Unlike several of its neighbors, the Arab world’s most populous nation has thankfully succeeded in regaining its political, security and social equilibrium following years of turmoil. Egypt is on the right track, and with wise governance could emerge as a regional success story. Often forgotten is that from 1926 until 1953, Egyptians were among the richest, most educated and progressive Arabs. Cairo was the cleanest and most beautiful city on the planet. Egypt’s coffers were overflowing. At one time, the guinea was made of 7.43 grams of gold, and the dollar bought a mere 25 piastres. In the 1940s, the Egyptian stock exchange was the world’s fourth largest.
Egypt loaned the equivalent of $29 billion to Britain during World War II, and the US asked Egypt to give financial aid to European countries. Egypt was a land to which Greeks, Italians and Armenians, among others, gravitated seeking often menial employment. Working there was seen as a dream job. Unemployment never exceeded 2 percent. Ethiopia and Uganda sought union with Egypt. In 1862, Japan sent a mission to Egypt to learn how it could emulate the latter’s success.
As evidenced from black and white movies produced during Egyptian cinema’s golden age and archived Pathé newsreels, cosmopolitan Alexandria was dubbed the region’s Côte d’Azur; its port was a hub for European cruise lines en route to India and Singapore. Royal princes were students in the city’s illustrious Victoria College. Fashion designers used to show their new collections in Cairo before Paris. Taxis were luxurious American Cadillacs. In those days, the country was renowned for producing the finest cottons and for constructing the world’s first solar station.
Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser was prominent among the army officers who gave Egyptians their independence from Britain, and his nationalist pan-Arab fervor served as an inspiration to Arabs everywhere. His intention to improve the lives of the poor was worthy, but sadly many of his socialist economic initiatives were misguided. Wars with Israel also contributed to the depletion of Cairo’s finances.
Egyptians are feeling the pinch due to rising prices, but they can look forward with confidence. I have visited Cairo on numerous occasions over the past year. It is chaotic and traffic-jammed but it remains one of my favorite cities, presenting every facet of life in the raw. Whatever their station and personal burdens, Egyptians always manage a smile and a joke. The capital reminds me of an old mysterious lady clad in a faded ball gown, whose beauty still shines out of her wrinkled face. Tomorrow belongs to her heirs, the youth. They are Egypt’s true treasure, and they need to be nurtured in terms of education and opportunity.
Young Egyptians should roll up their sleeves. Their country needs their energy, enterprise, innovation… and yes, their love.
Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor
Young people were disappointed by the outcome of their revolution; their dissipated dreams of greater freedoms and prosperity led a minority to lose faith in their motherland. The idealists were mistaken. Their vast country is blessed by an excellent climate, magnificent beaches, natural resources (oil, gas, phosphates, gold and iron ore) and its archaeological heritage has unique touristic potential. More importantly, with all its advantages and imperfections, it is theirs.
Rather than bemoan the fact that their country did not become a European clone overnight or hasten to apply for US visas, young Egyptians should roll up their sleeves. Like a mother newly released from intensive care, their country needs their energy, enterprise, innovation… and yes, their love. No one turns their back on a parent in their time of need. Without love of the soil that bore us, we are as orphaned as the refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. I was passionate about my own when all around us was sand.
The UAE was not produced from a magician’s hat. We built it together brick by brick on a strong foundation of unity, belief and hope. With patience and a stable government, there is nothing preventing Egyptians from doing the same, or to be more precise, bathing their country in good fortune once again. It has been an uphill battle, but today the country is back on a positive trajectory; its shattered economy is slowly but surely improving. For example, this month its foreign reserves reached a six-year high of $28.5 billion.
The flotation of the Egyptian pound has resulted in inflation, but on the upside has attracted substantial foreign investment that leapt by “39 percent in the first half of the current fiscal year,” Reuters reported. A newly passed investment law is designed to incentivize foreign investors by offering major tax discounts and the availability of free zones exempt from taxes and duties. And despite the fact that both Russia and the UK are dragging their feet regarding restoring flights suspended following the downing of a Russian Metrojet, the tourism industry is recovering.
The good news is that Egypt’s energy woes are over. British Ambassador John Casson announced that British Petroleum is set to invest $13 billion to “make Egypt the new energy superpower.” At the end of this year, the massive Zohr Mediterranean gas field discovered by Italian company Eni is scheduled to begin production, and the country is expected to transition from an energy importer to an exporter.
For sure there is much still to be done. Parallel to its spending on infrastructure, the government should invest in its human capital, particularly in education and medical care, which are below standard, as the president has acknowledged. A gradual reduction of subsidies makes perfect economic sense, but there must be an effective safety net for the poorest sectors of society.
Most crucially, the pervasive culture of corruption and cronyism that exists from top to bottom must be abolished. All citizens should enjoy equal opportunities according to their talents, and should not have to pay bribes. The long-term solution lies with educators, televised public service announcements and harsh penalties for infringers. The authorities are working to change this. Lastly, I would strongly encourage all Egyptians to instill in their children the flame of patriotism. Let it burn bright, and with enough patience and determination on the government’s part, just as they did during the first half of the 20th century, everyone will want to walk like an Egyptian.
• Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is renowned for his views on international political affairs, his philanthropic activity and his efforts to promote peace. He has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad.