08/11/2015, 00.00
EGYPT – ISLAM
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The new Suez Canal is a sign of al-Sisi’s success, and Egyptians’ love for him

by Samir Khalil Samir
Egyptians footed the bill for the new canal. As the fight against terrorism continues in the Sinai, electrical power is restored. On the left, some acknowledge positive results. However, ousted President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood find too many defenders in the West, who fail to see that Egypt culturally belongs to the Middle East.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Whilst many in the West still defend Morsi as the democratically elected president, ordinary Egyptians have a very positive view of what President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, a former general, has done since he was elected last year.

Egyptian-born Fr Samir Khalil Samir explains how and why many Egyptians back al-Sisi’s new Suez Canal project and anti-terror fight. Even on the left, some Muslim voices express some positive appreciation for his work. For Fr Samir, the West is still wearing ideological blinkers vis-à-vis the Arab world.

More than a year after Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s election to the presidency, it is worth taking stock of the situation. Let us start from the latest event, the opening of the new Suez Canal on 6 August. The new structure includes a new 35-kilometre-long second shipping lane and the deepening and expansion of a 37-kilometre-long section of the existing canal.

The main reason for what some have called a colossal project is economics. The enlarged facility will allow bigger ships and cut by half crossing time because ships will be able to sail in both directions at the same time over much of the canal's length.

The construction of the new canal was initially scheduled to take three years but it eventually took one year with teams working 24 hours a day. It was exhausting but worth it. Some luxury homes along the canal were also expropriated but Egypt expects to generate US$ 9 billion in extra revenue.

The West does not understand al-Sisi

Several Western scholars are more pessimistic. They argue that maritime trade is declining, that companies rely on other trade routes and will not use the new channel for shipping. . . . Time will tell.

On the positive side, a few weeks after al-Sisi seized power, when the idea of a new canal was first launched, Egyptians bought interest-bearing investment certificates to the tune of US$ 7 billion in just ten days. A first for the country. A 12 per cent interest was a good incentive, but it was also an act of patriotism, based on faith in the country and President Al-Sisi, especially after the disappointment with his predecessor.

Last night I spoke with a professor from the University of Cairo, a Muslim woman and a left-leaning intellectual who is critical of the al-Sisi presidency. I asked her how she saw the situation of al-Sisi’s revolution. She told me that for the moment, it is positive. "First of all, there is security in the country,” she noted. “We had few attacks, only two bombings. Compared to the past, to Morsi’s times, security has increased."

The scholar also pointed positive signs in the economic and social fields. During the previous year, power outages were commonplace, and electricity was available only one or two hours a day. One could not plan anything. For the past year, power is almost never out. This means that someone is running things and dealing with the difficulties.

The third thing that one notices is that the government is working. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab goes to work in an ordinary car, without special license plates, driving through the city. As soon as he sees a police officer who uses violence, or exceeds his power, he stops, holds him, and tells the police about it. This conveys a double message. First, Mahlab behaves like an ordinary citizen, without all the king-like privileges his office provides. Second, he is trying to reduce tensions and improve organisation.

In recent years, as Arab Spring movements developed, the police had become more aggressive and violent. Now people appreciate the more positive feeling.

The death sentence imposed on Morsi and 138 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who participated in acts of violence is another factor to consider. I asked the professor if the sentence had been carried out. She said no. The judge sentences, and a committee of judges has to confirm the sentence. Months have passed and no confirmation has come. In Egypt, the system rarely carries out capital punishment. This is typical. The conviction has to be review by a committee of judges who must vote unanimously.

Mohammed Morsi’s “democracy"

All this shows that the Western press is biased. Many Western media continue to say that Morsi is the legitimate president, the first president elected by the people. This is shameful because he was no better than Nasser, Sadat, or Mubarak. It is especially wrong to say that he was democratically elected by the people – with 51% – after 30 million people (according to British sources) took to the streets to demand his resignation, something never seen in the history of Egypt. The army stepped in in response to popular demand.

In Egypt, the army has always played the role of the people’s protector. For this reason, it removed Morsi, throwing him in prison, in a gilded jail. This is Egypt’s culture. It is not a Western-style democracy, which in my opinion, would not work at present in the Middle East. The police force is unprepared to deal with mass confrontations; the army always played that role.

People are not in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. Everyone saw that nothing was done in a year and a few months during Morsi’s presidency: prices soared, there was no security and the economy plunged. Despite today’s hardships, people are happier. They feel they can do something. The new Suez Canal is a promise for the future.

A few weeks ago, a beautiful article appeared on Youm7 (The Seventh Day), an independent, Arabic-language newspaper. Titled ‘The Melkite and Orthodox Christian cemetery’, it had about 30 pictures showing the late 19th century cemetery. The text said, "the whole Church of Egypt is here. Christians rest in this cemetery; they built modern Egypt, its economy, education, etc."

It shows beautiful statues – unknown until then in Egypt because banned – according to the tradition of great Italian cemeteries. Among readers’ comments, I noticed four Muslims who highlighted the role played by great figures in the history of modern Egypt. Christians revived its economy and culture, opened up the country. It is the first time that this can be said freely. It was not the case under Morsi, nor under his predecessors.

In what constitutes an important recognition of Egypt’s Coptic community ( 9 million out of almost 90 million people), President al-Sisi visited Cairo’s St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral for Christian holy days and stayed for the long service led by Patriarch Anba Tawadros II. This would have been unthinkable during Morsi’s presidency.

Egypt’s gradual democracy

Unlike theorists, I am led to see the liberal characteristics of the system that is being set up. It is far from being a democracy, but in a region like the Middle East, Egypt is relatively democratic. It provides what people want – bread, security and peace –to improve and develop, hopefully, the economy.

Another positive sign is the strong response against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. When Mubarak was in power, Palestinian feda'iyyin held the area, building kilometres of underground tunnels that led from Gaza through the Sinai into Israel. No one, neither Mubarak nor Morsi, could stop them. The latter was in favour of them. Notwithstanding the sad loss of military lives, now some steps have been taken to stop the terrorist invasion.

This shows that Egypt wants to be on the side of peace and build the country and the Middle East. As long as al-Sisi is seen as a positive and strong presence from an economic, political and military point of view, people will continue to like him.

Indeed, many Egyptians wonder why the West, the United States and Europe backed the Muslim Brotherhood for so long, and yet do not want them on their own territory?

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