President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has a mammoth task ahead of him and he knows it. Modernizing a country, whose institutions, educational facilities, hospitals and infrastructure have been chipped away by neglect or corruption for decades, can’t happen in a blink of an eye.
He’s been careful not to make unrealistic promises; he’s admitted he can’t do it alone. He’s asked the Egyptian people for patience and, until now, they’ve responded positively, despite inflationary prices, higher energy bills, a reduction of petrol subsidies and regular electricity outrages.
Most Egyptians appreciate his honest approach while keeping an eye on his steps toward progress. Even the most egotistical and ambitious among his political rivals would shy away from walking in his shoes given the challenges he faces in a nation that rose up against three presidents in as many years.
Those challenges that would undoubtedly send lesser mortals running for the hills include a massive external debt burden running at over 85 percent of GDP, a deficit of natural gas from domestic fields entailing the import LNG to the tune of $12 billion over four years. Add to that the fact that just over a quarter of the population is illiterate, 26 percent live under the poverty line while the unemployment rate stands at 13.3 percent. Nevertheless, Al-Sisi remains undeterred; saying visible change for the better is only a matter of time.
One of his priorities is education, the quality of which has been deteriorating for decades. Besides new 21st Century curricula, a drive to insert computers in classrooms, measures to discourage dropouts and the introduction of a school nutritional program, the government proposes to construct or upgrade 1,000 schools during the coming 12 months.
To boost exports and jobs, there are plans to develop existing industrial complexes and build new ones as well as factories. The investment maps include the development of 26 cities and tourist centers across 21 governorates, the modernization and expansion of Cairo, as well as long-neglected parts of the country such as Upper Egypt, Marsa Matrouh and the Sinai Peninsula. The housing shortage is being tackled with a $40 billion deal with the Dubai firm Arabtec to construct one million new homes.
It goes without saying that the most high profile project and the apple of the President’s eye is the piece de resistance of his mega public works program — the expansion of the Suez Canal with a 34 kilometer parallel channel, rail and vehicle tunnels as well as a duty-free zone, anticipated to increase revenues by 260 percent. To garner the required $8.4 billion, the government has issued non-transferable five-year investment certificates, available only to Egyptian nationals, banks and investment houses, with a 12 percent guaranteed annual yield. In the few days since the offer became available, over $2 billion has been raised which speaks as much to its attractive terms as it does to the Egyptian’s renewed sense of patriotism.
Progress is slow but sure. And, despite the gloom and doom merchants in the international media, there is good news. Tourists are back.
The summer hotels along the Red Sea boasted up to 80 percent capacity following the lifting/softening of negative travel advisories and visitors to Egypt second largest city on the Mediterranean, Alexandria, were hard pressed to book hotels rooms.
That said, like many — perhaps even most — regional countries, Egypt battles a terrorism threat. Militant groups such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and the so-called Islamic State are working together to bring down the Egyptian government. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood plots from within and without to undermine Al-Sisi’s presidency, disregarding the needs and the wants of 90 million Egyptians seeking security, stability and prosperity.
Al-Sisi may have shoulders of steel but he needs all the help he can get from friends and allies until the boulders obstructing his vision can be removed. To that end, on Saturday, he formed a high voltage presidential advisory council to provide a “strategic vision for the Egyptian state in the future.”
Ultimately, Al-Sisi should be appreciated for his foresight and the strength of character that fuels his determination to move mountains. Anyone who truly loves Egypt, is keen to see it flourish and reassert its crucial regional leadership role, should root for him, which translates to rooting for people he’s pledged to serve.