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Sisi’s economic vision for Egypt: back to the future

CAIRO: Days before a presidential election he seems certain to win, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi released a detailed, color-coded rendering of “The Map of the Future,” designed to reassure Egyptians he is serious about attracting investment in their battered economy.

But the idea is nearly 30 years old and was never implemented because of its high cost.

Like much of the program Sisi has hinted at in media appearances, the map draws on practices from the era of President Hosni Mubarak, prompting more accusations that the former army chief is a product of the old regime.

Sisi, who was Mubarak’s military intelligence chief before ousting elected Islamist leader Mohammad Morsi last July, has set out a bare-bones economic vision underpinned by age-old dominance of state institutions, including the army, and the hard work of ordinary Egyptians.

But voters and investors – even those supporting Sisi – have been left mostly with vague plans to remedy the economy, suffering from corruption, high unemployment and a widening budget deficit aggravated by fuel subsidies that could cost nearly $19 billion in the next fiscal year.

The centerpiece of Sisi’s platform – the map – involves the state building cities in the desert to enable a burgeoning population to live on 100 percent of the land. Egyptians currently occupy 6 percent.

“The vision aspires to achieve unprecedented rates of development and effect a quantum leap in the Egyptian economy after the way is cleared by the new administrative and investment maps for the provinces,” his platform said.

Farouk al-Baz, a geologist who once worked for NASA, told Reuters he drew up the plan in 1985 – in the fourth year of Mubarak’s rule when Egypt’s population was 50 million compared to the current 85 million.

The “development corridor” that Baz designed includes a railroad, an eight-lane highway, water and electricity lines and fully developed towns and cities on 10.5 million acres of untouched land west of the Nile.

Sisi’s project appears even larger, with 48 new cities, eight airports, fish farms and renewable energy projects generating 10,000 MW of power.

Baz told Reuters Mubarak was not initially interested in the plan. Baz then spent years lobbying the government only to have the plan dismissed in 2005 after a ministerial committee found its $23.7 billion price tag exorbitant.

Days after declaring his candidacy for president in March, Sisi turned to Baz and in four private meetings they discussed the corridor, Sisi’s keystone, the geologist told Reuters.

Sisi has said he would rely on contributions from Egyptians living abroad, foreign investment and continued Gulf aid already at $20 billion to finance the project’s cost, which he estimates at $140 billion.

“They’re almost suggesting that concerted state efforts in certain realms will magically solve Egypt’s problems,” said Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert at George Washington University. “That’s not a program.”

Sisi has consulted with international experts including Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, World Economic Forum head Philipp Roesler and Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

His outreach suggests he is aware of the magnitude of the challenge and wants to rescue an economy hammered by street protests and political violence since Mubarak’s fall in 2011.

His map plays well with a domestic audience eager for visionary leadership, though outsiders are less impressed. “The general concern is that he believes the state can solve a lot of problems, although part of the issue in terms of state manufacturing is that it has problems of its own, so there is a risk he could just be layering on more problems,” said Ahmad Badreldin, a partner at private equity firm Abraaj Capital.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2014, on page 5.
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Summary

Sisi, who was Mubarak's military intelligence chief before ousting elected Islamist leader Mohammad Morsi last July, has set out a bare-bones economic vision underpinned by age-old dominance of state institutions, including the army, and the hard work of ordinary Egyptians.

The centerpiece of Sisi's platform – the map – involves the state building cities in the desert to enable a burgeoning population to live on 100 percent of the land.

Sisi's project appears even larger, with 48 new cities, eight airports, fish farms and renewable energy projects generating 10,000 MW of power.

Sisi has said he would rely on contributions from Egyptians living abroad, foreign investment and continued Gulf aid already at $20 billion to finance the project's cost, which he estimates at $140 billion.


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