Waiting for Sisi

It may seem odd to those beyond the borders of Egypt that an army is involved in construction projects that are for the benefit of the general public

Abdallah Schleifer
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One of the measures taken against post-Mursi Egypt by President Obama was to cancel a by-now traditional joint military exercise with Egypt. The riposte was highlighted on Tuesday when Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi flew to the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi to observe the final day of a joint military exercise involving Egyptian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) armed forces.

In its own way, the presence of Sisi in the UAE capital was reminiscent of his trip last month to Moscow, in his capacity as Defense Minister, to firm up an arms deal with Russia – a valid option in its own right but again a riposte to Obama’s gesture of punishing the Egyptian armed forces by holding back on a portion of scheduled American military supplies.


The same day that Sisi flew into Abu Dhabi, Muslim scholars and intellectuals from the Arab and Islamic world as well as from Europe and the U.S. were heading home, having participated in a two-day forum dedicated in its title to “promoting peace in Muslim societies.”

The enemies of peace were identified in papers and discussion as sectarian violence, the misuses of the concept of jihad to justify sedition and terrorism, fatwas issued by individuals lacking qualification - i.e. recognized scholars of theological and juridical aspects of Islam; and above all transforming the religion of Islam into an ideology.

Guilty on all counts

The undertow to this discourse was that the Muslim Brotherhood and allied pro-Mursi elments were guilty on all counts. And the largest delegation of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from beyond the UAE and Saudi Arabia came from Egypt, and most were academically affiliated in one way or another with top Islamic learning institute al-Azhar University’s various faculties of religious studies. Leading the delegates from Egypt and described as patron of the Forum, was the Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb.

It may seem odd to those beyond the borders of Egypt that an army is involved in construction projects that are for the benefit of the general public

Abdallah Schleifer

Noticeable by his the not-at-all surprising absence was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Azhari sheikh residing in Qatar, whose attacks in Qatari media against the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt for their respective crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood had much to do with last week’s decision by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar.

But the most dramatic event this past week involving Egypt and its Gulf allies - even if not the most publicized - took place last Sunday in Cairo when Sisi, and the head of the UAE’s Dubai-based construction company Arabtec signed on a $ 40 billion dollar deal for the construction of one million apartments for low-income Egyptians with all the planned facilities of functioning communities at 12 different sites covering a total of 160 million square meters.

Donated land

The land will be donated by the Egyptian government and about 40 Egyptian banks will offer 20 year mortgages (barely heard of until now in Egypt) with low down payments in the range of $ 1,500 to $2,000 dollars. Because the land is provided by the state, Arabtec believes this will reduce per-unit costs by up to 40 percent.

Unlike the effort at public housing that were at least undertaken during the presidency of Gamal Abdul Nasser, this project provides ownership of one’s own home.

The project is formally dedicated to Egypt’s youth, so many of whom are unable to marry because of the lack of affordable housing, or if they do manage to marry go deeply into debt simply to rent and furnish their own apartments.

Accelerated crisis

This crisis, which has accelerated over the past 30 years, silently tears far, far more at the very fabric of Egyptian society than any other issue. To solve pervasive unemployment, the construction of housing estates must be prioritized. This would benefit construction workers, plumbers, electricians, gardeners, tillers and painters and then as planned communities which require schools, shops and transportation networks, will create jobs for teachers and transport workers as well as opportunities for manufacturers of building supplies and shop-owners.

It may seem odd to those beyond the borders of Egypt that an army is involved in construction projects that are for the benefit of the general public. But already Cairenes are talking about how the city’s notorious traffic problem is starting to ease thanks to the recent widening and upgrading of two major roadways in a matter of a month or so by the army – tasks that usually drag on here for many months if not years when carried out or supervised by government ministries.

Political dividends

And back in 2006 when no one could claim that there were political dividends on hand or at stake, it was the Egyptian army that rushed a mobile bakery to Hurghada, and distributed bread for free to everyone when that coastal resort town was flooded by heavy rains cutting electricity and blocking the supply of fuel to run the town’s bakeries.

The housing project directly addresses the problems of unemployment and the lack of affordable accommodation; problems far more important to the overwhelming mass of struggling Egyptians than the issues that tend to dominate the concerns of many Western journalists and many Egyptian intellectuals.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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