The Soviet Union's once massive aid program to Egypt is coming under severe criticism from both Western and Egyptian officials. Soviet officials had hoped to make Egypt a showplace of what their aid could accomplish. The Soviet Union put nearly 30 percent of its economic aid to the third world into Egypt during the years of Soviet predominance in this country, beginning with the Soviet decision to finance the building of the Aswan High Dam in the late 1950s.
Aid dropped off in the mid-1970s, however, as President Anwar Sadat moved his country closer to the United States.
Egypt's Helwan iron and the Steel complex, the largest factory built during the years of Soviet predominance, now is seen as an example of many of the problems with Soviet aid. The complex's vice-chairman admits that it is producing steel at "perhaps two times to world market price," but a Western economist says that the problems are so severe that the true figure may be seven times higher than the world price.
The Soviets put factories like Helwan high on their list of priorities. They recognized that developing countries generally view heavy industry as essential for their development, so such projects are prestigious and visible signs of Soviet aid. Such projects also develop state control of the economy and create large numbers of the workers that Soviet theory contends will be sympathetic to Marxism.
Often the political value of Soviet projects was regarded as more important than their economic feasibility. Egypt cannot economically produce steel because it must import the coke it needs. Similarly, an aluminum plant at Nag Hammadi, built by the Russians, cannot produce aluminum economically because it must import the ore.
The real embarrassment for the Soviet Union, however, comes from the low level of technological skill shown in the work at the iron and steel complex. A Soviet study of the ore to be used did not note the presence of certain impurities, so the blast furnances were improperly designed.
Russian-made machinery, for example, has proved inefficient in Egypt. Workers complain that its capacity was overrated. And the machinery, which was designed for the Soviet cold, overheats and burns out in Egypt's hot weather. Consequently, both the blast furnance and the continuous casting converter (used to convert pig iron into steel) are operating at only 50 percent of their capacity.
Concerned that their technological reputation might be damaged, some 200 Soviet technicians have been working to try to correct the problems in a recently finished blast furnace.
Most remain despite orders from President Sadat four months ago that all Soviet experts should leave the country in the wake of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
This is not the first time the Egyptian officials have expressed displeasure with the level of Soviet technology. In 1974, Egyptair airline purchased eight Tupolev TU-154 medium-range passenger planes. Egyptair found that when fewer than half of the seats were filled, sandbags had to be put in the planes.
Shortly after their delivery, one Tupolev crashed, killing six crew members. Egyptian pilots refused to fly the other seven, saying they were unsafe. A subsequent inquiry found no less than 15 structural faults in the seven aircraft. The Soviet Union quietly accepted the return of the planes in a move that a Egyptiar board member says "admitted that the planes were unsafe."
Even the Soviet Union's involvement in the building of the Aswan High Dam has been criticized. Critics claim that the dam was improperly studied, that it does not produce the amount of electricity that it should, that it keeps removing silt from agricultural land, that waterlogging and accumulation of salts are hurting crop yields, that marine life in the Nile delta has decreased, and that erosiion of the river banks has accelerated.
A Soviet technical team is studying problems with fractures in the turbine blades of the Russian-made generators. Increasing maintenance time for the generators has cut seriously into the high dam's power output.