New Suez Canal: Celebrate now, for tomorrow is another day

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 11 Aug 2015

Suez Canal
A cargo ship is seen crossing through the New Suez Canal, Ismailia, Egypt, July 25, 2015 (Reuters)

“I have no worry about it whatsoever. It is happening and will continue to be a success, and I elected [President Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi and I leave all these matters to his discretion and trust things will work out to our best interest, and that the economy will be better and that Egypt will be the greatest country in the world,” said Hussein Mohamed, a plumber in his early 50s, as he slowly sipped his tea with milk in a small café on the far end of Nasr City.

It was late afternoon of the exceptionally hot Thursday and Mohamed was having a drink and a meal in a two-hour break while festivities of the inauguration of the "New Suez Canal" were being broadcast on all Egyptian TV channels, both public and private.

Mohamed, who could not have been more enthusiastic about the “great new project of El-Sisi that is going to make the [Muslim] Brotherhood extremely unhappy,” was even curious to follow a fragment of the festivities. He was impatiently prompting the waiter to tune in to one of the channels that perpetually broadcasts Indian movies.

“I am looking for some entertainment and I trust El-Sisi and that is it,” he said.

The attitude of Mohamed was not uncommon among café-goers elsewhere in the Egyptian capital. People were either not tuning in to the inauguration or were not paying attention to the broadcast in cafes/restaurants that were tuned in, especially those stationed in big shopping malls.

Mohamed’s sentiment of "if El-Sisi is in charge than all is under control" seemed to be widely shared across the socio-economic spectrum by individuals who felt that the presidency of El-Sisi and his pursuit of mega project would grant them a stable and, sooner rather than later, an economically prosperous life.

Flags, but no posters

“I have to say that I expected to sell many more flags. I am disappointed really. On previous demonstration days we used to sell much more,” said Adel Anwar, who spoke to Ahram Online after sunset near the presidential palace in Heliopolis where he had expected a considerable showing of jubilant crowds.

Like most others who sell flags on the street, Adel had only the flag of Egypt.

Very few had the flag of the Suez Canal. And almost none had posters of El-Sisi that used to sell like hotcakes in the run-up to, and right after, the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We don’t get them anymore. We had some in June and we thought people would come to the streets for a year with the president, but it did not happen,” said Hassan Ragab, who spoke to Ahram Online near Giza Zoo.

Anwar said he had hoped that by Thursday evening his business would pick up, as people would wait for sunset to take to the streets and celebrate. He sounded disappointed, however, saying that he would "have to go back with the flags and wait for another day where people might want to celebrate.”

Anwar is not sure when this will come.

Nor are government officials who say that grand expectations of a sudden or rapid economic boom might lead to disappointment when people realise that it will take a few years before the Suez Canal makes a tangible difference.

“Nothing is short-term here and a medium-term significant interest is related to the successful execution of the scheme to build around the canal a mega trade hub,” said a leading businessman who is planning to be among early investors in the new Suez hub.

However, according to the estimates of most informed officials, this is a matter of a few years.

“Maybe 10 years to get Suez to be another Dubai, or another Singapore, provided that things are done in the right way,” said a European ambassador in Cairo whose country is involved in counseling the Egyptian government on the scheme.

Concerned cabinet members, including the ministers of investment and international cooperation, went on the record Thursday, immediately after the inauguration, to suggest that mega trade and industrial projects are lined up and that agreements on them would be discussed with potential investors — Egyptian, Arab and foreign — as early as Sunday.

Parliamentary elections, palace intrigues

Meanwhile, El-Sisi is hoping that as early as late this year there will be another reason that might prompt the public to rejoice, with the expected completion of long overdue parliamentary elections.

“He held a meeting a few days before the inauguration of the new canal to prompt all concerned bodies to speed up the process of preparations for the parliamentary elections. I think that, short of a major problem, the president wants to go ahead, and fast, with these elections,” said a concerned government official.

However, it is not clear to this official or to political sources, who spoke to Ahram Online before and after the Thursday inauguration, whether these elections and the subsequent parliament would be a reason for joy or for tension.

Members of several political parties, both old and new, are complaining about security intervention “already” that is blocking the chances of some candidates.

“I think we are talking about a relatively made-to-measure parliament where the majority of seats would go to those who unconditionally support the president with a limited few allowed for the real opposition — yes, including the Islamists,” said an aide to the leader of one of the largest political parties.

According to this and other political figures, it is hard to expect that the new parliament would come without the appearance of some of the leading faces of the political party that deposed President Mubarak used to chair, the defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), or with some associates, if not members, of the Muslim Brotherhood and their defunct Freedom and Justice Party.

“Let’s be realistic. The new parliament will reflect the political reality; this means the powers on the ground and the wishes of the state,” said a leading political figure.
He added: “And it is unrealistic to expect this to change overnight.”

The composition of the next parliament is not the hardest part of the future political scene of Egypt. Economic bills set to be adopted will likely stir no small debates, say sources from the government and from the business community, predicting an inevitable cut in subsidies in favour of a more liberal agenda.

“I don’t think that the president is expecting that his economic agenda for the remainder of his term would bring him great popularity, but I think he knows he needs to be realistic and take surgical decisions, because the economy is going to collapse if reform is not pursued promptly,” said the same businessman.

He acknowledged that with an expected package of austerity measures, in the absence of a sufficiently effective social protection network, public scepticism might be on the increase.

“This is why we advised against the exaggerated media projections of the economic conference [held in March in Sharm El-Sheikh] and the new extension of the Suez Canal, because the media made it look like economic prosperity is coming our way while we will have to put up with austerity,” he said.

Would this significantly influence the image of the head of the executive?

In the assessment of most informed sources, both political and official, who spoke to Ahram Online, economic straits might be used by the political adversaries of the president and might add considerably to the expected decline in popularity any head of state suffers after a certain time in office.

“If your question is whether the austerity bill would prompt people to take to the street and ask El-Sisi to step down, as they did with Mubarak, then my answer is a flat 'No.' People are still apprehensive about political hiccups and the state is making sure through clever manipulation of the media to make the public thankful just for averting the fate of other Arab defunct states like Syria,” said the chair of another political party.

He added that El-Sisi could "afford to loose a bit of popularity, even if he has already lost some.”

It is not clear, according to the informed government and business sources, whether Arab Gulf States who have been supportive of El-Sisi's regime would reach out to help him to avoid any potential hiccup that they would dread.

“I don’t think we should be expecting any further large unconditional economic aid, either from the UAE or from the Saudis. They both might want to have more investment in Egypt, depending of course on the future legislation and the efficiency of the government that would be formed after parliamentary elections. But they are past unconditional cash sending,” the same businessman said.

According to most informed political and official sources, the austerity package that would have to be adopted (with some insisting that austerity is not necessarily a bad thing) is not the worst worry of the head of the executive for the near future. The worst headache, they said, is likely to come from the increasing internal disagreement within the state, with some sources talking about open wars amongst top government bodies and officials.

“This is very disturbing, in the sense that there is clearly an echo of the disagreements within the economic group, and also within the security apparatus,” said the leading businessman. If these issues are not regulated, he added, the chances for getting serious foreign investment would be less than they already are, which is small. “And this would be a disaster.”

“If you want a prosperous country, then you want both tourism and investment, and for this to happen you need political stability. This would have to include an end to the internal security feud and inevitably a process of political reconciliation to end tension. There would also have to be positive investment legislations.”

Short of these two conditions, the businessman added, it would be an endless process of going in circles.

“And you also know that all your mega projects, including the new Suez Canal, would not live up to their top projected estimates. This is no small challenge, for sure,” he concluded.

Stability – a cause that could make ends meet

According to political scientist Hana’ Ebeid, editor of the Al-Ahram periodical “Democracy,” the process of matching the hype that was prompted by the grand inauguration of Thursday with the next phase of a complex political and economic reality is possible.

“The popular rejoice over the inauguration of the new Suez Canal, which stems from people’s yearning for normalcy,” Ebeid said.

According to Ebeid, recent international surveys show that a considerable section of individuals who took part in protests over the few years leading up to the January Revolution and beyond, said that they were not willing to join future protest movements because their priority is now stability.

In this sense, Ebeid said, there is a considerable deal of acceptance of going back to the once prevailing political and economic patterns – “this too would include an acceptance of a parliament like the ones that were there before the January Revolution.”

According to Ebeid, the priority for a large segment of the population today would be basic services and employment. And certainly, she added, for the many who invested in the Suez Canal project, securing considerable revenues comes way ahead of having a parliament that reflects serious political momentum.

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