Egypt’s outer space ambitions face real world setbacks

While Egyptian officials have said that the country’s first space agency would be launched in September 2018, the law to create it has not been introduced in parliament yet, to many Egyptians' chagrin.

al-monitor Image by Ed Woodhouse.

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germany, education, funding, egyptian presidency, space, egyptian politics, egyptian parliament, china

Aug 9, 2017

CAIRO — As Egypt announces its next steps linked to a forthcoming space program approved over a year ago, some are wondering why the country's out-of-this-world plans are moving at an astronomically slow pace.

Mohammed Hussein, acting chairman of the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS) at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said in a press release July 31 that “Egypt is preparing to launch a new Egyptian satellite in September 2018 simultaneously with the establishment of the first Egyptian space agency in cooperation with the UAE, Russia and China.” The Cabinet OK’d the law to establish the agency on Aug. 3, 2016.

The plan to establish an Egyptian space agency dates to the 1960s, when a number of space scientists proposed it to President Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, in light of the successive crises and conflicts in the years that followed, particularly the wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, the project was set aside. Some media reports have claimed President Hosni Mubarak neglected the project as a result of pressure from Western countries not to establish the space agency.

Calls to establish the space agency were renewed when NARSS proposed the project in 2013 to interim President Adly Mansour, who approved it in December of that year. Since then, work has begun with the aim to seek sources of funding and establish foreign partnerships to prepare and implement a law on a space agency.

Hussein said there are employees at NARSS who traveled abroad for training in space programs and about satellites. He said Egypt had an agreement with China about the establishment of the Egyptian agency. He said the new “Misr Sat 2” satellite that Egypt is preparing to launch as part of the space agency project is being assembled at the satellite assembly center in the space city in the Fifth Settlement district of New Cairo.

Khalid Abdul Ghaffar, the minister of higher education and scientific research, said in press statements July 12 that Egypt had made an agreement with the German space agency for a number of Egyptians from NARSS (including engineers and scientists) to be trained in preparation for the establishment of the Egyptian Space Agency. He did not provide details about the date or the duration of the training.

Hossam el-Mallah, head of the Scholarships and Foreign Students Affairs department at the Ministry of Higher Education, said in a press statement July 29 that the training of the Egyptians in Germany will include lessons about the satellite industry and on how to use related tools and programs.

While these steps appear to be very serious, many people are still wondering why the agency has not been formed yet. These include journalist Ahmed Abdelfattah, who wrote an article published on Al-Ahram website July 21 titled “The suspended Egyptian space agency ... the ball is in parliament’s court.” He said that “despite the availability of all the necessary elements, infrastructure and space to launch a successful Egyptian space agency, despite the availability of the necessary funding and the trained scientific personnel to introduce Egypt into the space age, and following the Cabinet and State Council approval on the draft law last year, there is a severe and unjustified delay in passing the law in parliament.”

Former NARSS Chairman Medhat Mukhtar agreed on this point and told Al-Monitor, “The law on the establishment of the agency was approved by Cabinet in August 2016. It was submitted to State Council for legal review. The council finished reviewing the law in September 2016, when the law was set for submission to parliament for approval. But up until my departure from the chairmanship of the presidency in March 2017, the law had not been introduced or discussed.”

Mukhtar said, “I do not know why the law has not been submitted to MPs for discussion and voting yet, and it is unlikely for financial obstacles to be behind the delay. The Egyptian side is more reliant on brains and human skills than capital, and many friendly countries supporting Egypt's space program, such as China, the UAE and Russia, are expected to provide the needed capital.”

He added, “Most of the infrastructure is secured for the initial phase of the project, for which 100 acres have been allocated in New Cairo, in addition to 23 acres that were subsequently added to accommodate more projects in the space city, such as the center for the assembly and testing of satellites. In the context of the funding problems, it is noteworthy that the center, for example, was created with a grant of $23 million from China, which confirms that there are many sources of funding and that funding is not the obstacle.”

Although Abdelfattah and Mukhtar attributed the delay in the launch of the Egyptian space agency to parliamentary bureaucracy and a holdup in bringing the draft law to a vote, many experts believe other factors are keeping the issue low on the legislature's priority list.

Ayman al-Desouki, a former chairman of NARSS, told Al-Monitor, “The establishment of such an agency requires a year, but with the start of the project it is difficult to make an initial estimate of the financial support needed for the agency, especially when prices change by the day amid a deteriorating economy. The simplest change that caused confusion is the decision to liberalize the exchange rate, which increased project costs due to the change in the price of the currency.” 

He continued, “It might take the parliament a few days to discuss the draft law and approve it, but it might take more than a year to estimate the financial support required, find the parties that can provide that support, convince these parties, establish the organizational structure of the agency, train those who will manage the agency and develop a full-fledged strategy. Statements of experts and officials that everything is ready and parliamentary approval is the only remaining step are overly optimistic. Therefore, the parliament, in coordination with the Ministry of Scientific Research, may postpone discussions about the law until everything is ready … to grant more attention to current issues and crises.” 

Desouki said the space agency could provide important gains to the country. “The agency can play a prominent and important role in monitoring Egyptian borders and coasts through satellite imagery in order to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and weapons, and it can have a great role in facilitating the detection of mineral and oil wealth without relying on foreign companies in that regard. Many officials who were probably very enthusiastic about the project had great expectations regarding the speed of its establishment based on its importance.”

Still, it appears that consensus on the paramount role that the project plays in maintaining security and discovering wealth will seemingly not help speed up its execution in light of the existing constraints, beginning with the bureaucracy and ending with the planning difficulties and the negotiation of the grants necessary to implement it.

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