Are Egypt's priorities right on or dead wrong? With the announcement of opening new costly cultural projects aimed at re-attracting tourists, we examine if the money, time, and resources are better spent on smarter security.
Egypt has problems, a lot of them. Pointing them out is easy, as systemic inadequacies have been ingrained into the Egyptian workforce under 30 years of Mubarak-approved corruption, but providing a better way forward or solutions to the myriad of problems is tough. The government seem to have taken the approach to healing Egypt’s festering wounds not by treating the infection but by simply applying extremely costly and incredibly ineffective band aids that beg the question: are the government's priorities right on or simply dead wrong?
Fixing major nationwide problems is extremely difficult in a population over 90 million, which is why one could argue that ministers and politicians often opt for a quick fix that on the surface seems to address the issue but fails to tackle the root cause of the problem. Few could argue that tourism is at an all-time low, and that the reason for its decline is directly correlated to the country’s instability and security failures. Instead of focusing on how to make this country safer for tourists, the government chooses to push a flashy #ThisisEgypt campaign and open expensive ‘new cultural projects’ like museums and opera houses. Of course boosting cultural activities is attractive, however tourists have plenty of ancient wondrous reasons to visit - an 82 million LE museum in Aswan, dedicated to the Nile, will not be bringing them back. The only museum that should be of any concern to the government is doing whatever is required to finish the money pit known as the Grand Egyptian Museum being built in the Shadow of the Pyramids for over a decade. The problem in Egypt was never coming up with new exciting projects, but rather its ability to fund these projects and ensure their proper execution or maintenance thereafter.
Also being proposed by the recently visiting Chinese delegation is a plan to open a massive opera house in Luxor. When tourists return, the chances are they will book a flight to Luxor to see its Valley of the Kings, and not its Chinese-built opera house. Somehow the Cabinet decided its building was top priority and already approved the plan even though there is a long list of infinitely important issues and decrees that need addressing. No new museum will have tourists flock back here, as the Great Pyramids of Giza, The Valley of the Kings of Luxor, and the myriad of amazing Red Sea resorts are more than enough to garner interest; the only reason the tourists aren’t here is simply because they believe it isn’t safe to be. Instead of focusing on starting new projects, the Minister of Culture could be looking into abolishing censorships and encouraging artists to become larger than life characters, whose popularity can be exported beyond Egypt’s borders as ambassadors, breaking preconceived stereotypical notions that Islamophobes and the ignorant have of Egyptians.
Take the example of Bassem Youssef; when he was silenced here in Egypt, the beloved satirist found himself embraced abroad as an intelligent Egyptian comedian and is currently in the works to put together a new show in the U.S. Instead of trying to develop other talents to shine bright and change Egypt’s image positively, the country has a Ministry of Culture that permits syndicates to ban a performers' livelihood over an outfit, allows closures of vibrant cultural centers, allows the banning of films, and fails to properly incubate or even protect its national talents. Banning performers and artistic projects doesn’t help improve Egypt’s image abroad, while at the same time transmits the message to its citizens that the state feels they need to treat everyone like children, forgetting that the internet exists and youths rebel. If the Ministry of Culture actually wants to achieve their website objectives they should try to entice Hollywood to come back and film four more Transformer movies. As it stands Hollywood execs are being shamed for failing to cast a single Egyptian in the upcoming Box Office fail Gods of Egypt, giving Egyptians a wonderful opportunity to follow in the great footsteps of Mr. Omar Sharif. However, incubating such a replacement begins with fostering local artists by creating scholarship programs for the arts and making it easier to acquire whatever permits required to be creative.
Security should remain atop Egypt’s priority list, however the way Egypt has tackled this pressing issue is still an ongoing concern, evidenced by the fact that flight bans are decimating tourism to Sharm el Sheikh and the greater Sinai region. Although Egypt has taken extra measures installing new bomb detecting devices and stricter procedures in airports, its official stance remains a mixed message. On one hand the government insists that it is safe to travel to Egypt, but at the same time tells the world that we are in a fight with terrorists, and as such must brutally crackdown on dissent ultimately continuing the erosion of human rights and free speech. To remedy this problem President Sisi announced that Egypt has opened five new prisons since 2013, including plans for a massive 103 feddan mega prison to improve the conditions of the currently overcrowded prisons. It’s true that prisons are below any acceptable universal standard and while this costly expenditure may improve the human rights conditions in them, it is equally important that time and resources are spent avoiding arbitrary arrests of artists and political thinkers while eliminating the interrogative techniques being trained, or the breakdown in commands that have resulted in the multiple allegations of systemic torture.
Egypt needs security, but more importantly it needs smart security focused on eliminating the terrorist threat, instead of the current security that continues to be exposed and embarrassed by local and international media outlets for arresting or detaining people for the silliest controversial reasons, ranging from adding Mickey Mouse ears on a picture of President Sisi, to imprisoning youth for wearing a ‘no torture’ t-shirt. These supposed criminals are more artistic than terroristic and are not the threat to the state keeping tourists away, and furthermore shouldn’t be anywhere near a list of priorities for security forces, let alone in a prison.
Meanwhile, on Saturday allegedly a new video of ISIS pledging terrorists’ groups training in Sinai emerges online stoking fears of future attacks on Oum El Donia getting worse. Part of the issue is the costly strategy being deployed, as Egypt’s military has been on a spending spree on arms including some that arguably are useless in thwarting the on the ground threat. The purchasing of Rafale and F-16 jets does strengthen the military in terms of might, however does very little in eliminating terrorists. If fighting terrorists with fighter jets was an effective strategy, then one could argue ISIS would no longer be threat as international super powers have all taken turns bombing them from the sky. Furthermore, while the world military powers veer towards building autonomous drone arsenals, Egypt continues spending millions on fighter jets that are quickly becoming obsolete in modern day warfare. Adding to the waste in funds is the fact that even after purchasing these jets, accidents occur during training exercises, which is an instant loss of millions in a country already in debt. The only way to attempt to fight terrorists is by launching massive on the ground raids and offensives in suspected areas. In all fairness the military has launched massive ground operations in Sinai, however the threat still spreads and terrorists continue to successfully attack the state leaving Egyptian fearing for their safety while tourists look for safer places to travel.
Neither Egyptians nor tourists are waiting for museums or opera houses to open. What everyone is waiting for is to see a year, or even half a year ago go by without hearing about a dreadful tragedy or horrific disaster emerging out of Egypt, which is why, at this time, smarter security should be prioritised over costly cultural projects that fail to benefit local artists, fail to attract tourists and yet successfully manage to plunder the state further in debt.