce three working shifts per day, each eight hours long. This idea has been used by other underdeveloped countries. But first we have to deal with the question of what Egypt’s future path will be. Will it be construction and development, or will it be war and terrorism?

Consider the experiences of China, Germany, Brazil and Japan. Each of these countries suffered prolonged periods of economic and military stagnancy that were followed by a surge of potency that led them to become regional powers — China in the South China Sea, Germany in Europe, Brazil in South America and Japan in eastern Asia.

Frankly, the pro-destruction camp in Egypt is not small. It is drawing up strategies and will attack wherever it finds a weak point, a vulnerability, an area of carelessness, or work to manipulate groups that act before they think and are caught in the tug-of-war between construction and destruction. Is there anything more disastrous than that spectacle we have been watching over the past months, the contortions of non-Islamist parties as they attempt to forge political alliances and coalitions? It has become a tragicomedy.

The enemy is not at the gates; it is within. The barbarians are not clamouring outside the walls; they are in the city. And still, meetings are convened and adjourned, meetings between political parties and groups, groups that have never before had any standing and that have revolutionary names but never produced leaders.

Mohamed El-Baradei has gone to the south of France. Ahmed Shafik is still in the UAE. Where Amr Moussa stands is anyone’s guess. All of these individuals face a crucial test. Their declarations and proclamations will not spare them history’s curse on the day that they are judged. The test is whether they promote the success of the current phase, or are the cause of its failure.

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