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The Aswan High Dam: A Political Witness - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The construction of the Aswan High Dam began more than fifty years ago, and this was one of the most important political ideas seen under the new Egyptian regime of the late President Jamal Abdul Nasser. The construction of the Aswan High Dam began just three years after Nasser took power, with this project being completed in 1970, the year of Nasser’s death. All those interested in Arab history know that the High Dam is the story of [Nasser’s] regime, and acts as a summary of the story of an international conflict. The Americans, along with the British, were willing to finance this project with $250 million however both London and Washington became angry after Nasser concluded a USSR mediated weapons deal with Czechoslovakia. Relations further deteriorated after Nasser recognized the Communist regime in Beijing. Nasser’s shift from the West to the East in 1955 also coincided with a period of conflict between Cairo and signatories of the Baghdad Pact. The Aswan High Dam resulted in Nasser becoming a Soviet ally and a key ally to the socialist bloc.

The Aswan High Dam is not the oldest or largest of dams in the world, and in fact it is only the 28th largest dam in the world, even the Syrian al-Thawra Dam [also called Tabqa Dam] has a larger capacity. The Aswan High Dam has a capacity of 43,000 cubit meters, compared for example, to the forty million cubic meter capacity of China’s giant dam [Three Gorges Dam]. However the importance of the Aswan High Dam is in its political story, rather than its engineering or economic impact, which are no doubt important and significant as well. I previously read secret US [intelligence] correspondence – which are now readily accessible to the public – written in late 1955. One such report warned against Chinese and Soviet activities in a number of countries, particularly Egypt, which had yet to move into the Soviet camp. Reports also discussed the Aswan High Dam project, which the Soviets were promising to fund, among other projects including a weapons deal in return for shipments of Egyptian cotton. However it seems that the US did not pay attention to these warnings and as a result of this Nasser changed his inclination and became a socialist, and became the spearhead of the Soviet project in the Middle East. The report indicated that Sino-Soviet activity was not only taking place in Eastern Europe, and had infiltrated Egypt and Afghanistan, but that such activities were also taking place in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.

Nasser was in need of a success, a success to rival that of the Suez Canal, which is a 190 km-long man-made waterway linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. The French dug the Suez Canal 97 years before Nasser took the decision to nationalize it. Nasser took the decision to nationalize the Suez Canal just two years before it was supposed to revert back to Egyptian control. This was used as justification by three countries [Britain, France and Israel] to launch a tripartite strike against Egypt. The President’s decision to cancel the contract just two years before its expiry date made it seem like Nasser was seeking a popular confrontation.

The difference is that the Aswan High Dam is a success story, whereas the Suez Canal was a story of conflict. The High Dam is a witness of the history of Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union, which continued throughout Nasser’s rule. The Aswan High Dam is considered to be the most important construction of the Nasser regime. There can be no doubt that this was a positive project [financed] by Moscow, especially as the Soviets let down the Egyptians in their conflict with Israel. The Soviets were known for using the Egyptians as a proxy in the Arab and African region, and also promoted the spreading of oppression and building of prisons and abolition of political and media freedoms that were enjoyed in Cairo prior to the revolution.

Although the Aswan High Dam was used as propaganda, it is also something worth boasting about, for although the river Nile – the longest river in the world – has always been a source of life for the Egyptians, it has also been a cause of continual fears and death as a result of flooding. The communists sought to move closer to their allies through economic projects such as this. However the [US intelligence] report warned that although the Soviet aid was modest compared to that offered by London and Washington, this aid had a distinctly political goal which was to permanently link these countries [that accept Soviet aid] to Moscow. This is something confirmed by history, and the Aswan High Dam remains as a witness to Egypt’s relationship with Moscow until today.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

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