By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: Trouble comes in threes. Tourism’s tanked. Foreign investors are queasy. This week the neighbors acted up, moving on with Red-Med — the superfast rail link the Chinese want to build across Israel to bypass the Suez Canal.
The Suez Blues: India, China, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia groan about delays and the time it takes to ship goods to Europe through the canal. Skippers complain it takes an age to join a convoy, moaning over being charged an arm and a leg.
The Red-Med: Owners say it would be cheaper, easier and faster to sail into Eilat on the Red Sea and drop cargo onto bullet trains that could be in Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast 30 miles from Tel Aviv in just over two hours.
Asian shippers could use the new Malaccamax monsters on the stocks in South Korea. The huge container ships breach the Suez Canal’s upper limits and shave thousands of dollars off each trip.
Red-Med makes it more feasible for the Chinese to tap into the 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas starting to flow from Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan fields in the Mediterranean and future gas from the new Sara and Mira gas fields further north.
Mood Indigo: Combine Red-Med with the Suez blues. No wonder jazz buff Barack Obama likes the idea. Red-Med eases his concerns about the vulnerability of the Suez Canal under Muslim Brotherhood management. The nod to Israel gives Jewish Democrats another reason to vote Obama in again this autumn.
Netanyahu described Red-Med as a strategically important new hub between two continents when he outlined the proposal to Israel’s cabinet on Sunday. He said Chinese railway contractors and businessmen assured him the trains could be running within five years. Red-Med would supplement the Suez Canal and overcome the capacity problem the canal now faces.
Wall Street could raise the $5 billion required in a New York minute.
Egypt has been caught napping.
While the Planning and International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga runs around goading the government to lock up foreigners running NGOs that support democracy, Asia’s entrepreneurs are ensuring their trade won’t be held hostage to political pique.
Ms. Aboul Naga was warned her Mubarak-era habits would get her into hot water; little did she know how deep. Seen from an American perspective, Egypt’s deceit over the NGOs is a pretty clear indication of what’s in store.
You have to be more than cute if you take on an American president in re-election mode. The Iranians humiliated Jimmy Carter, holding 52 Americans hostage through 1980. What they got was Ronald Reagan, who defined the toughness Americans expect from their presidents.
If Ms. Aboul Naga thought Obama could be humiliated, she didn’t reckon on Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Teflon resolve to pursue the strategic objectives of the administration, prioritizing regional security and democracy in the Middle East.
Obama’s firmness is bound up in the policy inherited post 9/11 to channel millions of dollars of assistance through the same agencies used in Serbia: Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
There’s never been anything furtive about this. It’s well documented. The April 6th Youth Movement received training and assistance from Freedom House according to countless testimonies. Just as newspapers report Islamist groups receiving funding from abroad.
What’s significant is the vehemence of the pursuit of the American NGOs. It indicates the direction Egypt is taking after Islamists gained power with SCAF sitting pretty in the catbird seat.
Was this anticipated? No, it wasn’t. Until last week before the last votes were counted the Muslim Brotherhood was saying the new era would look pretty much as before. Now they’re sworn into office they’re changing their tune.
I don’t see the point of asking politicians what they’re up to. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus — He who lies once is not to be believed twice. Or as Churchill put it: In war the truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
Instead, I sat with a businessman I’ve known for many years. He’s a moneyman that people confide in, agnostic so far as politics go. Over recent months his clients have sought his advice, as I have, too. Some are wealthy. Some are people earning a crust operating retail, import and export, construction and professional services.
Up until this week, he’s been saying everyone is in a wait-and-see mode. Now he says they’re coming in with four-year plans. One says he’ll merge a few companies to strengthen the balance sheet and renegotiate his corporate banking facilities. Another says he’ll open a few more shops to take advantage of so many locations for sale.
Another prominent businessman says he’s sent his wife abroad. He fears the next wave of arrests will include his family, though he says he’s done nothing wrong.
So, I said, sounds like everyone is OK?
Not exactly, my business friend says. The first two discovered the bank has changed policy and now will only lend them a sixth of what they expected and on terms worse than a car loan.
The guy picking up a few more shops discovered permits would cost a king’s ransom under a new open drawer policy.
So what does it all mean, I asked?
The election was a Pyrrhic victory. These four-year plans are based on the projection that after four years everything will be turned upside down. Nothing will look the same.
If the people who voted in the Brotherhood get more money, jobs promised for life for their kids, subsidized food and cheap housing they’ll vote them in again. That’ll be a disaster. My clients will leave the country, he said.
If it doesn’t work for the Brotherhood’s supporters, we’re in for bigger trouble. The Mubarakites will try to get power back. That’ll be a catastrophe.
Ah, you mean like Pyrrhus: If they win one more battle, the country will be utterly ruined?
What about you, my friend asked?
Glad you asked. I was in Mugamma for my visa. They used to give me a year. Then it became six months, then three, then two. This year it’s one month at a time.
January’s visa cost me three pounds and ten piasters. February’s stamp went up to fifty-three pounds and ten piasters and an extra eight pounds for processing.
At least they didn’t confiscate your passport like those American kids, my friend said. You got your visa.
Sure. More victories like that and I’ll soon be broke.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.