A truck cruising down Qasr al-‘Ayni Street dressed as a blue papier-mâché boat. A belly dancer clad in a silver lycra dress and a blonde wig, upper body undulating out of the window of a white sedan. Tahrir Square, lit up like a local wedding, crowded with thousands, their faces painted red, white and black, sounding horns and waving flags.
These jubilant scenes filled downtown Cairo on August 6, a national holiday marking the opening of the New Suez Canal, actually an expansion of the existing one, a project heralded as “Egypt’s gift to the world.” In the record time of a single year, a team of engineers shook sky and earth to dig a new channel that allows ships to pass through at a faster rate. Prior to the grand opening, the media featured coverage of widows parting with wedding gold and children breaking their piggy banks to buy Suez Canal bonds. Ordinary citizens, many of whom are not wealthy, bought these symbols of nationalism, thus contributing an estimated 64 billion Egyptian pounds (over $8 billion), according to the Central Bank of Egypt, or 88 percent of the total project cost. Promising 12 percent returns in five years, the bonds sold out in two weeks. Signs plastered around the country, and even as far away as Times Square in New York, reminded Egyptians of their achievement. They had changed the map of the world. The canal’s revenue would more than double by 2023. Egypt would be great again.
Economists, however, have their doubts. The Suez Canal is not operating at full capacity. Shipping companies welcome the reduction of wait time at the locks from 18 to 11 hours, but they are not as enthusiastic as the government claims. Plus, doubled revenues are contingent on major increases in global trade, something that the new waterway cannot create by itself.
So why, then, are people celebrating? The August 6 parade seems like an absurd victory for statist propaganda in the “new Egypt” of President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. It is easy to dismiss the celebrants as brainwashed masses, high on nationalist opium, descending into the streets to rejoice over a dubious feat funded with money that they might lose, for how or whether the government will make good on the bonds is particularly unclear. Critics of the state project suggest that the money would have been better spent improving the education or health care infrastructures that are in disrepair.
In light of these criticisms, we decided to get an on-the-ground sense of what people were celebrating. Walking through downtown Cairo from ‘Abdin to Tahrir, we asked Egyptians—men and women who were carrying flags or signs, or wearing face paint—“What makes you so happy today?”
One woman we talked to on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, grandmother of a girl around 7 and a boy around 10, both with their faces painted in Egypt’s national colors, toed the party line. She said that she is happy because the new canal project will shower Egypt with blessings. The grandmother added, “I am happy so long as Sisi is my president.” She was pleased with the presence of police in full force in Tahrir for the celebrations and called them “beautiful.” The boy, however, cautioned us to stay on the periphery of the square and away from gatherings of males, indicating his knowledge of the possibility of sexual harassment and assault.
Other interviews also elicited responses that hinged on hope for a better future. A young man in his early twenties, from the working-class neighborhood of Sayyida Zaynab southeast of Tahrir, beamed with pride. “The whole of Egypt’s population is standing with its president,” he boasted as he waited tables at a local fish shop. “No one could have done what Egypt has done in a year.” The waiter stressed the economic benefits to Egypt—the canal would bring in more tourists and greater income, generating job opportunities, so that the country could stand on its feet again. He only wished that the fees for passing through the canal would be collected in Egyptian pounds rather than US dollars. He said his excitement was in line with the opinions of 95 percent of Egyptians. He called the remaining 5 percent “terrorists” who were unhappy about Egypt’s success.
For another woman, walking with a couple of other women and several children near the McDonalds in Tahrir Square, the potential for economic success was deeply personal. “I’m a head of household,” she explained, using the feminine pronoun. “Perhaps the wealthy don’t know my struggle,” she said, but “products have gotten expensive.” She is happy today, she explains, because economic growth means a better life, if not for her than for her children. We were interrupted by her adolescent daughter who, with shining eyes and a radiant smile, chanted, “Taqaddamna! Taqaddamna! Taqaddamna!” (“We have progressed! Progressed! Progressed!”)
Perhaps most revealing, however, was an exchange between two older men sitting in front of a print shop across the street from ‘Abdin Palace. We stopped to ask about a poster on which was written, in bold, red Arabic letters, “Masr bi-tifrah” (Egypt Rejoices). In response to our question—“What makes you so happy today?”—the shop owner explained that he was happy for his children and that the canal project is something that his generation is passing on to future generations. The man sitting to his right scoffed. Pointing to the garbage piles in the street, he said, “We’re right around the corner from the district office,” alluding to the lack of interest in infrastructure shown by the authorities. He continued, “Nothing has changed. State mismanagement is still the same.” Instead of projecting prosperity, he worried that the economic situation would continue to worsen. The shop owner called his friend a pessimist.
The hope and concern juxtaposed in this conversation reflect an ongoing debate around the meaning of the canal. While the young waiter, the concerned mother and the print shop’s owner see the canal as ushering in a bright future, the minority voice of dissent questions to what extent this new era is a departure from the past. The shop owner’s friend insisted that, like always, it’s the businessmen who stand to benefit the most. He explained that the logisticians for this project and its overseers are the same as those during the overthrown Husni Mubarak’s time, and that they are the ones who will reap its rewards. Meanwhile, no one is picking up the trash.
Seemingly far from these concerns, a young mother walking with her son in Sayyida Zaynab told us that in these difficult times Egyptians are looking for something to make them happy. “I am happy when I see you happy” was her immediate response to our question. Karima was much less preoccupied with short- or long-term economic gains, promises of political stability, renewed diplomatic relations with other countries, or any number of other benefits that the canal expansion is purported to portend. Instead, when we asked her why she was celebrating, she responded simply with “bi-nitlakkik” or “we’re looking for any excuse.”
Even though the street parties seemed over-the-top and strange, the motivations are familiar. People want their children to be able to make a living, their country to be prosperous and their fellow citizens to have something to glory in. While it is questionable that the current government’s means will advance these ends, on August 6 many Egyptians reveled in the dream of a better tomorrow.