Egypt has launched a national project akin to the Aswan Dam. It's called the City of Science and Technology – part Caltech, part Max Planck Institutes in Germany, part Tech Park in Turkey. Investment in education is the best way to cure fanaticism.
Nearly 100 days after the revolution, Egypt is very different from the country I experienced when millions were on the streets calling for the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Despite a myriad of problems, now there is a new energy, or, as the Egyptians say hawa gadid – a new air. The big question is how to channel this energy to forge a new Egypt that is democratic and sustainable, both politically and economically.
The key to moving forward is building confidence among the people with an immediate high-profile project that captures their imagination and symbolizes what the future can bring. Just as the Aswan Dam did that for an earlier generation, the new “City for Science and Technology” now underway can do that for today’s hopeful youth.
In the 1960s, I personally lived the resounding impact of President Nasser’s vision of constructing the Aswan High Dam as a "national project" for controlling the Nile irrigation and the production of electricity. As the young journalist Emad Ahmed wrote in a recent essay on "Egypt's Bridges" to the future, the post-revolution national project for Egypt comparable to the Aswan Dam must be education.
Every family in Egypt understands this. They have personally experienced the deteriorating education system over the past 30 years of Mr. Mubarak’s reign.
Especially for the “Youth of Facebook” who ignited the revolution, the focus on a breakthrough in education that can bring Egypt back to world-class status is in accord with the principles and spirit of their movement – which they fear could be overtaken by “politics as usual” rooted in the past.
As Mr. Ahmed has written, two dominant visions have shaped the Egyptian political imagination over the past 60 years. The first has been the socialist party or al-Hisb al-Ishtraki, which came with Nasser's 1952 "revolution." To today’s youth, that vision represents the past.
At the moment, the most organized force is the Muslim Brotherhood, or Akhwan al-Muslimin. For Ahmed, they represent the transitional present. From a historical perspective, the Akhwan also are part of the past, as they were founded in 1928, even before Nasser's time. Their appeal comes mainly as a result of their effective religious message and organized charity work, and because they resisted the regime for so long.
The youth movement is aware that old visions can not take Egypt into the future. So in the months since Mubarak was overthrown with the Army's admirable support, the youth, along with a broad spectrum of ordinary Egyptians, have kept that spirit alive by continuing to go to Tahrir Square on Fridays in what is called millioniah, or gathering of a million people. They coined a name for each gathering – a Friday of change (takhier), of anger (khadab), of correction (tas'hih). Their demand is that the road to democracy be paved through the establishment of proper constitutions, elimination of old-regime influence, and achievement of justice and equality. Their expectation is a quick remedy to a better economic status.
After so many years of inertia and dictatorship, however, the reality is that these changes will take years. In the meantime, the people need a compass of hope that unites the country and instills confidence and pride.
On June 3, a totally different Friday dawned on the country. It was a “Friday of hope” for Egyptians. The day before, a national campaign was launched to build the new City of Science and Technology, following the unanimously-approved legislation by the Cabinet of Ministers and a decree of support from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.