The ancient Egyptian farmer learnt by instinct how to cultivate the land. The River Nile along which he lived helped him to do the job by creating a fertile green valley through the surrounding desert.
Since the rule of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, in the early 19th century, agriculture has had special attention. Mohamed Ali decided to monopolise it, making himself both the country’s owner and its ruler. His success in the field of agriculture encouraged his son Said Pasha to distribute land among the Egyptian Pashas. Muslim Pashas owned the Delta, and Coptic ones put their hands on Upper Egypt.
These new owners were granted the title of “pasha” by a law known as the statute law of Said Pasha. However, following the July 1952 Revolution things changed, and after nearly 100 years of the Pashas’ rule, agricultural reform laws were passed, and the land was redistributed among the farmers themselves.
Some of them did not realise the value of what they owned and started to sell their land to new owners. Some land was used to build concrete buildings, and agricultural areas began to shrink.
The state then stepped in to compensate for such losses and to make better use of the desert. Rainwater from the Sinai Peninsula was used for irrigation projects, as was groundwater from under the desert. Today, much of this reclaimed land needs people to till it, making some ask whether we need to control the country’s population even as it continues to expand.
The prominent Egyptian geographer Gamal Hemdan has talked about “the genius of place” in Egypt, but this article will look instead at “the genius of man.” It will focus on revealing the genius of the Egyptian character.
Egypt’s population was not known until the ancient Greek historian Herodotus announced that it had 30,000 towns and cities. The ancient Greek historian Diodorus later estimated the number as seven million. During the era of Arab rule in Egypt, no specific number was mentioned, but the mediaeval Arab historian Al-Maqrizi says that Egypt’s first Muslim ruler Amr Ibn Al-Aas collected the sum of 12,000 dinars in tax in just one year by collecting two dinars from each person. This would mean the population was about six million.
Wars and disease later decreased that number to 2.5 million at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1897, the population had reached 9.6 million, and in the 1960s it was 30 million. At the beginning of the 21st century, it reached 80 million. Now, it is about to exceed 100 million, according to the latest statistics.
Such over-population is not limited to Egypt, however, as it has become a global phenomenon. The world’s population is expected to double within the coming 30 years from the present 7.7 billion. Some view this as a danger threatening any coming development, but others, including the Chinese, may view it as a blessing.
In Egypt, many voices have been calling upon the state to do more in terms of birth control. They argue that the current economic conditions necessitate taking serious steps in this direction. Activist Mohamed Abul-Ghar has said that the increase in the population exceeds any increase in the number of classrooms, teachers, hospitals and services offered to the public, for example.
We need to think outside the box if we are to be serious in our search for solutions.
There has been a lot of talk about the Sinai desert and how to develop it. Perhaps we should grant every new-born child in Egypt a feddan of Sinai land and overhaul the question of ownership to generalise the idea and apply it to all the deserts in Egypt.
The idea derives from a custom of the inhabitants of the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert, who plant a tree in the name of every new-born child. Sinai needs such imaginative solutions, and the idea of building an international hospital besides St Catherine’s Monastery could be attractive for many. Patients would be eager to be hospitalised in this holy place.
In the era of Egypt’s current development comes a new role for the genius of humankind. The monuments of the Pharaohs offer evidence of such genius. Man was born to be the master of the world, but this requires paying attention to the child who should be impressed by the new and amazing world he finds himself in and should believe in God and know freedom and its limits.
Then comes the stage of preparing young people for their future. The Youth Forum that has recently been held at the New Administrative Capital helps to create direct communication between the youth and the leadership, allowing key issues to be discussed and solutions found in a transparent climate and allowing young people to have the chance to participate in building their country.
We should not forget the fact that the New Capital itself was nothing but desert just a few years ago. Now it has been turned into the world’s first digital capital.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The genius of man and place