Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has defended his government’s spending priorities against persistent criticism, arguing that the multi-billion-dollar mega projects the country has undertaken since he took office in 2014 have created millions of jobs and allowed for future growth.
Mr El Sisi has repeatedly told Egyptians that the massive infrastructure upgrade, construction of new cities, power generation and reclamation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of desert land were necessitated by decades of inaction or negligence by previous governments.
He said they were vital to accommodate Egypt’s rapid population growth and the 1 million people who enter the workforce every year.
“We are paying the price now for every measure we had not taken in the past or the things the state had not paid attention to, not just over the past 10 or 20 years, but rather over the past 40 to 50 years,” said the Egyptian leader in comments released late on Saturday.
Mr El Sisi sought to refute criticism that priority should have been given to education, a sector the president has in the past acknowledged to be in desperate need of reform and investment.
“Giving priority to education is a very important matter, but we could not have devoted the state’s resources over 15 years to education alone despite its importance,” the president said during a ceremony marking the partial opening of an agricultural project west of Cairo.
“People would not have been able to put up with the absence of services and weakness of infrastructure like electricity, roads and food production projects."
Mr El Sisi has made the economy one of his top priorities in the nearly eight years since he took office. He has spent billions of dollars on a high-stakes drive to modernise his country of 103 million people.
In 2016, he introduced far-reaching reforms that included new taxes and the removal of state subsidies on utilities, fuel and a range of services. He has also devalued the local currency by nearly 50 per cent against the US dollar.
The reforms hit the middle and working class the hardest after they led to steep price increases, but they won lavish praise from bilateral donors and international financial agencies.
Mr El Sisi has credited those reforms for the resilience shown by the Egyptian economy amid the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic. He says he is hopeful the economy will weather the fallout from the Ukraine war, which he has recently labelled as an “unprecedented crisis.”
“People are wondering why are we spending all this money, especially that we are talking about spending 200,000-250,000 pounds on the reclamation of each acre of land,” he said on Saturday. He added that Egypt’s population has increased by 20 million over the last 10 years alone.
“How much is their demand for basic commodities? And does the GDP satisfy them,” Mr El Sisi said.
“We are not just talking about the population growth, but rather the state’s plans to satisfy the people’s demands. Consequently, we have no choice but to embark on national project."
Egypt is hoping to add 2.5 million acres to its existing farmland, which is mostly on the banks of the River Nile. The addition, in areas such as the Sinai Peninsula, southern and middle Egypt, is equal to 25 per cent of Egypt’s entire farmland.
“The projects that we have embarked on have been carried out despite the fact that we are a nation plagued by terrorism and extremism,” the Egyptian president said.