Egyptian Can-Do Helped Unclog the Suez Canal

Following the refloating of the Ever Given, the crew of the dredger Mashhour, which had helped free the giant container carrier, shared a video in which they can be seen chanting “Mashhour nimra wahid!” (“Mashhour is number one!”) The video quickly went viral, which is fitting since “Mashhour” is Arabic for famous.

The crew’s elation mirrored the sense of relief, joy and pride Egyptians felt over their success. The dredger and a fleet of tug boats had worked day and night to unclog one of the world’s most important waterways, eventually refloating the Ever Given in a week — Egyptian can-do beat the expectations of experts who predicted it would take twice as long.

It was the sort of feat that unites Egyptians around faith in their capabilities as a people. But it also served as a reminder of how much of their potential is stymied by a political economy that deters experimentation, punishes innovation and ultimately pushes many Egyptians to seek opportunities abroad.

The clearing of the Suez Canal represents a rebuttal of a negative narrative about the country, shared alike by many foreign observers and Egyptian elites. Centered on a bigotry of low expectations is the idea that Egyptian workers are uniquely unimaginative and unindustrious, and that these traits — rather than the greed and grift of their rulers — are to blame for the country’s economic failings.

In reality, the industriousness and ingenuity displayed by the Mashhour crew and their colleagues on the tug boats are the very qualities that allow millions of Egyptians to survive the misrule that has led to rising poverty levels even as limited reforms have primarily benefited the ruling elites and crony capitalists. While the government in Cairo has received kudos for GDP growth, Egypt’s poverty rate has nearly doubled over 20 years, from 16.7% in the year 2000 to 32.5% in 2019. This, despite the fact that Egypt’s GDP per capita doubled in that time, belying the limited guidance GDP figures offer analysts.

The development and deepening of these uneven market realities have often been financed, and then applauded, by international development agencies and financial institutions whose officials have embraced the condescension of the elites towards working-class Egyptians. The patronizing view that the man in the street needs the guiding hand of his betters has often encouraged international partners over the years to direct funding to the elites rather than small and medium-sized enterprises, despite pledges to prioritize those very sectors.

There’s an echo here of the contention by many in the ruling classes, quietly shared by some foreign officials, that the country can only be governed by the firm hand of an autocrat. Egyptians, in this view, are as unfitted to capitalism as they are unready for democracy. In reality, their government provides them with neither the competitive market economy nor the political freedoms that would allow them to demonstrate their readiness.

Back to the boat and its celebrating sailors. The Suez Canal Authority is a well-funded organization and the Mashhour’s crew benefited from its investment in a powerful dredging vessel, which allowed them to pair their talent and toil with the tools necessary to get the job done. This combination was possible because the waterway is of exceptional value to the government in Cairo: Not only is it a significant source of hard currency for a country with a chronic trade deficit, its strategic importance to global commerce elevates Egypt’s international status.

But what of Egyptians not fortunate enough to work in sectors deemed so special. Many who seek the resources — and salaries — commensurate with their skills must leave the country to find them. This is why remittances from abroad dwarf many sectors of the economy. Remittances in 2020 were worth $29.6 billion, over five times the Suez Canal’s revenue of $5.61 billion and more than double the revenues from tourism at its 2019 peak of $13 billion.

Egyptians working in their own country face countless challenges, sometimes a massive container ship run aground, but more often the damaging policies of their government. Reforms that put resources in their hands and remove the restraints imposed by their rulers are needed to help free Egypt’s economy, in much the same way as that dredger crew helped free the Ever Given.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy Kaldas is an independent risk adviser and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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