Egypt’s unique relationship with the River Nile was probably best captured by the renowned Greek historian Herodotus who noted, 2500 years ago, that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile . The ‘father of history’ was certainly right. The river gave ancient Egyptians everything: water, food, animals, trade and transportation – in short, the fundamentals of life. Without the river, Egypt is merely a barren and hot desert. But the longest river on earth sowed the seeds of one of the greatest and most attention-grabbing civilizations of ancient times. But is Egypt still the gift of the Nile? Perhaps not anymore.
For millennia, the vast majority of Egypt’s labor force was employed in agriculture. The mud-rich banks of the Nile and the Delta region were crops’ heaven on earth. The fertile land gave Egyptians work and financial security. Man and land were, over the years, tied together in what seemed to be an eternal bond. “Land is honor , says the famous Egyptian proverb. Selling or deserting one’s property was a shame, never to be committed by dignified men.
In the 19th century, the prominent historian Edward Lane described the disinclination of Egyptians to leave their native land: “Love of their country and more especially of home is a characteristic of the modern Egyptians. In general they have a great dread of quitting their native land. I have heard of several determining to visit a foreign country for the sake of considerable advantages in prospect; but when the time of their intended departure drew near, their resolution failed them.
However, this seemingly unalterable pattern changed as a consequence of the sweeping processes of modernization and industrialization. Worsening economic conditions at home drove many fellahin in the past few decades to jump ship the land and venture to other lands. In search for much – needed hard currency, cultivating the soil of others – in Iraq or Libya, for example – did not seem as an act of disloyalty, as it clearly appeared to their ancestors. The ‘dread’ of leaving home has turned into a mass abandonment.
Similarly, the drive of the Egyptian revolution towards industrialization and the institution of a huge public sector absorbed millions of workers, many of whom were previously engaged in agriculture. Statistics shed light on the change caused by these phenomena. In 1965, 55 percent of national employment was engaged in agriculture. But by the beginning of the 21st century, merely one third of the workforce was indulged in agriculture, in contrast to 51 percent in services.
Concomitantly, agriculture’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined conspicuously. In 1972, approximately 31 percent of GDP was generated by agriculture. Thirty-five years later, agriculture’s input stood at a low 14.7 percent, at variance with 49.8 percent and 35.5 percent provided by services and industry respectively. In the same vein, agriculture’s share of total export value dropped from 71.2 percent in 1966 to a low 21.5 percent in 1990.
Furthermore, the fertile land of Egypt, once the granary of the Roman Empire, is now unable to feed its own people. The country was until 1960 self-sufficient in nearly all essential food commodities, with the exception of wheat, whose local production covered 70 percent of its consumption. This ratio changed dramatically in the decades that followed, due to rapid population growth and mounting rates of desertification. By the end of the 1980s, self-sufficiency of basic food commodities, such as wheat, lentils and edible oil, did not exceed twenty percent. Accordingly, Egypt has become increasingly dependent on US aid, whose food program provided Egypt with billions of pounds worth of food. For many years, one third of the bread sold in Cairo was supplied by the program.
On another level, the distinctive spiritual connection that linked the river with Egyptian people for millennia has been shattered. Respect and reverence is what best characterized the attitude of ancient Egyptians towards the life – giving waterway. They called it “the great river and created a God for its annual inundation named Hapi. Moreover, they believed that the holy river was a passageway from life to death and afterlife. And that is precisely why all tombs were placed west of the Nile, the side that symbolized death and, according to their faith, facilitated access to the afterlife.
But this is all something of the distant past, for the river is no longer sacred in the eyes of Egyptians. In fact, the Nile that gave Egypt its life is now gravely abused by its people. Discharging chemicals, industrial waste, garbage and sewage into its canals occurs at alarming rates. The ensuing pollution caused irreparable damage to the fishing industry and extinction to countless bird species and created a major habitat for life – threatening parasites and infectious pests. The water is further sullied by fertilizers and pesticides that seep from the soil, leading to liver diseases and renal failure.
Clichés live for so long when they are so frequently reiterated that people overlook revising their validity. This is particularly the case when they are charged with religious or national sentiments. The statement of Herodotus is a good example. The contribution of the Nile to national welfare has been waning, and its divine character has been lost over the past few decades. Historically speaking, Egypt is indeed ‘the gift of the Nile’, but contemporary Egypt is not, and a deeper separation is expected in the coming decades.
Nael M. ShamaPhD Candidate, School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews, UK