Egypt's Mammoth Plans for Mega-Projects
Golia, Maria, The Middle East
Everyone knows that Egyptians built the pyramids, but as Egyptologist Mark Lehner pointed out, 'the pyramids also built Egypt'. These massive undertakings challenged the state's organisational skills, honing its ability to mobilise its work force and resources. Egypt has had a reputation for mega-projects ever since: ambitious, labour-intensive, feats of engineering that somehow changed not just the nation but the world. Now, in the dawn of the post-Mubarak era, Egyptians are looking for a national project that addresses its mega-problems.
Several high-profile figures have proposed schemes to rebuild the nation, jump starting the debate on the country's developmental direction. The scientific community's critique of these projects has sparked public discussion of water and land management, energy production and technical education, issues crucial to Egypt's future and much ignored in its recent past.
Prominent real estate-developer Mansour Amer's 'Map of Hope' calls for introducing drip irrigation on a nationwide scale to reclaim desert land for farming, and for redrawing the map of Egypt's governorates to more equitably distribute resources. Amer, who financed two successful Red Sea resorts (Porto Sokhna and Porto Marina) would also like to increase tourism facilities nationwide, transform Sharm El Sheikh into a free trade zone, and make Egypt the world's largest fish producer.
"This is not a project, this is a collection of ideas, some good and some unrealistic," remarked Fikri Hassan, a respected geologist, "Amer is neither a scientist nor a planner, he is just a businessman." Nonetheless, Amer's notion of reconfiguring Egypt's provinces, Hassan noted, would help remedy their long-standing neglect.
Nobel prize-winning chemist Dr Ahmed Zewail's credentials are obviously more appealing to Egypt's scientific community, as is his $2 billion project to build 'Science City' a higher education and research facility. The state has allotted 272 acres of land in Sheikh Zayed City in Cairo's desert outskirts and the project has already attracted major investments. Modelled as "a hybrid of Caltech, the Max Planck Institute and Turkey's Tech Park", Egypt's 'Science City' will serve up to 5,000 students and its objective, Zewail says, is "to revive the production of new knowledge by Arabs and to bring the advances of science and technology to the market and society in this Arab awakening epoch."
Zewail hopes his project will capture the public's imagination and renew its confidence in the future. Recalling how the building of the Aswan High Dam helped rally Egyptians behind the 1952 Free Officers' Revolution, he believes that the appropriate "post-revolution national project for Egypt comparable to the Aswan High Dam is education".
Given the environmental damage stemming from the Dam, some find this an unfortunate analogy for an admirable project. Yet Zewail was right, others say, the public needs to be directly involved in the developmental process, and that process, mega-or otherwise must have a specific aim.
Environmental conservationist Sherif Bahaeddin posed the vital questions: How do we want Egypt to look in 100 years? On what will its economy be based? Agriculture? Services? Industry? Deciding a direction now is vital to achieve the agreed-upon vision, to prioritise projects to meet that goal, bearing in mind that Egypt's population will double within the next 50 years. Where will these people live, and how?
Egypt's tiny 4% of arable land is being lost to urban encroachment, coastal erosion and desertification at the staggering rate of 3.6 acres per hour, according to a June 2011 UN report, more rapidly than anywhere else on earth. With the bulk of the population crowded around the Nile, fertile soil deposits now host buildings and roads instead of farms, with dire consequences for Egypt's food sufficiency. …