The road to denial

The Egyptian press recently reported that President Mubarak will soon inaugurate the new Saft el-Laban corridor, connecting Cairo University to the ring road and outer edges of Giza. The corridor, which took 22 months to complete, is intended to reduce traffic congestion in the area.

While commuters are still awaiting the opening of the new road, the emir of Qatar has been visiting several villages in South Lebanon to launch efforts by his country to rebuild areas destroyed by the Israeli attack of 2006.

Qatar is a state smaller than some of Cairo's districts, yet often plays a regional role greater than its meager size would suggest–much to the embarrassment of countries like Egypt. Indeed, Egypt's role doesn't measure up to its history or size in the region.

This paradox has left many Egyptians perplexed, not because they underestimate Gulf countries like Qatar, but because they feel their own country's role has considerably diminished.

Road construction and improvements are increasingly labeled as national projects, and have been used as a pretext to explain why Egypt is abandoning its leadership role in the Arab world. Proponents of this point of view have purposely overlooked the significance of Egypt's soft power–represented by its extensive cultural influence–and reduce the role once played by Egypt in the region to waging war against Israel.

They forget that as Egypt assumed the role of regional leader in the past, it also built the High Dam. By contrast, Egypt's influence on the Arab world today has shrunk while an inconsequential road corridor is touted as a national project.

What explains the scaling back of Egypt's regional influence? Certainly not the decades of relative military restraint witnessed under Mubarak. A more convincing explanation lies in the regime's inability to build a political system capable of earning the respect of Egyptian citizens and the world at large. Egypt needs a ruling elite with a vision for Egypt's place in the Arab world and a plan to establish a truly democratic regime.

Egyptians have been living in an era of "peace " for 30 years  without reaping any of its benefits. We have not achieved the economic success promised by former President Sadat, nor have we seen any real reforms which Mubarak has vowed for over a quarter of a century. All we have gotten is an occasional road or bridge.

Below the Saft el-Laban bridge is the real Egypt which the president does not see: poverty, garbage and thousands of people surviving off informal activities outside the purview or care of the state.

Juxtaposing the scenes on and below the bridge reveals how disconnected Egypt's elite are from the people. Egypt's current regime has put up a massive separation wall, choosing to cut itself off completely from the rest of the country.

All the anticipation for this new road project reflects the failure of a government which has been unable to provide even a proper transportation system for its citizens.

While we may still have a desire to carry out large-scale projects, we certainly lack the capacity. Our ruling elite's imagination and planning skills do not extend beyond building the next bridge and digging the next tunnel.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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