Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 18: A man with foresight
Modern Egypt did not have many stellar polymaths, but Roshdy Said was among that rare group.
Roshdy Said studied geology, and with time became Egypt’s premier expert on the Nile. Ancient Egyptians believed that the flow of the sacred river’s waters carried with it vitality, and to receive the blessings of the Nile ensured brilliance and success. Said indeed seemed to have been such blessed. But Said was far from a mere student of the Nile’s formation and history. He understood that no serious development in Egypt would take place without preserving the Nile and optimising its usage.
Roshdy Said saw, much earlier than most geopolitical experts, that changes that were taking place in east Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with problematic usage of the Nile waters in Egypt, could pose serious challenges to the Egyptian society in the near future. And unlike many observers, Said put forward, over a quarter of a century ago, constructive and realistic ideas about potential ways for averting some of these challenges.
Part of Said’s Nile-focused developmental view was a conviction that Egyptians must transcend the narrow strip surrounding the valley and the Delta. For years he studied a project for developing and even urbanising a section of northwestern Egypt. Said was not an dreamer. A graduate of both Zurich’s prestigious ETH and Harvard, and having apprenticed, albeit briefly, under Egypt’s most notable scientist in the first half of the twentieth century, Mostafa Mosharafa (who had worked with Albert Einstein), Roshdy Said’s project was anchored on serious research and rigorous studies.
Said’s project was grounded in a wider developmental project. Roshdy Said was a member of the team that surrounded Aziz Sidqui, the prime minister who had led the strongest industrialisation drive in Egypt in the twentieth century. In that period in the 1960s Said undertook both assessments of major developmental projects as well as led the management of public sector organisations. And whereas the record of many scientists and academics in managing public sector organisations in Egypt is fraught, Said achieved notable successes. His leadership of Egypt’s mining and geological research organisation remains a case study of an exemplary transformation of a state owned enterprise.
Integrity comes with true leadership. Roshdy Said disagreed with public policy in 1970s Egypt, especially after President Anwar Sadat had attempted to rapidly move the country towards free market economics. For Said, the direction was correct but many of the policies and the ways they were implemented were fraught. He made his views known. Said was not an opponent of the government of the time. He was a scientist with an extensive experience in development in Egypt, and when he assessed that public policy was wrong, he put forward substantiated differing views.
Said approached development holistically. His views were not anchored on mere economic assessments and financial projections. Roshdy Said linked economic advancement to human development, a pioneering insight in the 1970s. He wrote about how life styles, work trends, and societal values could change as a result of economic and financial policies not given due analyses and reflection.
Said was a strong believer in Egyptianness - what he (and several others covered in this series) saw as the core identity of the Egyptian society, an identity sculpted over centuries by a stable peaceful cohesive agrarian culture, one that had matured centuries before axial-age monotheistic religions spread in the country. He delved into the relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians, and assessed how developments and policies in the 1970s were potentially going to affect the dynamics of that relationship. His work was neither politically correct empty talk nor rumination on an idealised past.
Roshdy Said sensed dangers - in the Nile dossier, demographic trends, educational attainment, research and development, competitiveness, capital generation, migration, in the state of development in Egypt in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and in key dynamics in the Egyptian society. He voiced alarm - not to stoke fears, but to draw attention to dangers he believed merited serious thought.
Said was particularly concerned that Egypt was regressing in almost all the areas that had caused her development and rise in the period from the mid nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries, and which made her, at that time, the East’s preeminent educational, cultural, economic, and financial centre. In his assessment, the Egyptian citizen was increasingly deprived of the chances for real personal development. To Said, the real peril was failing to recognise this societal descent, and rather insisting on a narrative of progress and ascendancy. His book “Truth and Illusion in the Egyptian Situation” is a rare concise, substantiated, and blunt account of the trends he judged were behind this regress.
Interestingly, in his writings in the 1980s and 1990s, Said paid special attention to the period we are living in now, the third and fourth decades of the twenty first century. He analysed how the nexus of the environment, energy, and water, could well undergo significant changes - including, for example, as he assessed in the 1980s, the major dilution of the importance of oil in the global economy - which, he foresaw, would transform geo-economics and international relations, and would accordingly have major impacts on the political economy of the Middle East and the Arab world. Rarely do we encounter such penetrating foresight in political economy and public policy analyses.
Sadly Egypt is often deprived of some of its best minds. Roshdy Said left Egypt after he was released from prison, having been incarcerated in the wave of arrests President Sadat had ordered in September 1981. He settled in the US and remained there until his death in 2013 a sought after commentator on various fields. Distance and neglect in Egypt denied us the opportunity to listen to him in his later years. However, his writings remain a treasure of valuable insights on some of the most important dossiers affecting the future of Egypt.