A city called Egypt

A city called Egypt

 It’s past time that Egyptians came to terms with the reality that we’re a country that imports its breakfast. Virtually every grain of wheat and over half the Fava beans make their way to our kitchen tables via our ports. That’s a fact of life that won’t be remedied any time soon. Absent a second Nile river – the official policy of achieving ‘food security’ is an unattainable mirage.

This is a country that has eighty million mouths to feed with another million lining up on the chow line every year and there’s just no way to add additional agricultural acreage to match our appetites. The sooner we abandon the mythology that we’re an agricultural country, the better off we’ll all be. We can no longer cling onto a vision and the accompanying policy that seeks to revive a long gone era when Egypt was the bread basket of the Roman Empire. It’s best to forget our agricultural past and work towards a sustainable urbanized future.

Aside from the impossibility of producing enough arable land to match our collective daily nutritional requirements, there’s the looming problem of a water shortage.

The only plausible solution on the horizon is to abandon agriculture and start living the good life. The land and water we expend on agriculture can be better utilized to build housing, schools and universities, retirement communities, recreational facilities, resorts, sports clubs and national parks. It’s just unbelievable that an Egyptian child never gets to see a forest. We need more zoos and we’ll be better off saving the water for basic sanitation, water parks, aquariums and swimming pools. We need homes with gardens and apartment buildings with playgrounds for the kids. I want to live to see little Egyptian kids playing hide and seek in nurseries where they can hide behind trees and bushes.

I’m not being flip – once a country reaches a pivotal point where it’s stacking its grocery shelves with such a high percentage of imports – it has two options to reverse the trend. We could always eat less – but judging by the girth of the average Egyptian – that’s a dream we’ll have to postpone. And we already know what the other option is – achieving self-sufficiency – which would basically amount to a reenactment of a national project that has failed for fifty years.

Let me suggest that we adopt a new national mission where the number one priority is to provide adequate housing for our teeming masses even at the expense of encroaching on our inventory of agricultural land. Let’s line the Nile with high-rise apartment buildings from Aswan to Rashid. You can probably plant the roofs of the new structures with enough vegetable gardens to make up for the land lost to urban expansion.

If it was up to me, I wouldn’t spend a piaster on reclaiming more arable land. I’d shut down the ministry of agriculture and eliminate all subsidies to the agricultural sector. That money can be put to better use improving the citizenry’s quality of life by constructing public facilities and diverting some of those funds to education – starting with vocational education that emphasizes the construction trades because we’re going to have a whole lot of building to do.

We’re through being a country and we should grow up and start climbing the next step up the evolutionary ladder. We need to convert Egypt into a city – one extended vibrant metropolis that will put Hong Kong and Singapore to shame.

Our new national project should be to create a new space that can comfortably accommodate a hundred million people and to do it as fast as possible. As a side project, we should do everything within our power to extend the amount of time it takes to breed another twenty million Egyptians. Trust me – we have more than enough Egyptians in the world – at least for now.

I say we start from scratch with a mindset that we all just arrived here on a patch of land blessed with a gorgeous river and spectacular coastlines. If we allocate it to best use, we’ll end up with more than enough water-front property to make for a very pleasant lifestyle.

Take Cairo – it simply can’t be fixed – at least not without a mass exodus. Yet one in four Egyptians put up with the unbearable hassles of living in one of the noisiest and dirtiest major cities on the planet. Why? The simple answer is that, for all its drawbacks, Cairo is still a vibrant metropolis and we’re a people that love city life. They say New York doesn’t sleep; well Cairo hasn’t had a wink in a hundred years. Just go ahead and try to get bored in this city.

We need a new national vision that takes into consideration that we are an urbanized people and we’re likely to remain that way for a very long time to come. We need more Cairos and Alexandrias and less of everything else and we need to build them smack in the heart of the delta if that’s what it takes. In fact, we need cities that offer a better night life and more neon signs than Cairo. Add a mass transportation system that works and Cairo will be a ghost town. It’s the only way to draw people away from a city on the brink of an environmental disaster – you have to razzle dazzle them on their way out by promising and delivering a destination with more neon signs. Better services might also work as a magnet.

If we’re going to do it right, we need these urban areas to be as far away from Cairo as possible. So forget about New Cairo – that just extends the problem to the outlying desert. I suppose they’re nice places to get a good night’s sleep – but you still have to get up and spend the rest of the day in Cairo.

Now I can already feel the ‘old guard’ knives coming out; but bear with me and I’ll give you three examples that you’ll be hard pressed to argue with.

Let’s start with the National Zoo in Giza. Having a zoo in Cairo is an act of cruelty to animals. A few years ago, Athens located its zoo and converted the land to a lovely open municipal park with free admission. So getting rid of that dilapidated municipal facility will make room for a green space that will be like adding a Hyde Park smack in the middle of the nation’s congested capital. Hopefully, the government will be kind enough to put aside a little corner with soap boxes so folks like me can rabble rouse on the weekends.

Of course, that will leave our capital without a home for the animals. I say we have enough stray dogs and cats to entertain the children and the whole city can pass for a zoo. Pick a village – any village in the delta with a view of the Nile – and build a replica of the Cairo zoo – only make it five or six times as big. Show me the village that won’t volunteer its agricultural land to attract that kind of business – not to mention employment opportunities.

Or take a page from Los Angeles – a city that had a population of a few hundred thousand until the waters of the Colorado River were diverted to the Pacific Ocean. Today, one in fifteen Americans call that sprawling metropolis home – because now it doesn’t only provide spectacular beaches and a Mediterranean climate – it has water to quench the thirst of the masses with enough left over to fill a couple of million swimming pools. A hundred miles west of Alexandria, Egypt can build a replica of Los Angeles in ten to twenty years. We might have to demolish a few of the resorts that have been built there – but with adequate compensation, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince the owners to move out.

Closer to home, we have another city that Mohammed Ali created from scratch. I’m speaking of Alexandria, one of Egypt’s youngest cities. The modern city we know as the pearl of the Mediterranean didn’t exist a hundred and fifty years ago. When Napoleon arrived, it was home to a few thousand Jews and Berbers and hordes of stray dogs. Modern Alexandria wasn’t built by ancient Greeks; It was resurrected by an Albanian prince and it was rebuilt a second time after the British bombed it to rubble in 1882. All it took to put Alexandria back on the map was water from the Mahmoudia Canal. Egyptian can easily build another Alex if we stop wasting the water on rice farming which would have the additional benefit of reducing the pollution from burning rice chaff.

Believe me, nobody is going to go without breakfast – we’ll still be able to import all the ingredients just like we’re doing right now. But we’ll also have to import more rice for dinner and that seems like a small price to pay to have enough space and water to build a city called Egypt.

**Ahmed Amr is an economist and the former editor of NileMedia.com. He is the author of “The Sheep and the Guardians – Diary of a SEC Sanctioned Swindle.”