My column is usually devoted to the state of things in the Arab world, inter-Arab relations, the Arabs’ relations with the rest of the world, or else the world itself, with all its ups and downs. Rarely am I driven to write about Egypt except in the larger Arab context. And when so moved, I tend to write about an artist like Leila Mourad or a historical moment such as when Hosni Mubarak died. On the latter occasion, I borrowed a passage from Naguib Mahfouz’s Before the Throne, suggesting that our late president should take his place in the long line of Egyptian rulers and acquit himself before history. This week’s article will be another one of those rare exceptions.
The story began over two weeks ago and went on for about a week. Fate was unkind to Egypt during that short period. It brought one disaster after another as though bent on countering the trend no matter what. First, the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal. The image of that mammoth containership wedged sideways in the canal, with its towering stacks of colourful cargo and the “Evergreen” logo blazoned along its side in an appeal to and for an eco-friendly world, remained a fixture in the international media for a week. Then came the train collision in Sohag, as a result of which dozens of passengers died, hundreds were wounded and countless families were left sleepless for fear a loved one might not return. On the heels of that catastrophe came the collapse of a building in Gesr Al-Suez, Cairo, causing dozens more deaths and injuries, immeasurable pain to families and loved ones, and general grief over more lives lost. Finally, as though all that were not enough, a woman in the prime of life was killed after driving her car at high speed in the wrong direction on a major thoroughfare in Suez and crashing into a lorry, adding yet another fatality to the litany of tragedies.
Egypt still has a long way to go to rid itself of accumulated, longstanding problems; we have plenty to worry about for the sake of a generation born in the present era in a 7,000-year-old country. But while Japanese-owned mega freighters operated by the latest Dutch technological systems may run aground, great nations do not. They continue on the path they choose for themselves. And the splendid procession of Pharaonic Royal Mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation on 3 April was not just a symbol of Egypt’s antiquity. It also crowned the beginning of a no less grand display: the blossoming of projects begun in recent years, from new museums to infrastructures, a new capital, and other major leaps towards progress. If the procession of ancient royals celebrated the past and present, the celebration of the future took place in President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s inauguration of a grand initiative: the “New Delta”. Located in the Western Desert, west of the Nile Delta and south of the North Coast, the development project will stretch across a million acres on either side of the Dabaa Axial Highway. It will include another large expanse of land allocated to modern agriculture. The New Delta will also combine with another 1.5 million acres of development work in progress in the Sinai, the governorate of Minya, and various areas between the Nile Valley and the New Valley.
As President Al-Sisi declared a “green revolution” in Egypt, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman launched a green revolution in his country and for the Middle East as a whole, with a plan to plant ten billion trees in Saudi Arabia and to work with other countries in the region to plant 40 billion more. The projects are emblematic of Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s shared goals of agricultural development, combatting desertification, increasing oxygen supply and decreasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as forging forward into the 21st century.
Within a week after its grounding, the Ever Given was dislodged from the banks of the canal and set on course to the Great Bitter Lake for inspection, freeing the way for international commercial traffic in the vital maritime corridor to resume. Egypt had an opportunity to shine during this period. The Suez Canal Authority had accumulated vast experience rarely found among similar organisations since its founding in 1869. It continued to build on this after the canal was nationalised in 1956, increasing its capacities with the latest knowhow and technologies and with the best engineering talents from Egyptian universities where the government spared no expense to help develop skills and knowledge wherever need be in the world.
Arab solidarity also shined during this “crisis”. Egyptians were deeply moved by how every Arab country unhesitatingly stepped forward to lend a hand. The offers of help from the Gulf, especially from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were further proof of the sincerity of the friendliness with which Egyptians have been familiar from that direction. Perhaps the Ever Given incident epitomises, in a way, Egypt’s current evolution as it works to carry out extensive reforms to repair all that is broken, distorted or warped in laws and traditions that have lasted longer than they should have and that are not suited to the new millennium which is still in its first decades. The Egyptian story thereby returns to the good roots it threw at previous historic moments. But the story remains incomplete until it interweaves the bonds with nearby Arab countries which are also in the process of profound reforms.
It bears repeating again, here, that the Arabs only have their fellow Arabs to depend on, especially as all other parts of the world are closing in on themselves; if they look outwards, it is solely to pursue their own narrow interests and, in some cases, to act aggressively against the Arabs. Now that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have both begun a green revolution that benefits not just themselves but all of humanity, why shouldn’t Al-Ula join Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba in comprehensive development operations? Let us not forget that King Salman University is the pride of Egyptian universities in Sinai and that a rich and exciting Egyptian-Arab story grounded in major economic and strategic facts has already begun to unfold in the northern Red Sea region.
In recent years, Egyptian persistence and resolve set into motion the Eastern Mediterranean Forum for the discovery, production, liquefaction, transport, export and processing of natural gas. While essentially an energy and economic project, this had positive strategic consequences that worked to rein in the ambitions of certain countries and clear the path for a peaceful solution to the Libyan conflict. The details of this are not our subject here, significant as they are. The point is that we are looking at highly positive and beneficial phenomena thanks to the blessings of history and demographic relations among the Arab peoples. A joint prosperity zone, or a Northern Red Sea Cooperation Forum, would not only advance the green revolution but also mark the beginning of a major revolution in tourism that would turn that crossroads of holy paths into a grand epic that embraces many human civilisations.
The story began with Egypt. But Egyptian stories soon merge and entwine with Arab stories, making them even more powerful, alluring and exciting.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly