Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Egypt’s Canal Cities and the Cost of Neglect

Posted by vmsalama on January 27, 2013

Some brief thoughts on the unrest in Port Said this week…. While the verdict against a group of soccer hooligans (who many allege to have been innocent) sparked the riots, there are a great many underlying economic and political issues that may have driven people in the canal cities to spill out into the streets this week.

The Porto World resort in the northern Egyptian city of Ain El Sokhna appears suddenly in the desert like a magnificent mirage. Miles of rolling sand dunes come to an end where this colossal complex begins, with pristine swimming pools and fountains and luxury villas imbedded in the sandy hills. It was one of the pet projects of the Hosni Mubarak administration, which had vowed to invest billions on tourism and real estate development as a means for boosting economic activity, embarking on projects that often involved intricate planning and engineering to get water and other resources to manmade oases like this one.

Some 55 kilometers away, the canal cities of Port Said and Suez offer a shockingly contradicting reality. Homes are dilapidated and roads unkept. Water supplies at nearby wells are filthy from dust and pollution continues to pile in the streets. Government neglect is part and partial of life in these cities — home to more than one million residents — and resentment has grown in recent years as many watched the government pour its resources into the country’s sprawling tourism resorts, while leaving its own citizens begging for the most basic services.

At least 50 people were killed in Port Said over the weekend following death sentences against 21 soccer fans in connection with the death of 73 soccer fans in a post-game riot last year. The verdict sparked an uproar as family and friends raided the prison in Port Said where the defendants were being held, claiming that the true perpetrators have gone free and that security forces rounded up a bunch of innocent boys to save face. The upheaval prompted President Mohamed Morsi to declare a state of emergency in the three canal cities — Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.

Port Said was the sight of a 1999 attempted assassination on former President Hosni Mubarak. Since then, many residents I’ve spoken with claim that they were cut off —  alienated from the many basic services that their fellow Egyptians in Cairo or Alexandria may have enjoyed. What’s more, one of Egypt’s most frequented Free Zones sits in Port Said. While it had the potential to bring a great deal of commerce-driven-business to the canal cities, many claim it was neglected and poorly promoted, and residents could not reap the benefits. Residents of Port Said and Suez who are old enough to have lived through the wars with Israel in the 1950s and 60s feel they did a great deal for their country. These cities were regarded as a frontline in those wars, sine the Suez Canal was greatly at the heart of tensions after then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared it a nationalized asset of Egypt. Much was lost in those wars and many had hoped that the government would repay them for their sacrifices. They are still waiting.

Indeed, events of the past two years have caused many economic and social issues to surface, but the grievances of the canal cities run deep and residents there say their fight for justice and equality has lasted the greater part of the past 50 years.

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