The expansion of the Suez Canal and the development of this region through investment in ports, transportation, infrastructure and industry will of course bear fruit in the very near future. Economic growth will ensue once the roads, loading docks, buildings, factories, tunnels and tracks are up and running.
There surely will be an increase in revenue from a two-way canal as there surely will be a whole array of jobs and income-generating activities available for men and women able to work and take advantage of such economic opportunities.
But what will happen to communities, to futures and to the quality of life of people in this region in particular and in Egypt in general? Will this leap into economic growth improve their quality of life, ensure their health and wellbeing, and enhance their social and material world?
The media coverage of this nascent scheme has highlighted the oodles of revenue that will flow into public coffers when infrastructure projects are completed and once industries take root in the region.
Legal and administrative arrangements have also been discussed and will soon be enacted so as to create an enabling environment for investors and industries. The focus has been on this big picture of growth. Less has been said about the way in which people will experience these large projects or of the social and service interventions that will enable families and communities to prosper and flourish.
Mammoth construction projects always bring jobs and opportunities for income. But workers can either experience these opportunities as hardship or as dignified work. The millions of Egyptians who left their homes in the 1970s and 1980s to head for the dynamic markets of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, of Iraq and of Libya endured immense indignity as they lived in workers camps or in communal quarters, often without basic amenities.
Others were lucky enough to live in better conditions but millions had to forgo the political and collective rights of workers and the basic security of work so as to make enough income to take back home.
The Suez Canal region's development can either foster hardship or nurture human development. The quality and provisions of social services, arrangements, rights and institutions will make the difference between the region hosting workers desperate for work or building communities that afford workers and their families' sociality, safety, security, and dignity.
It is therefore important to consider the quality of human development that will be engendered by this huge initiative and not just its economic, legal, administrative and investment dimensions.
The special legal status notion is supposed to attract investment by facilitating its entry into the region, protecting the rights of investors, fencing off their interests from the difficulties posed by routine and bureaucracy, and promising quick and fair resolution in case of conflicts.
If the region will have some form of special legal status, will the advantages of this status spread to individuals and to communities or are they the preserve of investors and investments?
In theory people living and working in the region will continue to enjoy the rights of citizenship in Egypt. But surely this mega-project can do more for people than promise them more of the same.
Will workers rights be protected? Will health and safety in industries and for communities merit some attention? Will there be a breakthrough in education and training? Will housing be available, affordable and secure for workers and families? How will these communities be organised?
Will people participate in the political and communal affairs of cities and villages? How will these regions be policed? What are the social provisions available for those who are unable to work? Will there be opportunities for small businesses to flourish? What will happen to people who are displaced or evicted? Who will help industries and workers resolve their inevitable problems? Will women have equal access to work and to rights? Can the state ensure adequate emergency services? How will health services be priced and regulated? Will civil society play a role in promoting people’s rights and voices?
There are hundreds of questions the answer to which will decide the extent to which the Suez Canal region will become a model of integrated and humane development or an area of industry and a community of strangers.
The current master-plan of the region’s development makes provisions for social, environmental and urban renewal, sustainability and innovation. But these plans need to garner more public attention and scrutiny so that they come to shape the tone and tenor of the Suez Canal region’s development. They need to be integrated into the area’s promise for a human-centred future of fair and just prosperity.
The writer is an associate professor at the American University in Cairo's Social Research Center.