A prominent engineer and political activist, Mamdouh Hamza sat down with Daily News Egypt to discuss the ailing economy and what the government is doing, and not doing, to fix it.
Hamza believes that the government’s mega projects will ultimately not benefit the national economy, and will instead serve the interest of the companies and their origin countries.
Electricity projects, for example, accumulated EGP 8bn for the German economy, as Siemens brought in all its equipment from Germany to work on its projects, according to Hamza.
Hamza also said that the requirements the government has imposed on the youth to reclaim the lands within the 1.5m acres project will not encourage them to invest, and that the government in Egypt, within its current formula, has become a strong and demanding power, leaving the people with little agency.
With regards to the consultative councils, the Supreme Council for Investment, and other councils designed by the government, Hamza said that these councils have harmed Egypt more than they have benefitted it, because they simply act as decoration.
Hamza, who describes himself as the first one who called for the 30 June uprising, advised President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to change his policy by doing a 180. He also demanded that all those who harm Egypt’s economy be detained.
A year and eight months are remaining before the end of the first presidential term. How do you evaluate the performance of President Al-Sisi?
President Al-Sisi is narrow minded. He has no real connection with civil life. Also, as a member of the military, he has not participated in any wars. He does not know much about the economy or politics, and he works only upon what he hears, and not on any scientific basis. He is leading Egypt like the maestro in a marching band who does not carry music to guide him.
You are one of the biggest consultants in the Arab region. How do you see the national mega projects undertaken by the government?
The president has said that these national projects will revive the economy; however, he never fully clarified how they would revive the economy.
These projects will revive the economy when their funds are rotated within the state. This means that you are using Egyptian companies, contractors, and workers in order to deliver the money to Egyptian pockets and move it among them.
At that time we can say the projects are reviving the economy, but these projects are based on importing equipment and even most of the labour comes from companies that implement these mega projects.
When we import electricity turbines from Siemens worth $8bn, those billions revive the German economy, not the Egyptian economy. The excavators of the New Suez Canal enlivened the economies of the Philippines, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the US, not Egypt.
In the 1.5m acres reclamation project, we import the auger drilling fluid to dig wells.
How can the Egyptian economy find life within these projects when the projects are not fully enjoyed by Egyptians?
The state overturned the balance of payments and increased the ratio of the budget deficit. If the state borrowed or printed currency, it would be catastrophic.
This is carried out by the Egyptian government, led by Al-Sisi, because he doesn’t know anything about the economy or politics or how to use the mega projects to move the national economy forward. He is opting to not listen to experts in the applicable fields.
What are your comments about the 1.5m acres reclamation project?
I do not think that we possess the groundwater to reclaim the 1.5m acres that the government aims to within the project. I previously wrote that we cannot cultivate more than 550,000 acres.
The method they are following to implement this project may lead to collapsing underground water reserves, because they did not dig wells according to scientific methods.
While I salute the president for initiating the project, he assigned it to inexperienced people.
Wells were drilled and then closed because there was neither an agricultural cycle plan nor necessary capital. We need at least EGP 25bn to reclaim 500,000 acres. Moreover, conditions set by him will not attain urban development. As the project stands, part of the lands will be offered to investors and part to the youth. However, the conditions set for the youth will not encourage them to invest, thus allowing for investors to dominate the project—this isn’t right.
What about the Suez Canal Area Development Project?
The Japanese planned the Suez Canal Area Development Project in 1978 in case we needed it—if there were more than 70 ships passing through daily, although less than 50 ships pass through daily. All projects are done the same way: with no consultants and assigning the designing tasks to contractors who are not qualified for the project.
Based on what you’ve said, do you project that Egypt will face disasters in the coming decade?
Actually, in a shorter time than this, because Egypt has not followed certain quality conditions, such as: planning, design, offering competition between contractors, examination bid, contracting, implementation, and supervision.
They did not follow such conditions. They brought in a contractor and just put him in charge of the whole operation. Thus, there will be many problems.
Ras Gharib road—which was renovated a year ago—collapsed under the floods because it was not properly constructed. When we established Sokhna port in 1998, we changed the exit for the flood flow.
Do you mean to say that Egyptian money is being wasted?
How can Egypt be the mother of the world? Education, transparency, and service indicators are low. We have a serious problem. Al-Sisi has only one choice: to forget his military arrogance and actually listen to experienced people and follow their lead. He has to know that the solution to the country’s crises can be found in the hands of scientists and experts.
Yet, we have an advisory board, scientists, and many other institutions that support expertise?
They are good at showing themselves off, yet they provide no benefits to Egypt. They brought in someone who they call a great scientist and expert in tunnels, when in the fact he constructed a train station as a municipality engineer. He brought in German companies and inapplicable digging machines for the Port Said tunnel. If he was a specialist, we could’ve avoided all these errors. Instead, the project will be suspended for one year, and modifying the specifications of the machine will cost us a 60% increase on the cost of the machine.
Why did this mistake happen?
Because Al-Sisi is the one who chose the company and met with its officials and completed the deal. If he had left it up to the National Authority for Tunnels to set the specifications for the machines, that could have saved us time, money, and effort that were wasted in vain.
Have you visited these projects that you are talking about?
I am forbidden from entering the areas of these projects, but I sent my students.
You said that during the time of Hosni Mubarak the government appropriated the role of the strong man. Has that changed now?
Egypt’s government is currently playing the role of the strong man. Former president Gamal Abdel Nasser said: “One hand builds and the other carries the weapon.” He meant that the people’s hands should build; however, what is happening now is that the army is performing both roles.
The people are doing nothing, and only 600,000 individuals are doing everything.
Where is the honour of competition and quality performance?
What do you think about the current ministers of education, petroleum, industry, and others? Are they the best for the job?
We call for the system to find the best people in the community and let them be leaders. The governor of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), is he the best to set a monetary policy? His success in the National Bank of Egypt (NBE) does not mean that he is able to lead the Egyptian monetary system.
Why did you attack the government’s decision to seek help from Singapore?
All Singaporean products can be produced at the hands of Egyptian scientists. Singapore does not produce new technology, but brings it in from the outside. Singapore depends on large companies and they have the second largest port in the world. They have nothing to present to us. What would they provide us? Water desalination plants? We already have companies that use high-level world technology in such stations. Actually, we are more advanced in that sector than Singapore. I was wondering why we did not cooperate with the technologically advanced countries in Europe or America, because choosing Singapore instead is incomprehensible. The army has been producing condensers to desalinate sea water for 30 years.
Where is the problem?
The policies are wrong, as it seems that they did not use experts to form the country’s policies. I wrote a book, which will be released within two months called “Prescription”, detailing solutions to the problems in Egypt.
Are there not advisers who study such issues and provide the president with reports before decisions are made?
I am ready to debate with any expert from the presidency, whether Hany Azer or Ibrahim Samak. We will see who would convince the other. All the projects are mistakenly implemented, even the housing project. Regardless of some of the successful cities, all other new cities are located in the wrong areas because they do not have job opportunities available within them. Where will the people who will live in New Ismailia City work? Around 30% of the Suez Canal Authority’s employees are redundant and they will work in the Suez Canal Economic Zone. The new city is even farther from the economic zone. Any new neighbourhood without job opportunities is unsuccessful.
Back to the first question: we have a year and eight months before the coming presidential elections. What can the president do in this time?
He should adopt policies that are 180 degrees different from his current policies and change his assistants that do not have enough experience. He should save himself from destruction. I suggest suspending the import of cars for three years, decreasing our diplomatic missions, and to stop breeding animals and importing meat to meet our needs. Can you imagine that we import $1.7bn worth of corn to fatten Egyptian cattle?
We can make a list of unnecessary products and stop importing them. We should return to implementing the agricultural cycle, criminalise the unnecessary usage of water, suspend education for a single academic year and switch to classes that can irradiate illiteracy, encourage the return to the countryside, provide health awareness, and launch a huge fish farming project in the sea. All of these solutions can be found in my new book.
Do you think that a year and eight months is enough to implement change?
If the president listened to real scientists, he would achieve good results. Let me ask you about Farouk El-Baz. Did he not advise former president Anwar Sadat to stop the New Valley project, claiming that there is no groundwater in western desert? He also said that Egypt is not located in the wheat belt and it is not suitable for wheat cultivation. He also said that Dabaa is not suitable for a nuclear project. All of these remarks are documented. He once said that there is no need for the development of Sinai. How did we allow him to meet young people and spoil their ideas?
The president is moving in the wrong direction and he should know that. He has to change his policies and listen to real scientists.
Does he have the ability to create real change? Does he fear the power centres?
Whoever harms the country will be arrested.
You are talking about a type of revolution similar to what happened under Sadat?
I am talking about a homeland in trouble, as we might face bankruptcy soon due to the high inflation rate, budget deficit, and balance of payments deficit. We are in an existence war. Whoever harms the economy will be arrested.
There should be an emergency economy law, as traders who hide commodities or trade in the currency must be arrested.
Given that you are a supporter of rights, do you think the community would agree to this proposal, which the state itself has not implemented?
I’m saying my point of view. Whoever harms the economy must be arrested. The country is set to face bankruptcy. Thus, everyone who harms the monetary policy and the economy of Egypt must be immediately arrested. I’m not talking about a political arrest. I am talking about how to protect the nation’s economy. When you find a dealer that carries a bag with $100,000 for trafficking, he should be arrested and what he has in his possession should be confiscated. For instance, a customs smuggler must be arrested.
I call for the cancellation of the Protest Law and the establishment of an emergency economy law. A fine of EGP 500 for traders who store oil or sugar is not enough. They must be detained until the crisis ends.
Has your attitude changed since the 30 June uprising?
I am the first one who called for the 30 June uprising. I printed flyers to encourage people to participate in 30 June. I was the first one who called and worked for the success of that uprising and if I were to go back in time I would not have changed my position.
Why has the government not sought to utilise your experience?
They are afraid of me because they know I understand more than they do, and they need someone to only obey their words.
Were you contacted at any point?
They asked for me to be part of the Advisory Council. I attended and disagreed with them on some points, and then I withdrew. Three of them called me to come back and I refused. The General Intelligence Directorate asked that I be Ibrahim Mehleb’s substitute for the minister of housing position, and I apologetically declined. Back in the days of Ahmed Shafiq, they offered me the position of minister of irrigation and I objected. In August 2011, Mustafa El-Feki called me and told me that I might be the prime minister to appease the people, and I apologetically declined.
I am not a politician, I am an engineer, and I cannot help the country in its political meanderings. I could be a commissioner general on projects implemented by the country, but I could not be a politician.
Is this not Mehleb’s position?
Mehleb is not a commissioner, he is an adviser, which means that he has no opinion.
What do you think of the National Youth Conference that was recently held?
It would be best if it were called the “youth festival”. It was intended for the media. If I were responsible and I wanted an effective dialogue with the youth, I would not sit with more than 3,000 young people without reaching out for something more tangible.
How would you have managed it?
I would have called for five conferences in major governorates across Egypt. I would use a theme for each conference that fits with the needs of each sector. I would also not have chosen the audience, but left the invitation open. Yet, Al-Sisi chose who would say what he wanted to be heard and put some names among them as the background music of democracy.
But the conference recommended the release of jailed youth who were arrested for protesting?
If the youth of the 15 January Revolution were actually set free, then I would admit that the conference was a success.
There are remarks tied to your name that claim 30 June was a military coup. Is that correct?
No, it is not. I criticise Al-Sisi, but I respect him as president of Egypt. What I said was that policies used and the position of the military will transform 30 June and 3 July from a revolution into a coup, unlike the 1952 coup, which transformed into a revolution.