Gaza’s agony is Egypt’s calling for change
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can, and has reason, to turn the city of wrath into a commercial oasis and engine of peace
‘Man fears time, and time fears the pyramids,” goes an Arab saying that salutes the imposing structures’ longevity, and ridicules their tenants’ hope to avoid death.
Curiously, the pharaohs who hoped to defy time were succeeded by Greeks who defied space. That is how Alexander the Great built Alexandria, making the previously insular Egyptians look north, to their Mediterranean shore and to the foreign world that sprawled beyond it.
“Consider the world as your country, where the best will govern regardless of tribe,” Alexander told his lieutenants in 324 BCE, thus pioneering the first era of globalization, in which Alexandria would become the heartbeat of a tri-continental civilization.
Egypt would later repeatedly revert to its founders’ introversion, most fatefully in the 1580s, when one Ottoman faction scuttled a rival faction’s plan to link the Mediterranean and Red seas by digging a canal at Suez.
The ones who would reopen Egypt to the outer world would be Christian foreigners – first Napoleon, who defeated a local army at the pyramids’ foothills, and then the European entrepreneurs who carved the Suez Canal.
Now, an Egyptian leader has an opportunity to become the first locally bred Alexander, one who would redefine his country as the fulcrum of a brave new era. The man is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and his opportunity lies in Gaza.
MONDAY’S VIOLENCE in Gaza left Israelis throwing up their arms in despair.
Say what you will about how Israel treats its enemies, there is no arguing the Jewish state goes out of its way to protect its own citizens, often at great risks and exorbitant costs. Gaza has just displayed this attitude’s perfect inversion.
The sight of youngsters being bussed for pay to their enemy’s border and then thrust toward its gun barrels by leaders who themselves hide in bunkers – made us feel Hamas’s moral bankruptcy has never been more complete and peace could not be more distant.
What have we not tried? First we invited Gazans to work in Israel. Then we built an industrial zone at Erez. Then we opened an airport at Dhaniya. And finally, we pulled out some 10,000 civilians and troops, only to see that coastal swath turn into a militarized powder keg.
Last fall, we watched Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah land in Gaza, hoping his much-heralded visit would be followed by some civic delivery. A roadside bomb near his motorcade in March put an end to that, leaving Gaza to languish in its squalor, self-pity and despair.
Now, facing European and American critics, not to mention Turks who count Gazan bodies at the fence and cite their number as proof of our “crimes” – a logic by which Germany was the moral side in the Battle of Britain because the Luftwaffe lost many more pilots than the Brits – many of us feel alone in this war.
Well we are not alone.
WITH US in this showdown are Arab leaders who realize Gaza’s mess is no longer about nationalism or freedom, but about fundamentalism and general troublemaking which can easily torch Arab cities elsewhere.
That is why Egypt played such an effective role in quelling this week’s mayhem.
Seen from President Sisi’s window, Hamas is an offshoot of, and inspiration for, the Muslim Brotherhood that is his nemesis. That – and no pro-Israeli sentiment – is what made Egyptian intelligence force Hamas’s retreat from the fence.
The Egyptians, then, bring both motivation and clout to the Gaza crisis that threatens them no less than it threatens us. What they lack is a plan, a vision that would offer Gaza’s young adults – 65% of them jobless – an alternative to fundamentalist escapism.
So here’s a blueprint for an Egyptian plan:
Build a Riviera of hotels and resorts to Gaza’s immediate west, along the sparsely settled northern Sinai’s pristine, 270 km-long coastline; sprinkle farms behind them, and factories beyond the farms; restore the defunct railway between Gaza and Port Said, and admit through it daily thousands of Gazans to work in the new factories, farms and resorts along the reactivated railway before climbing the train to commute back home.
On both sides of the Egyptian-Gazan border, north of Rafah, build a jointly run seaport, and use it to export Gaza’s redoubled produce and manufactures, much the way the ancient Egyptians did west of here, when their ships sailed past the majestic, 40-ft. tall Lighthouse of Alexandria.
This development drive’s initial phase can be completed within several years, and immediately put to work all of Gaza. The consequent capital inflows will then fuel Gaza’s rehabilitation, beginning with a modern sewage system, new power stations, a chain of desalination plants and water purification stations, and then proceeding to roads, sidewalks, schools, housing projects and shopping centers.
For now, Egypt is merely treating the symptoms of Gaza’s political disease, passively watching its passions simmer and then helping put the lid back on it once its wrath boils over.
Developing northern Sinai would reboot the Middle East, much the way Sisi is striving to reinvent Egypt by launching ambitious economic reforms, housing projects and family planning programs designed to defuse Egypt’s population explosion.
Northern Sinai’s development would not only salvage Gaza, and it would not only become a catalyst of Egyptian prosperity; it would restore Egypt’s status as a regional leader; it would place it in a position to broker new Palestinian-Israeli accommodation; it would make it an engine of global tolerance; and it would fashion Egypt as a pacifying alternative to meddlesome Turkey and warmongering Iran.
Cutting the Sinai-Gaza seaport’s red ribbon, and recalling Hamas’s fallen rule, Sisi will then quote Alexander, the man who married the daughter of his Persian enemy Darius, in the spirit of the great conqueror’s statement, “I do not distinguish among men as the narrow-minded do.”
And then, looking west to northern Sinai’s unfolding Riviera and industrial plants; and east, to Gaza’s emerging office towers, recreational parks and seaside promenade, the Egyptian president will say: “Gazans, Egyptians, Arabs – consider the world as your country.”
PALESTINIANS WAIT to pass through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.