By Rana Kamaly
Photos courtesy of Rasha Kenawi
One of the founders of the Public Front for the Suez Canal Zone, Rasha Kenawi is an economic consultant, lobbyist, and advocate for sustainable development in Egypt, who is attempting to carve out a role for lobby groups in Egypt.
First introduced by former Minister of Housing Hassaballah El Kafrawy in 1993, the original vision for the development of the Suez Canal region saw the area around the Suez Canal transformed into a service center for ships passing through the canal; the vision also included the development of Suez City. According to Kenawi, although the project was proposed several times, it was ultimately shelved.
As advisor to the Ministry of Investment and Industries in 2007, Rasha Kenawi was a lead economist on the committee assigned to study the Suez Canal Development Corridor. But the committee’s proposal for the project, submitted to Minister of Investment and Industries Mohy Eldeen El Rashed, was once again shelved.
It was not until after the revolution that Kenawi and her partners Ashraf Dweidar and former member of the Suez Canal Authority Eng. Wael Adour took matters into hand and formed a pressure group to lobby for the development of the Suez Canal region, which they perceived as a key developmental project. Prior to the 2013 presidential elections, the group presented the project to a number of presidential candidates.
The project, taken up by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s government last year, has since developed. Not to be confused with the plan to expand the Suez Canal, the plan to develop the Suez Canal region has since grown from creating services for ships passing through and developing Suez City to the development of cities like Ismailia, Port Said, Ein Sokhna, and El Arish. Today, the development project is managed by the prime minister’s office under the leadership of PM Ibrahim Mehleb.
Why did you form the Public Front for the Suez Canal Zone?
The real spark for the lobby was the revolution; the revolution woke me up, and afterwards, my family and I felt like we needed to make a difference. Everything in our lives changed. I started up this pressure group, I partnered with a charity NGO, and I began writing so that people could relate to what I was thinking. My concept of living changed after the revolution. I wanted to have an impact, to have something other than my career and my house; I wanted to come out of the bubble I was living in. I took a life-coaching course and changed my philosophy on life and showed me that I could use my experience in economics to impact society.
How did you re-launch a project that was shelved over a decade ago?
After the revolution, my partner and I said that it was high time for the project to reemerge since there seemed to be political will for growth. This encouraged us to form the first pressure or lobbying group in Egypt – at least the first pressure group for a specific project. I studied how lobbying groups work in the US and how they reach people and decision makers.
How does the group work?
We are three technical experts and we have studied every aspect of the project. A social media specialist follows us and builds awareness as we go from Ismailia to Suez to Port Said talking to people. Between us, we believe that our experience gives us a birds’ eye view of the project. I’m in investment, Ashraf Dweidar is in industry, and Eng. Wael Adour was a member of the Suez Canal authority. Our experience includes import and export transportation, which is the key to transforming Egypt into a successful model of maritime transport and industries. We believe that this is the heart of the project.
What do you hope to achieve with this lobby?
A main goal is to pressure the government to hear us out and consider our point of view since we have studied the project thoroughly and we aren’t just criticizing certain decisions – we are also offering solutions. We urge them to choose investments that will actually alleviate unemployment rather than accept any investment. I believe that lobbying groups can be tools to improve on what’s happening in Egypt, but it needs perseverance, technical knowledge and the understanding of every aspect of the project.
We have succeeded in setting a good example as a pressure group because we are not simply complaining – we are providing real life solutions to the current state and the problems at hand.
What are the challenges of lobbying in Egypt?
Here in Egypt, the government can completely ignore you, and a lot of voices go unheard. In our case, I think it’s a diplomatic game; we are trying to provide another channel for Egypt other than political parties, which are not strong enough yet because political life is not that open.
How important is lobbying?
Lobbying wasn’t possible before the revolution, and people should take advantage of the current situation and try to influence change. I would love to see pressure groups in the health and educational sectors. From here, you start to create positive pressure on the government. It’s not a bad thing to keep them on their toes and to make them listen to independent bodies.
What do you believe this project’s potential is?
If this project is done right, it will be a new chapter for the cities in the Suez region. We visited people living in those governorates and listened to their concerns and problems, so bit by bit, they accepted us and trusted us. We found people who are fully aware of the situation, and people whose main problem is finding jobs since a lot of factories have closed down in the past couple of years. That is why the government needs to pick the investments with the highest employment rates. Each governorate has a competitive edge and the people want to be trained and educated.
Does the current strategy have a training component?
It is not apparent that training is part of the master plan that was developed. We introduced training as part of the plan that we presented to interim President Adly Mansour. Our plan was that people would be trained in certain industries while the government finalizes the master plan and selects investments, but nothing has happened. It is as if they are ignoring the people of this area, which is a huge mistake, as it is a great chance to create a prototype by developing the three cities in the Suez Canal region. Suez is ranked fourth in Egypt in terms of unemployment. If we want this project to be extraordinary, growth has to be inclusive, and people need to be engaged so they can feel the impact personally.
When promoting any type of investment, we need to brand the Suez Canal area independently from Egypt, but I don’t see this happening. Governors need to be keen to promote and attract investments, but they are not keen at all since they get nothing in return; they should be offered a percentage of each investment that they bring in, and this percentage should be used to develop their city.
Who is selecting the investments and what are the criteria for selection?
The government does not have a clear criteria or anything that says which investments should be chosen. We need to focus on certain industries to create a business bay in Egypt so that we can play a role in the international supply chain. We need to pick the industries that will employ more people, at least for the next five years. These industries are: agribusiness, textiles, shipbuilding, electronic chips, auto motives and renewable energy.
We are not saying that the government should turn down other investments, but they should give more incentives to certain industries; they can do this by modifying the laws that act as deterrents for businesses operating in these industries and offering more flexible terms to labor intensive industries so that development is inclusive of the whole area. Not being selective about investments is a win-lose situation for Egypt, as it is an unhealthy way of dealing with foreign investment.
What role do youth play?
The youth have to get involved. Our problem in Egypt is that it is 60 and 70 year-olds that occupy executive positions, not youth. Any developed country is the exact opposite. I am not saying that the elderly need to be excluded, but they should act as advisors since they have more experience. Executive positions need strong and positive energy, perseverance and resilience. We should be seeking to empower the younger generation, and one day, this will happen.
For more information on the Public Front for the Suez Canal Zone, visit: https://www.facebook.com/OurSuezCanal?fref=pb&hc_location=profile_browser