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Is As-Sisi Rebuilding “Mubarak’s Pyramid”?

October 2, 2014

Construction of the syphon that delivers water from the "New Valley" project under the Toshka spillway. Widely recognized as a debacle, the project is one of several issues involving farmers in a new essay.

Construction of the canal that delivers water from the “New Valley” project under the Toshka spillway. Widely recognized as a debacle, the project is one of several issues involving farmers in a new essay.

The Toshka project (recently revived by President As-Sisi) is “sucking in funds that might have been available for rural development in the old lands and might have boosted domestic nutrition,” according to a recent article in the Middle East Research and Information Project.

Entitled “Small Farmer Uprisings and Rural Neglect in Egypt and Tunisia,” the article by Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush is a wide-ranging essay that describes the tragic disappointment of farmers, among the most economically vulnerable of all Egyptians.

In Egypt, Toshka is a symbol for the Mubarak regime’s mismanagement, capturing both the government’s obsession with large scale projects and its commitment to foreign investment as a silver bullet for what ails the country.

Toshka was a proposed mega-project to build a 240-meter irrigation channel from the Nile Valley to the southwestern desert to irrigate land for agriculture. The idea was to solve population problems by moving farmers–up to 20 percent of the population–out of the Delta, where land is at a premium, while at the same time attracting foreign investment in new farms that would grow high-value crops for export.

In one swoop, Toshka was going to solve Egypt’s severe overpopulation, unemployment, and food security problems by creating a “new valley” to supplement the Nile valley.

Toshka failed miserably.

So many things went wrong:

  • The environmental impact assessment was inadequate; it turned out that the canal as designed leached salt from the desert soil making it increasingly unusable as it flowed west.
  • The irrigation machines continually clog as their wheels churn up clay which hardens and shuts down their operations.
  • Instead of half a million reclaimed feddans, government figures show only about 1000 feddans (a feddan is about one-third of an acre) reclaimed
  • The early investors from the Gulf left, so that the overall cost –estimated between $83 and $87 billion between 1997 and 2017, will be borne by the Egyptian people.

Because of its scale, its cost, and its excruciatingly slow rate of construction, some Egyptian’s called it “Mubarak’s Pyramid”

In Ayeb and Bush’s essay, Toshka is just a metaphor for the larger issue which the authors describe thus:

Small farmers know what policies are needed to grow more food for the nation and improve their own standards of living. They vigorously defend what E. P.  Thompson called the “moral economy” — the notion that as small producers living close to subsistence they are owed some protection from the ravages of the market. But since the late 1980s, when economic liberalization began in the countryside in both places, small farmers have been effectively barred from the conversation about development.

The problem is that, in spite of the revolution,

Elites in Egypt and Tunisia continue to consider peasants to be part of the “surplus population,” “human debris” or “waste life,” rather than important actors in social transformation.

This excellent short essay is available on-line free.

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