Modern Egypt — (XVIII) A man of foresight

Tarek Osman
Friday 17 Feb 2023

Polymath scientist Rushdi Said provided many insights into Egypt’s present problems and future prospects, writes Tarek Osman in his series of articles on the makers of modern Egyptian culture


Modern Egypt has not had many polymaths, but Rushdi Said was definitely among them.

He studied geology and became Egypt’s premier expert on the Nile. The ancient Egyptians believed that the flow of the sacred river’s waters carried vitality with it and that receiving the blessings of the Nile ensured brilliance and success.

Said seemed to have been so blessed. But he was far from being a mere student of the Nile’s formation and history. He understood that no serious development in Egypt could take place without preserving the Nile and optimising its usage.

He saw, much earlier than most geopolitical experts, that the changes that were taking place in East Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with the problematic usage of the Nile River in Egypt, could pose serious challenges to Egyptian society. Unlike many other observers, he put forward realistic and constructive ideas about potential ways of averting some of these challenges over a quarter of a century ago.

Part of Said’s Nile-focused view of development was his conviction that the Egyptian people must transcend the narrow strip of land making up the Nile River Valley and the Delta. For years, he studied a project for developing and even urbanising a section of northwest Egypt.

However, Said was not a dreamer. A graduate of both the prestigious ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Harvard University in the US, and having been apprenticed, albeit briefly, under Egypt’s most notable scientist in the first half of the 20th century, Mustafa Musharafa, who had himself worked with Albert Einstein, Said’s project was anchored on serious research and rigorous studies.

It was also grounded in a wider development project. Said was a member of the team that surrounded Aziz Sidki, the prime minister who led the strongest industrialisation drive in Egypt in the 20th century in the 1960s. Said undertook assessments of major development projects and led the management of various public-sector organisations.

Whereas the record of many scientists and academics in managing public sector organisations in Egypt has been fraught, Said achieved notable successes. His leadership of Egypt’s Mining and Geological Research Organisation is a case study of the exemplary transformation of a state-owned enterprise.

Integrity comes with true leadership. Said disagreed with public policy in Egypt in the 1970s, especially after then president Anwar Al-Sadat attempted to rapidly move the country towards a free-market economy. For Said, the direction was correct, but many of the policies and the ways they were implemented were not.

He made his views known, though he was not an opponent of the government. Instead, he was a scientist with extensive experience of development in Egypt. When he thought that a public policy was wrong, he put forward a substantiated differing view.

He approached development holistically, and his views were not anchored only on economic assessments and financial projections. Instead, he linked economic advancement to human development, a pioneering insight in the 1970s. He wrote about how lifestyles, working trends, and societal values could change as a result of economic and financial policies that were not given due analyses and reflection.

He was also a strong believer in Egyptianness, something that he, and several of the other men and women covered in this series, saw as the core identity of Egyptian society. This was an identity that had been sculpted over centuries by a stable, peaceful, and cohesive agrarian culture, one that had matured centuries before the monotheistic religions of the Axial Age spread in the country.

He delved into the relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians and assessed how developments in the 1970s might affect its dynamics. His work was neither politically correct empty talk nor rumination on an idealised past.

He sensed dangers for the state of development in Egypt in the last quarter of the 20th century and in the key dynamics of Egyptian society coming from changes in the management of the Nile, demographic trends, educational attainments, research and development, economic competitiveness, capital generation, and migration. He voiced his alarm, not in order to stoke fears, but rather to draw attention to dangers he believed merited serious attention.

He was particularly concerned that Egypt was regressing in almost all the areas that had caused its development and rise in the period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries and that at that time had made the country the preeminent educational, cultural, economic, and financial centre in the East.

In Said’s view, too many Egyptian citizens were being deprived of chances for genuine personal development. For him, the real peril was failing to recognise the country’s societal descent and insisting instead on a narrative of progress and ascendance. His book “Truth and Illusion in the Egyptian Situation” is a concise, substantiated, and blunt account of the trends he judged as being behind this regression.

In his writings of the 1980s and 1990s, Said paid special attention to the period we are living in now, the second and third decades of the 21st century. He analysed how the nexus of the environment, energy, and water could well undergo significant changes, including, for example, the major dilution of the importance of oil in the global economy, something he had already written on in the 1980s.

He foresaw that this would transform geo-economics and international relations and would accordingly have major impacts on the political economy of the Middle East and the Arab world. Rarely do we encounter such penetrating foresight in political economy and public policy analyses as is present in the works of this author.

Sadly, Egypt has too often been deprived of the services of some of its best minds. This was the case with Rushdi Said, who left Egypt after he was released from prison after being incarcerated in the wave of arrests ordered by Al-Sadat in September 1981.

He settled in the US and remained there until his death in 2013, until the end a sought-after commentator on various fields. Distance and neglect in Egypt denied us the opportunity of hearing what he had to say in his last years. However, his writings remain a treasure-trove of valuable insights on some of the most important issues affecting the future of the country.

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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