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March 20, 2019

Egypt: 100 days of personal reporting

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Of all my annual visits to Egypt, the country of my birth, this latest one has been the longest - more than 100 days.

I filled that time with many memorable experiences, such as visiting family and friends and discussing research projects with some of my former University of Waterloo PhD students, who are now engineering professors at Egypt's best universities.

I am also a keen student of Egyptian history, culture, music and literature. I attended several events and brought home a large stack of books in both Arabic and English.

But I found time as well to learn first-hand how the country is doing, how it is facing myriad internal and external challenges. During this visit I became much better informed and inspired by the success of its efforts.

For example, I visited four ambitious mega-projects and was impressed at how much had been accomplished in such a short time.

My first such visit was to the NAC, Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, about 100 km northeast of the vast metropolis of Cairo.

Although still a work-in-progress, I visited two buildings nearing completion. One will be the largest Coptic Christian Church in the world, and not too far from it will be the second-largest mosque in the world; only the grand mosques of Mecca and Madina are larger.

The entire NAC site is an architectural and urban planning marvel, designed by Egyptians, built by Egyptians, for Egyptians. Unlike the enormous chaotic sprawl of Cairo, this new capital boasts state-of-the-art security, infrastructure and transportation.

I was accompanied on my tour by a young manager from the Arab Contractors Company, one of several firms working on the NAC. He was rightly proud of having a role in his country’s bold new venture.

On our way from my downtown hotel to the NAC site we took a brand new toll road. At the booth he asked that the fee be waived, since his company had built the road. But the attendant replied that Egypt’s President El Sisi visited the week before and insisted on paying his own toll, like anyone else. It was true.

The NAC will be the new home for more than three dozen embassies and key government departments. Near the core there will be luxury accommodation for embassy staff, as well as subsided housing for workers and many others. Only a few years out from the first shovel in the ground, this project employs thousands of workers around the clock, seven days a week. When completed, Egypt’s NAC will be the largest purpose-built city in Africa and the Middle East.

The second mega-project I saw was a new resort called Algalala on the road to Suez, about an hour’s drive out from Cairo. It's Egypt’s first mountain-top resort, overlooking the Red Sea from a height of some 700 metres – the view is breathtaking.

The road from Cairo to Algalala, another new project, is first class by any standards, a super-highway with six lanes in each direction, plus separate bike lanes. There are service stations every 50 kms and emergency road service is available 24/7. In addition to hotels and year-round apartments, Algalala’s infrastructure also includes a new university.

The third major project I visited was one of the six tunnels planned to run under the new and old Suez Canal, a time- and energy-saving link to connect Sinai with the Nile Valley.

The fourth project was the world’s largest solar energy generating station, located near Aswan in Upper Egypt.

These four projects tell a remarkable success story of how Egypt is determinedly fighting the evil of terrorism, while simultaneously ensuring a sustainable and prosperous new future for its people.

“You’d have to be blind not to see what El Sisi has achieved in the five years since he took office,” commented one of my taxi drivers. “We don't care what anyone says . . . we will change the constitution to keep him for another term.”

Aside from members of the disgraced Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists, the vast majority of Egyptians agree with him, and that includes a growing number who didn't support El Sisi in 2013, when he rode the wave of a popular uprising to topple the MB from power. Now they realize that this event saved Egypt from certain civil war; and five years later, the country is not just surviving, but thriving under his leadership.

El Sisi is a high-achiever in other fields as well. Thanks to his initiatives, Egypt has become a vibrant catalyst for African-Arab-European cooperation.

The beautiful Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh recently hosted a major summit of European and Arab countries with more than 50 presidents, kings and prime ministers attending.

At a press conference following that summit, a German journalist challenged El Sisi that Egypt was inhumane for sentencing nine convicted terrorists to death. The President politely but firmly responded; “Please don't lecture us on how to be more humane; we don't lecture you. We respect our differences and so should you. We’ve never asked [the European Union] to consider bringing the death penalty back.”

This year, Egypt is leading African nations to work together economically and culturally to develop areas such as agriculture, education, health and sports. As a result, tourism within Africa is also on the increase, thanks in large part to Egypt’s support of international events such as this summer’s African Cup soccer tournament.

The historic city of Aswan in Upper Egypt was the site for an African- Arab Youth Conference, where President El Sisi addressed delegates with this challenge: “We are all Africans. We must stop the [divisive thinking] that there are two Africas – the Arab North and the Black South.” He is absolutely right.

By the numbers, Egypt is now doing well in many key areas of production, infrastructure, economy and social programs, thanks to the President and his government team of ministers, some of whom I know personally.

The country now exceeds its domestic needs in both electricity and gas, with more petroleum discoveries being on land and under the Red and Mediterranean seas. Besides the much-headlined NAC, Egypt is building no fewer than 13 new cities.

Inflation, unemployment, and the value of the American dollar are all decreasing, with a resulting increase in the country’s economic prospects.

Terrorist campaigns by the Muslim Brotherhood have been exposed, firmly dealt with, and pre-emptive strikes by government security forces have greatly reduced their frequency and loss of life. External MB support from Qatar, Turkey, and Hamas has also been minimized, all of which bodes well for the continued restoration of Egypt’s vital tourism industry. In 2018 tourism revenue topped 11 billion dollars.

My main complaint during this long and busy visit was Cairo’s heavy rush-hour traffic. With the massive ongoing construction of underground lines, I hope the gridlock will have lessened next time I visit. 

I know for sure that the transformation will continue and that many new wonders for the eye, mind and heart will be waiting when I return.

Take care, Egypt – I love you.

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