Last week, while running an errand I used the new Dabaa Axis, a highway that connects the west of Giza (the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road) to the heart of northern Cairo.
A trip that usually takes 45 minutes was reduced to 15 on a surprising good quality of road.
The Dabaa Axis is a recent project along with several others that involve connecting the whole of Egypt through a matrix of highways. Financing such huge infrastructure projects has been a challenge for successive governments.
And after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Egypt’s economic conditions were in crisis. There had been some financial aid received from the Gulf countries, but Morsi left office without developing a clear investment strategy for the economy.
It would thus be fair to say that Egypt since July 2013 has faced a dual challenge. The first was the security challenge due to acts of terrorism, the spread of radicalisation and an overall phase of polarisation within society.
The second was the initial inability to bring back the foreign investment that had left after the events of 2011 and the Arab Spring Revolutions. Hence, a strategy for both challenges had to be developed.
Both issues, security and economy, are crucial, specifically for a government that took office after a phase of political tension and with dissatisfied public opinion.
Both challenges were handled through long-term strategies that entail investment in an idea and in building institutional structure for the state and not aiming simply at quick yet limited gains.
The political challenges facing such a vision are not easy, but this has been the trajectory that Egypt has undertaken since June 2013.
If we consider state investment in the security sector, since this was the most acute challenge back in 2013, we will find that a long-term strategy has been employed in order for the government to be able to deal with the situation.
The state has been careful to build the capacities of the security institutions and provide them with modern equipment in order to counter violent radicalisation and acts of terrorism.
New partnerships on an international level have also emerged in order to fulfill this goal. Security policies have expanded the realm of Egypt’s foreign relations and diplomacy, and as result Egypt’s security policies do not depend only on capacity and equipment, but also on foreign relations.
Despite the crucial challenge represented by the security situation, the challenge of the economy was no less important and perhaps even more difficult to face.
Because of its depleting foreign currency reserves, setbacks in foreign investment, and a false exchange rate set by the government, the Egyptian economy was going through a dangerous phase in 2013.
More than one action on various levels needed to be taken. Some of these actions were not easy to bring about in the form of decisions on the economic and political level, but there was ample political will behind the decisions that were being made.
Investing in infrastructure was the approach adopted by Egypt’s post-revolutionary government in the period from 2013 to 2015. This was not an easy decision by any means, and it had consequences and challenges. Mega-infrastructure projects like the New Suez Canal and the reconstruction of roads all over the country were started.
Meanwhile, investments in the energy sector were started through international partnerships. At the same time, other projects concerned with housing and improving Egypt’s underdeveloped areas, whether urban or rural, were also started.
These projects consumed a large amount of money, but they also represented the government’s interest in and long-term vision for policies of investment and public expenditure.
Two approaches could have been applied at that crucial moment: short-term investments that seek momentary gain, or long-term investments that are part of an overall strategy for development.
Taking decisions here was not an easy process, but opting for the long-term vision was a sign of letting go of momentary gains and leaning towards long-time ones.
There was an opportunity cost involved in such decisions – in other words, the money could have been used for other projects that could have had more immediate benefits for the public. But the existence of a long-term strategy was a determining factor in the policies that were applied.
The government was concerned to develop a strategy for national investment, rather than secure instant gains. This in turn meant that economic reform was not a matter of hasty decisions, but of an overall vision for a development strategy that was institutional and secured the interests of the state.
Infrastructure investments were not only aided by the government’s domestic policies, but also by its foreign policies. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has travelled to many countries across Europe to rebuild relations with them, including economic ones.
The growing role of Egypt in Africa will also reflect its regional influence, and Egypt has become a necessary port of call for the whole of North Africa and one that all international actors must pass through in their engagements with the region.
In the wake of the political tensions in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Sudan, Egypt has become the number one regional actor, and there is a new challenge for Egypt to fulfill its role with regional and international actors as the gateway to North Africa.
Such regional successes will put the spotlight on the new regional role that Egypt will now play, and the country must maintain a connection between its economic interests and its political ones. It must use its potential to gain the best out of its regional role on the African continent.
Whether in Africa, the Arab world or the Middle East, Egypt has ample potential to increase its role due to the security and economic policies it has adopted. The coming phase will also be one in which Egypt exports the rationale of its foreign policy to the rest of the region.
The writer is a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.