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Is it better barren?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 07 - 2010

The way some childish pundits talk, Egypt would be better off if it didn't develop its land resources at all, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
Last week I was fearful of treading through a minefield on the subject of land and urban development. The mines were the issues relevant to the subject itself. With complex and delicate subjects that overlap with other complex and thorny issues one can never be sure of what might touch off an explosion. However, apparently one must also be on guard, while treading through that treacherous terrain in which something may blow up in your face at any moment, against being taken by surprise by snipers from the sidelines who have decided to take you down for reasons that have no bearing, direct or indirect, on the subject at hand. You might, for example, be intercepted by a highwayman levelling at you the knifelike charge of supporting corruption and defending the perpetrators of corruption.
This plague is one of the wonders of our age, with no precedent. It is widespread among the comments and responses of readers who seem to expect a writer to lay out a grand theory in every article and to state his principles and positions as though he had not explained and reaffirmed them at length in the course of the decades of his career. However, the greater source of the plague is to be found in fellow writers and commentators who take it upon themselves to rewrite an article on the basis of what they assume is the author's "true intent", after which they roll up their sleeves to tear it apart. One of the main violations of the principles of journalistic professionalism is to evaluate and assess an article on the basis of some presumed "intent". When entire explicitly worded paragraphs are ignored in the process the crime can only be regarded as planned and premeditated. In last week's article on "Implementing development", I wrote:
"Before proceeding further let me insert a word of caution. In all such matters the law must reign supreme. And in order to keep bad faith and ill intent at bay, our aim should not be to defend this or that person whose name has cropped up in the affair, but rather to defend the cause of development in Egypt. There is no reason to fear either truth or justice. By extension, transparency, accountability and a balancing of the scales, are nothing to be frightened of. What there is good reason to fear is that, when incitement and vilification triumph over serious and rational discussion, it is development that is the chief victim. What generally happens in the midst of the kind of raging storms we are witnessing, replete with derogatory terms such as "bloodsuckers" and "sharks" hurled every which way, is that the right to decent work and housing, to a dignified life in a clean and liveable environment, is sacrificed."
There is nothing ambiguous about this paragraph. It states that the law has the ultimate say on our society's affairs. However, beyond this there is nothing to prevent discussion of an issue from its outward aspects down to its essential core and from the trees we see in front of us to the deeper forest that lays behind. What could be clearer? A writer has the right to define the contours of the subject he wants to discuss. Last week, I laid out the contours for a discussion on urban development and no convention of journalistic professionalism grants anyone licence to claim that my plea for the cause of development was "implicitly" a plea for mercy for the corrupt. When an article is as clear as a summer's morning, as we say, no one has the right to invent some "implicit" assumption and use it to build a straw man that they can shoot down with deadly arrows, as medieval knights would do during their archery training and as Hamdi Rizq has done in our modern age.
So, let me state again that in the affairs that pertain to the realm of the judiciary, the courts must rule, within their various spheres, in accordance with what they deem just and true. I will add here that as one who has always stood against the intervention by the executive authority in the judicial authority and who is deeply perturbed when the judiciary meddles in responsibilities that fall squarely on the shoulders of the executive, I get extremely disturbed when "the fourth estate" departs from its task of exposing the facts and assumes the right to act as judge and as rival to the executive and judicial authorities in the management of the state. Unfortunately, there has never been a thorough study of the number of times the press has fallen into the trap of condemning someone who turns out to be innocent, and then the number of times it has issued a feeble apology after its scandal-mongering has done its damage.
Yet, the problems of journalism and the lack of professionalism in that career are not our subject today; it is still urban development.
Recently, my attention was caught by a headline in one of our venerable newspapers proclaiming that some National Democratic Party (NDP) members had agreed to strike a deal with some foreign firms to clear land mines in the Western Desert on the condition that they (the NDP members) gain title to the land afterwards. The author of that article was outraged. He was not outraged because the aforementioned desert has remained riddled with mines that, for more than six decades, have been killing and permanently maiming people. Nor was he even outraged because that vast expanse of land has remained fallow for six decades if not for thousands of years. No, he was infuriated because some people from the NDP would own it. Needless to say, there is no truth to the story as he told it. The NDP had nothing to do with the matter, apart from the fact that the NDP government was kind enough to draw up a plan for the development of the north coast and its desert interior with an eye to stimulating a development revolution that would open hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of unused land to builders and investors. Specifically, the area I refer to is the 166,000 square kilometres that make up Marsa Matrouh, that great governorate which is half the size of the UK and Japan, and more than eight times the size of Israel plus the West Bank.
The controversy between existing plans and the abovementioned newspaper article, and between "Implementing Development" and the response to it should not be seen as mere differences of opinion. It encapsulates Egypt's crisis and why it remains underdeveloped. The controversy, regardless of the insults hurled and the remarks made out of context, is between the creation of wealth and the distribution of wealth. Our handling of this equation, I believe, is what kept Egypt from the ranks of developed nations all these years. Economy professor and dean of Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Ahmed El-Ghandour, once told me that the real crime that is taking place in Egypt is not what we see in the courts but in the sheer amount of lost opportunities and the massive costs of these losses. Whatever crimes are committed against the land in Egypt will be tried by our fair and just courts. But who will be tried for keeping a million square kilometres of land unexploited and deprived of investment for the purposes of urban development, trade, agriculture, industry, tourism or whatever other activities serve human life and welfare?
President Anwar El-Sadat once made a remark that opened the gates of hell for him. He said that he had put a price tag on Egypt. The gates flung open, of course, because the prevailing and correct belief was that Egypt could not be bought at any price. While I doubt that someone like Sadat would not know this truth, I am certain he was not referring to Egypt in the moral, historical and spiritual sense of the word, but rather in the material and geographical sense. Land is worthless as long as it arid, barren and home to snakes, rats and insects, whether poisonous or benign, and this was and remains the case with the bulk of Egypt's land, 93 per cent of which is vast, endless and valueless desert. Land remains worthless until the dynamics of supply and demand kick in. Before they do, the desert remains desolate and land an obstacle; once they do the desert becomes a place to live, work and produce, and land begins to acquire a price.
Those were precisely the dynamics that Sadat set into motion with his Open Door economic policy. Since then, the forces of demand and supply moved quickly at times and sluggishly at others. Once it headed to the north coast, another time it moved towards southern Sinai and at other times still it focused on the Red Sea or around our metropolises and rural capitals. Today, Egypt has 33 new cities inhabited by some five million people, or the equivalent of the populations of Denmark and Austria and more than the population of Jordan and more than the inhabitants of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait put together.
Numerous means and methods were explored during the process, with trial and error claiming its say. Development of the north coast began with state built holiday villages. But when the government came under fire for handing these properties to its executives, virtually all the occupational syndicates were given large tracts to build "dream" villages of their own. After the upper echelons took their share, the middle class echelons marched to Marina, in search of a new life that until then they had only seen in films. Then the private sector arrived and began to apply a new concept of small integrated villages, where local and foreign tourism, domestic and commercial life, and work and play lived side by side. Today, we are standing on the threshold of a new phase that aims to strike deep into the desert, to transform it into integrated complexes of agriculture, domestic housing, commerce and industry capable of sustaining millions, and to create a thriving hive extending to the sea.
The groundbreaking venture that is on the verge of starting on the north coast had precursors in South Sinai, the Red Sea coast and the shores of the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba. There too creative blending gave rise to new Egyptian landmarks on the world map, such as Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada and the soon to be completed Marsa Alam. Recently, the National Bank Company for Real Estate Development undertook a study for Al-Ahram Establishment on the state of the economy of the Red Sea coast. The results were astounding, considering that all that development along the coast, with the exception of Hurghada, took place during the last decade. In Hurghada, El-Gouna, Magawish and Sahl Hashish, there are 169 hotels with a total capacity of 40,286 rooms and 80,572 beds. Suma Bay has five hotels with 1,610 rooms and 3,220 beds, Safaga and Qusseir have 16 hotels with 2,960 rooms and 11,806 beds, and Marsa Alam so far has 49 hotels with 7,062 rooms and 14,124 beds. Note that these figures refer to tourist capacity, with regards to which the average occupancy rate is 70 per cent. Now consider what this means in terms of employment and investment opportunities, revenues from foreign exchange transactions and the purchases of some of the more well-to- do, and the consumption and depreciation rates that keep major furniture, construction and food and catering industries occupied.
Most of this development was made possible by real estate developers who have long since transcended the boundaries of traditional suburban development to the horizons of vast productive modern cities. It will not be long before we have the opportunity to create open cities like Dubai, but better because they would be closer to European markets, free of suffocating humidity, and within a short distance from the holy places in Saudi Arabia and the financial services of the Gulf. It is useful to know that there are 400,000 Saudi Arabians who have permanent residences in Egypt as well as some 150,000 Iraqis and unknown numbers of Kuwaitis and Lebanese who have come to our country to enjoy its peace and security, and to invest. In addition, there are some seven million Egyptians living abroad of whom about a million live in the US. Their combined income totals $30 billion and many of them are dreaming of a second home in their motherland, Egypt.
Bear in mind, too, that the development we have seen so far barely scratches the surface of the million square kilometres that make up the mainland of Egypt, plus its 144 islands in the Nile and 181 islands in the Red Sea. All this is on display for those who wish to invest in them, in accordance with stated rules, the principles of transparency and safety from moral attack as long as the aim is to develop Egypt. Critics will naturally race to the ready-to-hand charge that such development has nothing to do with the poor and those on limited income. However, what they will probably fail to mention is that this development and the industries that support it employs eight million people, which is to say 31 per cent of the Egyptian labour force. Also, as I pointed out last week, the involvement of the private sector has meant that planning and design now caters to the actual demands of the domestic real estate market, in which there is roughly a five per cent demand for luxury housing, a 35 per cent demand for middle class housing, and a 60 per cent demand for low-cost housing.
It is commonly believed that "real estate developers build for the rich and the government builds for the poor." But the facts belie this saying. In the Egypt in Numbers report issued by the National Census Bureau, in 2008-2009 the government built 3,383 low cost housing units and 29,222 economy units, whereas the private sector built 47,230 such units. Whereas the government built 1,299 middle class housing units, the private sector built 54,514 units, on top of which it built 19,124 above-average and 3,762 luxury units. Perhaps it might put Hamdi Rizq's mind to rest a bit to know that the Zeinhom housing project sponsored by Suzanne Mubarak was undertaken by the private sector under the leadership of Ibrahim Kamal and that the Agouza housing project sponsored by the Mustaqbal (Future) Society was constructed by the Arab Contractors Company with the support of Egyptian civil society and considerable investment from the private sector.
We further learn from Egypt in Numbers that compared to the state's investment of LE128,498,000 in low cost housing and LE2,496,668,000 in economy housing, the private sector invested LE2,824,335,000 in economy housing. And whereas the state invested LE402,223,000 in middle class housing, the private sector invested LE3,381,660,000 in this class of housing. In addition, the private sector invested LE1,404,445,000 in above-average housing and another LE479,070,000 in luxury housing. In the 2008-2009 financial year, the total private sector contribution to the LE200 billion that was invested in housing development came to LE113.5 billion, or 57 per cent of the total investment, compared to the public sector's contribution of LE86.5 billion or 43 per cent of the bill. Another interesting fact to bear in mind is that the private sector employs 75 per cent of the 26-million strong Egyptian labour force.
Our core subject, the forest behind the trees, is how to build Egypt. This is not about people getting kicked out of their homes or bloodshed, unless the idea is to create a "Palestinian case" against Egyptian companies that are run by Egyptians, employ Egyptians, work for Egyptians and whose proceeds are reaped by Egyptians. Nor, when all is said and done, is anyone about to take a city, governorate or beach with them if they are hounded out of their own country by writers whose preferred tactics are slander, invective, piquant sarcasm or even the occasional piety mouthed to give a gloss of respectability to the art of speaking off-topic. Once again, history will not just judge us for the mistakes we make -- or some of us make -- in the process of building our country. It will also judge us, and harshly, if we leave our land as it is, barren, undeveloped and unproductive. This is the issue.


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