16 October 2019

Egypt – The pyramids of President al-Sisi

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

At the beginning of July 2019, an Egyptian company announced a competition, which will end on August 17, for the name and logo of a new city. This firm is the Administrative Capital for Urban Development Company and the city will be Egypt’s new capital. The winner will receive a USD15,000 prize. New Cairo’s “godfather” will only be required to try to insert in the new name, symbolically, something from the Egyptian identity, and the name will unique, original and simple. A USD50 billion city will find out its own identity on a diploma worth EGP250,000. This is just one of the “grand projects” initiated by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, immediately after he took power in the country in 2013.

Image source: Mediafax

Several certainties about the past and a solution for the present

Several things are certain in Egypt: the sand, the Nile and its delta, the country’s history, the pyramids, the primordiality of the Egyptian identity over the Arab one, the millenniums-long continuity of Egyptian bureaucracy, the state being led by the military. For several decades, since Egypt gained independence from the British Crown (1922 – formal independence under British guidance, 1952 – the free officers’ revolt and the proclamation of the republic in 1953), the army and its generals have been the real masters of Egypt. They conduct political issues, they have the country’s economy at their disposal, they launch and lead wars, and when they lose them, they also initiate peace treaties to make it appear like victory was theirs.

A while back, about ten years ago, in a trip organized through the Egyptian Defence Ministry’s tourism agency, I was listening to the explanations of a guide specially provided to accompany approximately 30 foreign military diplomats on a journey to the source of the Nile and the old Egyptian history. The guide, a professor at the University of Cairo, had harsh words to say towards those who had made, for example, an objects depository out of the Museum of History and Archaeology in Cairo, distancing it from its cultural aspect and role as a modern promoter of ancient history. But, every two-three phrases, he also reiterated the chant that the good things which were happening to Egypt at the time, including the ensuring at low prices of the bread and fuel necessary for each Egyptian family, were due to President Hosni Mubarak. And the housing, the irrigations, but also the computers offered to Numidian children in a village near Assuan.

Ten years later, the professor, if he is still called up to offer his services as a guide for foreign visitors, will certainly have the same bitterness over how the country’s ancient history is preserved and will repeat the same praising text. Only the name of the president will be different – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In accordance with the job description, he was also a general and has a vision for Egypt. And for him, also, the grandiose parts in Egyptian history, the stone constructions, statues, irrigation systems, gigantic canals, all of them can and must be repeated. More than the four presidents with a military background before him (Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak), with the Islamist and civilian Morsi only being the exception which confirms the rule, al-Sisi also has a vision for the country’s future. It is based not on complicated ideologies, cultural programs or strategies to eradicate social inequalities. No. The vision of President al-Sisi is one of great national projects.

As he gained power following a popular revolt which imprisoned President Morsi, who was also the electoral winner of the previous popular revolt, President al-Sisi knows that you must keep the people occupied, offer it bread, even in a biblical sense – 10% of the Egyptian population are Coptic Christians, after all – else it will get ideas. And because it is not “cool” anymore to erect pyramids, as the times have changed and no one has the patience to wait decades in order to stack millions of tonnes on a sand pedestal, today’s grand projects need to seem useful, be potentially achievable and, of course, very, very necessary.

Mega-projects for a mega-future. The present is getting in our way…

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” is among the interpretations of one of Mark Twain’s deep humorous quotes. Just like in the case of pyramids, which we have already established that they cannot be constructed nowadays, a powerful motivation is needed to accomplish this type of projects. The official phrasing is not the most engaging: “improving economic competitivity, creating jobs, attracting national and foreign private investments”. As the private investments have yet to appear, or are cancelled if they come from Qatar, for example, the ones that remain are national, either internal or from Saudi Arabia, China and… that is kind of it. For a long list of projects which, on their own, would be a challenge for any national budget.

The new Suez Canal. Starting with 2015, the canal built by Ferdinand de Lesseps and inaugurated in 1869 has a brother. Which is Egyptian from project all the way to execution. This was also an objective, to demonstrate that the country has the human, and not only financial resources, necessary to realize this type of major investment. Foreign investments where forbidden, in fact. Let’s not reach hasty conclusions for this objective. The new canal is somewhat smaller, doubling the old one in a 35 km area where there was previously only one-way traffic. This has shortened the canal’s traversal time by nearly half. Its construction should have taken three years, but the president decided that it can be finished in one. It cost USD8.6 billion and it should have doubled both the traffic and Egyptian traversal tax earnings. But bad luck has mostly been the case until now, as Gulf oil exports dropped following a growth in US production, and naval traffic has also decreased following several terrorist attacks in the area of Yemen. However, better times may still yet come.

The economic area of the Suez Canal. The new Suez Canal was inaugurated as part of a larger economic program, which aims to relaunch the Sinai Peninsula’s economy. Plans include the construction of an economic and business infrastructure in the 461 sq. km of the region, which would turn it a global economic node (there are estimates that 1.6 billion consumers worldwide could be served, in one way or another, through this Egyptian hub). Six new ports will be built along the canal to add to this, as well as tunnels beneath the canal to connect the peninsula with the rest of Egypt. Additionally, 47 schools and four new hospitals are planned for construction in Sinai. The goal is to pacify the peninsula in which almost the entire operation Egyptian army is deployed, and from where most of the country’s security issues come from. A million new jobs for the millions of Egyptian youths with no perspective could make a difference.

Egypt’s new, unnamed capital. Following a model from Central Asia, where another enlightened leader decided that the rebirth of territories in central and northern Kazakhstan depend on the construction of a new capital in the area, President al-Sisi requested the construction of a new capital city, to the east of Cairo, on land which belongs the armed forces, to which the government institutions will be relocated from the already overcrowded mega-city of Cairo. Works here were also done a fast pace, with the city’s first phase inaugurated in October 2017. And the city is not planned as a housing afterthought: approximately 7 million people should live in the 20 planned districts. The districts will be arranged according to the needs of a capital: government, economic, justice, financial, educational, medical etc. And let us not forget the diplomatic district, where 110 new embassies will be constructed. For the moment, no diplomatic mission gave its approval for this type of move (officially, it was stated that 22 states would have requested land for the new diplomatic residences). There will also be a new international airport.

Approximately 30,000 housing units had been finished by the 2017 inauguration – which should probably mean apartments. In the meantime, a mosque (probably the biggest in Egypt) and a cathedral (the biggest in the Middle East) were both inaugurated in 2019. This year should also see the first transfers of institutions, with the Parliament probably among the first to move – that is what happens in a presidential republic – and the rest to follow by 2023. 700 sq. km of constructions, aligned through 10,000km of streets and boulevards will be awaiting the new residents. Everything in the middle of the desert, which at that moment, will be pulsating with greenery from parks and treelines, 40 km from the old Cairo (until the name is decided, the new city is also “new Cairo”). The costs are estimated at USD50 billion, and the deadline is also estimated at five years. Feasibility studies take longer to complete in other parts. But Egypt has no bureaucratic barriers to the president’s will, and feasibility will be measured and verified on the go.

The great energy projects. The exploitation of the Zohr natural gas depot, in the Egyptian sector of the Mediterranean, began in December 2018. From 350 million cubic metres per day, production jumped up to 2 billion, the equivalent of 350,000 barrels/day, which bring Egypt in line with the great energy resources exporters. By the end of 2019, there are hopes that production will reach 2.9 billion cubic metres/day.  This is one of the energy projects assumed by President al-Sisi, together with the one in the Western Nile Delta or the Noor natural gas depot, which rivals the Zohr one with regards to the scale of production. And this is not only about classical energy solutions. The biggest solar park in the world, Benban Solar Park, is being erected in the governorate of Assuan, with a final capacity of 1600 MW (in comparison, reactors 1 and 2 from the Cernavoda nuclear power plant reach a combined production of 1400 MW), and stretched on approximately 40 sq. meters in the desert to the west Assuan. And there are also the new thermal plants in Beni Suef, Burullus and the one which will serve Egypt’s new capital, as well as wind parks with 600 turbines planned. The number is not too high, as the wind cannot rival with the sun’s intensity in the Egyptian desert.

The national roads project. Launched in 2014, this project proposes the construction of 3,200 km worth of new national roads and highways. They will especially address the needs of Southern Egypt (or Upper Egypt, as it was known in antiquity) or to connect the country’s centre with the shores of the Red Sea. A new high-speed railway will also be constructed, which will connect some of these great projects, starting from the Red Sea towards the new capital, and continuing to the new city of El Alamein, which is also planned out a new and modern regional capital.

The list of great projects is longer (the nuclear power plant in El Dabaa, one million new houses for those with limited financial resources, transforming some desert areas into farmland – the Farafra project, Egypt’s educational-information bank) but it is probably more important to state some numbers: 1,000 Egyptian companies are involved, almost two million Egyptian citizens are working on them, and 30% of the national budget is directed to financing these projects.

President al-Sisi is not the only visionary

The Egyptian mega-projects are akin to ambitious plans in other sides of the world, such as the establishment of new “silk roads”, or infrastructure objectives to connect East Asia to Europe.

It is probably not a coincidence that the 20 skyscrapers planned in the new capital’s “business district” will be constructed by Chinese companies, while other Chinese builders will be in charge of constructing the new railroads.  And the yuan has started to be used in port transactions and in fees for traversing the Suez Canal. For the moment, only in those. The Egyptian-Chinese business forum was held recently in Cairo.

As Chinese money is not sufficient, those of rich Arab states (not all of them, as Egypt still has tense relations with those who still support the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Qatar) are also welcomed. Visions are similar in some case, such as the “NEOM Project”, in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for building a tourism, business and economic infrastructure in the middle of the desert, in an area neighbouring the northern Red Sea. The project’s costs will be in tens of billions of dollars. Egypt will contribute with approximately 1,000 sq. meter of land, where the Egyptian side of the project will be built near the Suez Canal.

Visions are not the only thing the Saudi and Egyptian leaders have in common – concerns are also similar. President al-Sisi’s experiment in Egypt could have great success, but only if these projects will generate earnings in time, but not too far into the future. For the moment, they are only draining the budget of its financial resources. At the same time with a series of economic austerity measures taken under the International Monetary Fund’s pressure, in order to access other foreign loans.

Statistics show that day-to-day life in al-Sisi’s Egypt is more difficult than it was under Mubarak. Morsi’s period does not count, as he did not have time to even sneeze while in office. A critic of President al-Sisi, economist Yehia Hamed, former investments minister in 2012-2013, had harsh words towards the current Egyptian president’s economic vision:

  • The population which is at or below the poverty line has reached 60 percent. For reference, this line is set at 2.5 dollars per day;
  • Payment of foreign debts is closing in on 40% of the total national income;
  • The Egyptian Army dominates 60% of the economic sector (the numbers are quoted from a Transparency International report);
  • The country is heading towards the abyss.

These accusations are sent from exile in Turkey (Ankara is not among the al-Sisi’s supporters, quite to the contrary) and published either in media sponsored by Qatar, either by prestigious Western publications.

When viewed from a distance, the problems are simple, as are the answers. For a country in which half the Arab world lives, even the simple answers required the effort of millions. In the past, they built pyramids. Now they are planting new cities, wind turbines, new navigation canals in the desert. There is a thin line which separates success from disaster. For Egypt, this could be the success or failure of the grand projects initiated by President al-Sisi.

Translated by Ionut Preda