In the middle of southern Egypt's windy desert, wheat fields stretch as far as the eye can see on a 24,000-acre farm. It's part of a grandiose project called Toshka that was dreamed up 15 years ago by the government of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian leader who ruled the country for three decades before being ousted last year.
A key component of the Toshka project was to cultivate a half-million acres of farmland in the desert to deal with Egypt's rising demand for food. To irrigate the land, millions of dollars were spent building pumping stations and canals to draw water from nearby Lake Nasser, a vast man-made lake created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River.
But mismanagement, corruption and Mubarak's eventual ouster have left Toshka and other projects languishing. Now, as economic hardship rises in Egypt, there's renewed interest in — and debate over — the Toshka project.
Building A New Community
In addition to his goal of cultivating farmland in the desert, Mubarak also sought to create new towns for Egyptians in this vast barren region, with hopes of persuading up to 20 percent of Egypt's population to move here.
"Toshka has a very specific importance, not only as a new area for people to move in, but also being close to the border with Sudan," says Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who heads the Arab Water Council in Cairo and was Egypt's water minister when Toshka was conceived.
"We need to have a new community there, an Egyptian community to live there. And also, you never know what happens between the two countries in the future," he says. "So it has a strategic aim, and also a development aim, supported by decisions from top-down."
Emma Deputy Bracy, a doctoral student in Cairo who is writing her dissertation on the project, says Mubarak saw Toshka as a social contract with young Egyptians.
"They called it 'the march to the desert,' and it was supposed to be literally a relocation of 20 percent of Egypt's population focused mainly on youth," Bracy says. It was also supposed to be a place to reintegrate workers who were coming back from places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya, she says.
But progress was slow, hampered by mismanagement, shady land deals and repeated delays in funding from both inside and outside Egypt. When then-Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri — the project's key proponent — was replaced in 1999, the project was largely shelved.
Talk Of Reviving The Project
These days, what's left is a blue-and-white sign in the desert that has become an unintended monument to the project's abandonment. It reads: "New Toshka City."
Now, though, concerns over Egypt's weakening economy have prompted talk of reviving the project. Its key proponent, Kamal el-Ganzouri, was again named prime minister by the ruling generals, although he will be replaced when the new president, Mohammed Morsi, names his Cabinet.
"Ganzouri came back, and he's pushing the project right now very strongly, and encouraging different ministries to finish their plans and so on," says the former water minister, Abu Zeid.
Major hurdles remain, however. Critics say Egypt lacks the means to transport large quantities of wheat and other produce from Toshka to the rest of the country. Most of what the farms there produce now is exported because it's more profitable.
Nor is it easy to cultivate the land. Farm managers say the ground is salty and that it takes about three years to convert into soil that can be used for crops.
"If you want to take the natural conditions into account, probably any kind of solar-energy farming down there would make a lot more sense," adds Bracy, the doctoral student.
The Muslim Brotherhood — a movement in which Morsi was until recently a key leader — is also dead set against reviving the project, which it links to Mubarak's excesses.
Existing Farms Thrive
In the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, Mohamed Abdul Fattah, the secretary-general of the Brotherhood's political party, says the group has its own revival plan emphasizing tourism and agricultural projects in other locations.
"I've seen independent studies that show Toshka was doomed to fail to begin with," he says. "A lot of money went into it, but few jobs came out of it. So it's not just about the corruption."
Still, the handful of farms started up as part of the project appear to be thriving. One is Kingdom Agricultural Development Company, owned by Saudi Arabian Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the world's wealthiest men.
Crop manager Ibrahim Dahrouk says the farm provides hundreds of jobs to local residents, including women. They earn between $6 and $9 a day, considered a hefty wage in these parts.
But unemployment is rampant in the nearby town of Abu Simbel, which has suffered because of the steep decline in Egyptian tourism since the revolution. Dozens of angry men recently staged a sit-in at the electric company there after the government hired out-of-towners for 60 jobs in the area.
Some of the protesters claimed if Toshka was revived, it would go a long way to eradicating poverty in Abu Simbel and other communities in southern Egypt.
Assad Abeid el-Majeed, the mayor of Abu Simbel, argues that Toshka is a national project that Egyptians should take pride in. The pumping stations and other infrastructure are there now, he says, and they should be put to use.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Egypt, a major concern for the new Islamist president is the economy. Since last year's revolution, jobs are harder to come by. The cost of living is rising, and fuel shortages are leading to lengthy lines at Egyptian gas stations. Such problems are not new. Former President Hosni Mubarak tried tackling economic hardships with grandiose projects like one called Toshka in southern Egypt.
The idea was to cultivate farmland in the desert and also expand living space for Egyptians, which for thousands of years has been centered almost entirely along the Nile River. But mismanagement, corruption and Mubarak's ouster have left projects like Toshka languishing. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to the manmade oasis and filed this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Wheat fields in the middle of a windy desert stretch as far as the eye can see on this 24,000-acre farm called the South Valley Development Company. The crops here are fed by fast-moving canals, with water pumped in from Lake Nasser, the vast man-made lake created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. Other large farms carved out of the desert used the same irrigation network, which is part of the Toshka mega-project dreamed up by the Mubarak government 15 years ago.
Million of Egyptians were to be relocated here in what officials hoped would become a new Nile Valley. The plan was to build towns and factories, as well as cultivate a half million acres of farmland in this barren region next to Sudan, which like Egypt, is totally dependent on the Nile.
MAHMOUD ABU ZEID: Toshka has a very specific importance.
NELSON: That's Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who heads the Arab Water Council in Cairo. He was Egypt's water minister when Toshka was conceived.
ZEID: Not only as a new area for people to move in, but also being close to the borders with Sudan. I mean, we need to have a new community there, Egyptian community, to live there. And also, you never know what happens between the two countries in the future. So it has a strategic aim, and also a development aim supported by decisions from top-down.
NELSON: Emma Deputy Bracy, a doctoral student in Cairo who is writing her dissertation on Toshka, says the project was the Mubarak government's attempt at a social contract with young Egyptians.
EMMA DEPUTY BRACE: They called it a march to the desert, and it was supposed to be, literally, a relocation of 20 percent of Egypt's population focused mainly on youth, and it was supposed to be some sort of a safety valve for reintegrating workers into the population who were coming back from places like Iraq and Saudi and Libya.
NELSON: Then Prime Minister Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri tackled the project with gusto, but progress was slow, hampered by mismanagement, shady land deals and repeated delays in funding from both inside and outside Egypt. Many of the projects associated with Toshka were shelved after Ganzouri was replaced in 1999.
An unintended monument to its abandonment is a blue-and-white sign that reads New Toshka City, posted in the middle of the desert. But the nearby farms started up as part of the project are thriving, with new plans to expand approved by the military-led government. One is Kingdom Agricultural Development Company, owned by Saudi Arabian Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the world's wealthiest men.
In one harvested wheat field here, a giant John Deere tractor tills the soil for the next crop, which is to be peanuts. The Saudi farm's crop manager is Egyptian Ibrahim Dahrouk. He says it takes two to three years to prepare the salt-rich earth for farming.
IBRAHAIM DAHROUK: And now the soil has changed, there are green area, not like before. Big difference.
NELSON: The farm provides hundreds of jobs to local residents, including women who prune grapes from vines that form a canopy overhead. They earn between six and $9 a day, a hefty wage in these parts.
DOA'A MAHFOUZ: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Eighteen-year-old Doa'a Mahfouz says she's thrilled to be working, given that jobs are scarce since the Egyptian revolution last year. She wishes the Greater Toshka Project will be revived to provide more jobs for her community.
Unemployment is rampant in nearby Abu Simbel, which has suffered because of the steep decline in Egyptian tourism since the revolution. The resorts where Americans and Europeans once flocked during trips to nearby temples and Lake Nasser sit empty.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
NELSON: On a recent evening, dozens of angry men staged a sit-in at the local electric company after the government hired out-of-towners for 60 jobs in the area.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
NELSON: One industrial supervisor here who declined to give his name adds that residents plan to ask the government to reactivate the Toshka project. He argues that if they did, it could go a long way to eradicating poverty in many communities in upper Egypt - not that the military-led government didn't try.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
NELSON: Kamal el-Ganzouri, who once again became prime minster under the military-led government, talked at length at news conferences like this one about the need to boost the economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Egypt also was contending with its huge dependence on foreign wheat because of an agricultural shortfall. Former water Minister Mahmoud Abu Zeid says those factors make him hope that a Toshka revival is in the offing.
ZEID: Ganzouri came back, and he's pushing the project right now very strongly and encouraging the different ministries to finish that plan, and so on.
NELSON: But critics say Egypt lacks the means to transport large quantities of wheat and other produce from Toshka to the rest of the country. Most of what Toshka produces now is exported because managers there say it's more profitable. And the Muslim Brotherhood - a movement in which the new president Mohammed Morsi was a key leader - is also dead-set against reviving the project, which it links to Mubarak's excesses.
In the southern city of Aswan, the Brotherhood's political party's secretary general is Mohamed Abdul Fattah. He says the group has its own revival plan, which emphasizes tourism and agricultural projects in other locations.
MOHAMED ABDUL FATTAH: (Through translator) I've seen independent studies that show Toshka was doomed to fail to begin with. A lot of money went into it, but few jobs came out of it. So it's not just about the corruption.
NELSON: The Brotherhood's position irritates Abu Simbel Mayor Assad Abeid el-Majeed.
ASSAD ABEID EL-MAJEED: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He argues Toshka is a national project that Egyptians should take pride in. The pumping stations and other infrastructure are there now, he says, and they should be put to use. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.