Anti-Suez Canal campaign: A belated exercise in popcorn politics

Initially published in Egypt’s Ahram

The New Suez Canal has been inaugurated amidst controversial scenes, ranging from the expression of public joy, to mocking, skepticism, and endless articles questioning its economic worth.

However, at the heart of the controversy is not whether the project is a “gift to the world” or a pointless waste of money. The real question is why did the opponents of the Suez Canal project wait until its completion to air their views? The fact that this opposition, vocalized loudly by some Egyptians and foreign observers, came only after the completion of the New Canal, and not before, is testimony to what is wrong in the handling of Egypt’s affairs.

The right time to voice concerns about the canal should have been August 2014. Exactly a year ago, Egyptian authorities announced that Egyptian pound-denominated Suez Canal certificates would be available locally and abroad.

If the project’s skeptics were not convinced about the feasibility of the government-projected gains from the certificates at the end of their five-year maturity period, why did they not step up their campaign to stop the fundraising through the six million certificates issued by Egypt’s central bank?

Some may assume that the lack of opposition was a result of the fear of oppression by the Egyptian authorities. However, opponents had an array of possibilities to explore if they were serious about trying to stop the project. A Facebook page against the project or even a Twitter hashtag may not be huge, but it would certainly have raised awareness among the weary, not-so-rich Egyptian public.

The only vocal opponents of the project were the Muslim Brotherhood, but it was part of their hyped approach to post-Morsi’s Egypt and not a rational stand that would attract Egypt’s apolitical public. Before the inauguration of the New Canal few people bothered to review the project’s advantages/disadvantages, a trend that was reversed only after completion of the project, when a huge number of opinion pieces saturated the media, questioning the project’s alleged benefits.

There are a few possible reasons that could explain the baffling initial apathy toward the project and the late fervor. Either those opposed to the project were not truly serious about stopping it, or they assumed the project would not be completed; hence, in their view, it was pointless to waste energy opposing it.

That is likely the real reason; it is a kind of popcorn approach to politics, a quiet wait-and-see initial phase, followed by an over-excited rant against the project, once finalized. Such an approach is fundamentally flawed as it indicates how the anti-Al-Sisi elite are politically lazy and incapable of forward thinking.

Regardless, the whole matter reflects why the Egyptian public does not take opponents of Al-Sisi’s leadership seriously. It is unfortunate that opponents of the project have mistimed their moves, and opted for a late show of discontent.

It is no good for an average Egyptian who invested his or her savings in the Suez Canal project to hear skepticism about the project, a year down the line. The idea of the public turning against Al-Sisi after the inauguration of the canal is ludicrous. Would the public ignore the visual impact of the new two-way canal, and consider instead belated articles drumming doom and gloom? Unlikely.

The campaign against the Suez Canal may have raised good questions about the project, and whether it will double revenues in five years as projected. However, its mistiming is its biggest failure. A late alarm button is a failed alarm system. A change in Egypt’s political and economic discourse needs a proactive opposition, not a few late, sarcastic voices on social media.

If chess is a good metaphor to describe political scenes, Egypt’s dynamics can be described as two simultaneous games. One is a serious chess game by Al-Sisi, initiating various gambits to achieve some incremental gain.

The other, however, is a parody chess game played by his opponents; full of noise, rants, and dubious gambits that aim only to attract attention, but fail to change anything. The Egyptian president got his canal, his legacy, and a crucial nod of approval from his Gulf allies, in addition to the potential economic gain.

The publicity accorded to the project, even if negative, is not necessarily bad news for him; he cemented the perception of the reliability of his leadership. His opponents, on the other hand, got nothing.

The problem in Egypt is not Al-Sisi and his potentially “dubious” grandiose projects, but in his opponents’ spectacular mediocrity that consistently fails to convince Egyptians that they are a better alternative.

Post Script

I would like to thank those who re-blogged my piece. I am also grateful to everyone who commented on it, whether positively or negatively; your feedback is important to me. Here are few extra thoughts on the topic:

  • In my opinion, the Suez Canal project was a missed opportunity by Egyptian opposition and activists to resurrect Egypt’s current frozen politics, particularly in terms of its political economy. In Egypt, business awareness simply does not exist. Egyptians would benefit from a campaign to raise awareness about the commercial feasibility of any mega project. it would also help to establish a pattern; to set a policy that must be followed in future cases.
  • Some commenters accused me of being lazy and not doing enough research about early articles doubting the benefits of the New Suez Canal. I did in fact review many of these articles and acknowledged in the original piece how few had raised concerns about the project. Nonetheless, most of those reports were produced by journalists or academics, but  failed to garner wider circulation among Egyptian activists and observers. Only a few activists, for whom I have tremendous respect for their courage, spoke out against the project in its early days. Meanwhile, articles published after the inauguration of the Suez Canal went viral on social media. Such a discrepancy is unfortunate.
  • It is important to differentiate between political campaigning against Sisi’s regime and questioning his business plans. The average Egyptian who bought the Suez Canal certificate may (or may not) love Sisi, but think would twice before investing in an allegedly a dodgy project—assuming Egyptians had the opportunity to read about the project’s commercial feasibility. Sadly, they did not.
  • Other critics shifted the argument and claimed that any campaign against the canal would fail. However, in my view, an orchestrated campaign against the canal’s project, if backed by testimonies from economic experts from inside and outside Egypt, could have a good chance to succeed. If the Egyptian leadership would allow it, it might have a chance to reach ordinary Egyptians, but if not, then the opposition would have their smoking gun that the government is indeed hiding something. Comparing such a calm business style campaign with protests for political demands and arrest of activists is a non sequitur.
  • Even if all those efforts failed to achieve anything, I would have rather seen a campaign to raise business awareness among Egyptians while the regime was still in a vulnerable phase in 2014, only a year after the ousting of Morsi, than a belated criticism in 2015, after the regime has cemented its success and legacy.

All my critics have painted a picture in which nothing could have been done against Sisi. Such total capitulation is deeply sad and disturbing. With all due respect, Egypt’s coup is not the end of the world. Turkey had had a long history of coups, from which it has emerged stronger. Such defeatism is shocking. Finally, I wish a fraction of the energy spent on attacking my article would have been channeled Loudly in 2014 against the project itself; if indeed its opponents believed that it was a bad choice for Egypt, maybe such efforts would have saved many Egyptians a lot of money.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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