Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Changing Egyptian geography

Spreading out and developing new cities is the future of Egypt that we can begin building now — and indeed already have, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Perhaps no economic reform plans or measures or attendant development projects will have as radical an impact on the Egyptian condition as steps taken to alter the country’s geographic and administrative map. But to begin with, one feels compelled to take exception to the fact that the subject has been given far less attention in the press than it merits, in spite of the announcements that were published regarding the meetings that were held at the level of the president, the prime minister and the minister of local development. It is not enough that only the highest levels of government take an interest in the matter. For one, lack of clarity and lack of sufficient public awareness opens the doors to confusion and obfuscation. Secondly, if public opinion does not take the opportunity to discuss the subject, it will remain no more than the label of another hope to be added to the long list of hopes that have faded due to long waiting times.
Frankly, the only way to achieve a definitive victory over terrorism and over the psychological and propaganda war that the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters are waging at home and abroad is to change realities on the ground. Moreover, the steps towards this end must be taken with the utmost serious and resolve. Apart from the damage caused by their crimes, Muslim Brotherhood propagandists are exploiting a long legacy of popular doubt, uncertainty and lack of confidence that the government will actually do what it says it will do. Indeed, the genius of the Suez Canal project derives from the fact that Egyptians were able to see work begin on the ground, at which point the people did not hesitate to show their support and in concrete terms by investing money.

The same spirit should be brought to the project to alter the Egyptian map, because when implemented it will probably change the course of Egyptian history and — who knows — it might even lead the country out of the vicious cycle of failure and finally enable the realisation of long-held hopes and dreams. Unfortunately, however, one consequence of the lack of clarity and public attention on this occasion was the confusion that arose when it came time to draw the lines of electoral districts. Suddenly the question of the country’s map was construed as part of a government map to redistribute parliamentary seats.
But the fact is that there is no link whatsoever between changing the Egyptian map and electoral constituencies. The first is about changing our geography; the second is about a reading of the relationship between demographic distribution and representation in the legislative authority. The first concerns the very essence of development; the latter is an expression of the heart of politics. As important as the legislative elections and related measures are, linking them with the question of the map of Egypt will permit for a linkage between a current geographic and demographic reality and a future in which we have reshaped the conditions to which we had resigned ourselves for more than 6,000 years.

Surprisingly, the Egyptian character, which was raised in the embrace of the Nile and its banks fed by the fertile river silt, has undergone some fundamental changes. According to the most conservative estimates some eight million Egyptians are currently living abroad in an amazing variety of environments, from the hot and humid Gulf to the colder climes of Europe and North America. In fact, Egyptians are to be found in most countries of the inhabited world. When working in Al-Ahram or in Al-Masry Al-Youm, I discovered that analyses of the visitor data to these newspapers’ websites revealed Egyptians living in far away Fiji in the Pacific and, on the other side of the globe, in the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. (The creation of Al-Ahram’s website was one of 112 initiatives to reshape Al-Ahram Establishment from a conventional newspaper establishment into a media establishment free of debt and able to pay higher salaries to its employees. This initiative saw fruition due to the considerable efforts on the part of my colleagues Abdallah Abdel-Salam and Hani Shukrallah. By March 2011, the website already ranked 758th among the most visited websites in the world. I am not sure how it ranks now, but that is another subject for another time.)

 From their experiences in the Gulf, in the patches of desert in the middle of saltwater or in the UAE, Egyptians found that millions of people could have abundant water. Of course, in countries from the West to the East, Egyptians also learned that life abroad did not necessarily mean remoteness from home now that modern transportation has made their Nile and their people only hours away by plane and less than a blink of an eye (or a click on a mouse or tapping of a screen) by laptop or iPad. It is no longer a source of wonder or surprise to hear Egyptians talking about how they took part in a birthday celebration or wedding in Cairo, Damietta, Alexandria or Assiut via computer screens that relay every scene and even (electronic) kisses and ululations. The idea of moving is no longer as frightening as it once was. What counts are the essentials: water, work and cultural life. In short, investment.

This is precisely the crux of the forging of the new Egyptian map. What we might call the “experimental” phases of this map began in the period before the revolutions, with the creation of new satellite cities such as Sixth of October, New Cairo, Tenth of Ramadan, and the coastal cities such as Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada. There was a time when these projects occasioned a lot of handwringing. They were “ghost towns” that had attracted no people and even less investment. But within a few years that changed. Roads and ring roads were built, airports and ports were constructed, factories and hotels opened, and with all these developments came the hustle and bustle, as though these cities were part of the old Nile Valley.

What we are talking about now is not just another “experiment”. It is the big move from the old valley, from the Delta to Aswan, to the sea, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the shores of Sinai. With Dubai and Abu Dhabi thriving on the coasts of the Arabian Gulf and Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada thriving on the coasts of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, there is no logical reason why there can not be dozens more such cities in which millions produce, trade and offer thousands of services.
But frankly, to depend on the government and public sector for this means waiting dozens of years before such dreams become a reality. This is not just because the government and public sector lack the necessary capital; it is also because they lack the necessary expertise for engineering such a massive and extensive civilisational project. The government can plan and organise and, sometimes, if very necessary, it can create infrastructure. Apart from that the tasks should be left to private investments and, given a healthy investment climate, it would not take more than a decade until we find new cities mushroom. Indeed, we already have some existing cities on the three shores: Ras Sudr, Nuweiba, Dahab, Al-Arish and Qantara in Sinai; Marsa Alam, Safaga, Qoseir, Gouna and Ain Sokhna on the Red Sea; and Al-Alamein, Marina and Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean. In all of these places we find new beginnings, often stalled either because they are awaiting Nile waters or because they are crying out for electricity. Both of these are supplied by the government, yet both can be obtained from desalinisation and from solar energy or other types of alternative electricity production that can be furnished by Egyptian and international firms. If they can build all those skyscrapers in Dubai with central air conditioning and water pumped to the highest floors, why can we not do the same here?

More often than not the foregoing question has been asked here as though asking for a miracle. But this now is the battle to be fought by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb: the battle to convince people that we are not creating miracles, but building a new reality just as dozens of other countries have done before us and, in fact, just as we have already begun to do in Egypt (see Gouna, for example). What is new, is that we are now proceeding to the large scale, in accordance with the rules and laws of the market, which means less government and more individual initiative, and the opportunity for all governorates to open out to the sea with the freedom to attract investment and to obtain an appropriate share of the returns, so as to be able to reinvest and improve services. In the process, there is every reason why we could dream more about making every new thing that we build environment-friendly, clean, conscious of how it handles its inputs and what it does with its outputs. In what we are embarking on we are beginning for the most part with the proverbial blank page. So far, only some sketchy lines have been drawn for what is to be really a new Egypt.

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