Dam project was an exemplar of the people’s will

  • 2 August 2016

When nations are beleaguered with crises and people are in dire need of something to boost their confidence in their ability to withstand challenges, it is imperative that citizens remember their history. This will foster much-needed hope for the present and the future.

Today, among the psychological wars waged by several parties to shake people’s confidence, it is paramount that the pride from years past be handed down through the generations to restore the confidence they have lost in themselves, their history and their leaders. These poisonous parties spew their venom when they speak of Arab incoherence, submission to their enemies and to their inability to make noticeable civilisational accomplishments. These parties wage such wars in a bid to control our youth and to direct them to act in ways that are not only detrimental to themselves but to their nations.

It is for this reason that I am going to recall the story of the Aswan High Dam, an important event in modern Arab history.

This dam, which was built on the Nile in southern Egypt and completed in 1970, has been called the greatest engineering project in the 20th century and even the "fourth pyramid" as it is 17 times the size of the Great Pyramid of Gaza.

From my point of view, however, it is a symbol of strong will and refusal to succumb to pressures and challenges when confronted with difficult circumstances. I believe that the Arab world needs to realise these qualities again.

The story of the High Dam shows that it is possible to confront and defeat foreign pressures – even if these stem from the superpowers. This message is for those who have given up as a result of the perceived conspiracies that aim to divide the Arab region, and for those that believe these notions will inevitably succeed. Conspiracies that strive to divide countries and societies by redrawing the geographic, political and demographic borders can be confronted and defeated at any time and in any circumstance. All that is needed to oppose these poisonous schemes is a strong will and a leadership that is brave enough to take the required decisions – which is precisely what occurred more than half a century ago during the High Dam’s construction.

This happened again in March last year, with the launch of Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen. Arabs bravely stood up in the face of threats to their security at a time when their friends and foes alike thought that it would be impossible for Arabs to enact a joint-military force to defend their higher interests.

When the people of a given country rally behind their leadership and believe in a national goal, no force is powerful enough to stop them. With the construction of the High Dam, the Egyptian people trusted president Jamal Abdel Nasser, rallied around him and were willing to endure hardships with him.

The High Dam was one of a series of important events in the Arab Republic of Egypt after the revolution of July 1952, and one that widened the gap between Egypt and the United States. It all started with the 1955 Central Treaty Organisation between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. The organisation was promoted by the United States, which had tried to force Egypt to join the confrontation against the "communist threat" from the Soviet Union. These efforts were met by rejection by Cairo. In response, the US refused to supply Egypt with the weapons it needed. As a result, in September 1955, Egypt concluded an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, which brought it closer to the Eastern bloc. When the High Dam was proposed, Egypt sought financing from the World Bank. After initial approval, the World Bank declined finance because both the United States and Britain had withdrawn their agreement to participate.

The refusal of the Americans to support the agreement was an insult to Egypt, because US secretary of state John Foster Dulles had said that the Egyptian economy was too weak to support such a project. Nasser resorted to the former Soviet Union, which agreed to provide the necessary assistance. Further, Nasser took the historic decision to nationalise the Suez Canal in 1956.

The refusal of the US and the UK to finance the construction of the High Dam was a huge strategic mistake, as they had greatly underestimated the strength of Egyptian patriotism at the time, Egypt’s ability to find alternatives, the power behind the Egyptians’ ability to rally around their leadership, and the significance of the High Dam project in the public imagination. As a result, the West lost one of the most important countries in the Middle East.

Nasser’s will, and the will of Egyptians to support him, is an important lesson from history.

The same thing happened again in relation to digging the new Suez Canal under the rule of president Abdel Fattah El Sisi. This project was completed within record time and under very difficult and complex circumstances. It was made possible through strong political will and immense popular support – Egyptians raised more than 60 billion pounds (Dh24.9bn) within one week to finance the project.

The construction of the dam is but one glorious chapter in the book of Arab will. Today, we are in dire need of revisiting this book to liberate our youth from the trap set by those who talk only of despair and frustration.