Decoding Egypt: The High Dam and the underground barrier

Nael M. Shama
7 Min Read

The Egyptian regime is a master at exposing its own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It commemorated the 50th anniversary of the construction launch of the High Dam in Aswan by erecting an underground metal barrier along Egypt s border with Gaza. By doing that, it gave commentators a golden chance to ponder the drastic changes that have engulfed Egyptian politics in 50 years.

The story of the High Dam cannot be told without mentioning the Suez Canal Company. In 1956, when the United States withdrew its offer to assist in funding the dam in a statement that combined arrogance with ignorance, Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, a longtime source of foreign domination and humiliation. By using the revenues of the canal to finance the dam, he killed two birds with one stone. The idea of building the High Dam originated from a political platform that stresses objectives like the acceleration of economic and social development, the assertion of national will and emancipation from foreign control.

On the other hand, the barrier is part and parcel of other sad realities, such as Egypt s addiction to its dependence on the US, its collaboration with Israel against fellow Arabs in Gaza and its inhumane foreign policy.

The fact that the Americans declined to fund the building of the dam in the 1950s, but provided technical expertise (and perhaps funding) to the barrier 50 years later are two manifestations of one unchanging US policy: rewarding clients and punishing states who don’t follow US dictates.

Egypt s struggle to build the dam, control the canal and defy the tripartite invasion in 1956 elevated its stature in the Third World. Egypt was rightly seen by demonstrators in Jakarta, Beirut and Caracas, among others, as one of the leaders of the free world who refused to bow to great powers and surrender their rights to freedom and advancement after decades of painful subjugation to foreign powers.

History came full circle. The decades of independence that came after 1956 were followed with decades of rotation within the orbit of US interests, which shattered Egypt s soft power in the Third World. Because of the decision to build the metal barrier, today s demonstrators in Jakarta, Beirut and Caracas, among others, burn Egyptian flags to condemn the Egyptian regime s ill-fated and unjust policies. Cairo is seen as suppressing the struggle of Palestinian freedom fighters and destroying their livelihoods.

Taming the River Nile was no easy job. The volume of construction material used to build the dam could be used to build 17 Great Pyramids. The mega project, considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of modern times, required the collaboration of thousands of engineers, technicians and workers over a period of ten years. It was a rare instance of unity between the ruler and the ruled – a national project that, luckily, did not merely revolve around the winning of a football game.

On the other hand, the barrier on the border with Gaza is but one part in a long cycle of discord between the current Egyptian regime and its people. The bond between ruler and ruled has been long broken, and the regime s frantic references to Egypt s national security and the need to protect internal stability are no longer convincing.

One of the gifts of the High Dam was the generation of electrical power. Thousands of Egyptian villages were, for the first time, blessed with electricity which boosted both agriculture and industry. The dam also enabled Egypt to regulate its share of Nile water. The water stored in Lake Nasser rescued Egypt at times of drought. As such, the High dam was a source of life to Egypt s impoverished and underdeveloped countryside.

In contrast, the barrier along the Gaza border is a force of destruction, killing the only remaining lifeline to Gaza s besieged population. To beat a suffocating Israeli blockade, hundreds of tunnels were built to smuggle food, medicine, fuel, construction material and other basic necessities from Egyptian territory to the Gaza Strip. According to economic experts, smuggling constitutes around 90 percent of Gaza s economic activity. Without these tunnels, and with the Israeli siege and the infrequent opening of the Rafah Crossing, Gaza will starve.

In the 1950s, the Egyptian regime was very vocal about its need to build the dam. The High Dam embodied the aspirations of the new Egypt to progress and development. As we build the High Dam, we build a dam of freedom and dignity, Nasser proudly said.

On the contrary, the construction of the underground barrier was shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. To avoid embarrassment, the Egyptian regime was keen on finishing the unpleasant job in total secrecy. In fact, until this moment, the Egyptian government did not clearly specify the type of construction work it is undertaking along the border with Gaza. This contrast should not come as a surprise. Great achievements are announced, propagated and celebrated. Shameful deeds are disguised and buried.

The High Dam will remain an icon of development and a symbol of the fight of Egyptians with blood, toil, tears and sweat against exploitation. While the huge structure in Aswan will defy time and continue to remind Egyptians of the single project that saved their great nation from the dangers of flood and drought, the worthless barrier will sooner or later sink into oblivion, forgotten by people and apologized for by authorities.

Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He could be reached at: [email protected]

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