FOR CENTURIES Egypt has evoked the world’s imagination with ancient symbols of power and mystery: the pharoahs and the pyramid-builders, Tutankamun, Cleopatra, the sphinx.
Now these are tarnished as tourist-bait, or, even worse, as the cliches of cheap horror movies; but modern Egypt retains its image as the strongest of the Arab nations.
Under Nasser, Egypt led the Arab world in its search for a national identity. Major foreign companies were nationalised, including the main foreign exchange generator, the company which ran the Suez Canal.
This led to the abortive invasion in 1956 by an Anglo-French force in conjunction with the Israeli military. American pressure (strongly against gunboat colonialism, at the time) led to foreign withdrawal and further prestige for Nasser.
All this changed with President Anwar Sadat, whose ‘Open Door’ policy toward the West materialised in the form of large hotels, fast food restaurants and new banks.
As usual, the new-found wealth of the industrialists and the entrepreneurs failed to ‘trickle down’ to benefit the poor. When government food subsidies were withdrawn in 1977 there were riots in the streets of Cairo.
Built for three million, Cairo bursts with 14 million inhabitants. Another 2000 people are added every week. Some of the very poor live in the ‘City of the Dead’, in the tombs of their ancestors. As many as 60 per cent of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed, in part-time jobs like carrying messages. Less than a quarter of the workforce is employed by industry. And few work the land, since only three per cent of Egypt, in the Nile Valley and delta, is under cultivation. Virtually all the rest is desert, so food has to be imported At present, one loaf in four is American and Egypt has an $8 billion debt to repay the US.
Egypt’s four main money-spinners are oil, money sent home from Egyptians working abroad, tourism, and the Suez Canal. The return of peace after the signing of the Camp David accords with Israel (1979) has allowed Egypt to recover the Sinai peninsula which commands the Canal, and to reduce its military expenditure. Nonetheless, even in 1981, Egypt spent $3.6 billion on keeping the military supplied with the latest deadly weapons, and less than $1.5 billion on education and health.
But there are glimpses of social change. The spread of education, for example, has encouraged the emancipation of women in Egypt Unremarkable in the West but significant in Egypt are new sights like this:a girl walking with a man in a city street. when she is neither his wife nor a prostitute.
President Mubarak, appointed on Sadat’s assassination in October 1981, intends to re-focus Egypt’s domestic policy so that the basic needs of the poor are satisfied before the wants of an opulent minority. He faces an uphill task.
Felix Dodds and John Gunner