Toshka Project or from the ‘Fourth Pyramid’ to an incomplete cathedral in the desert

A fragile equilibrium of seasonal floods and silt was at the basis of the ancient Egyptian agriculture. Such equilibrium accompanied the heirs of the ancient Egyptians across the millennia until the 19th century when a considerable demographic development made the available water for personal and agricultural use become scarcer and scarcer. In order to avoid droughts, at the beginning of the new century, the British occupants built a first dam aimed at storing water to release when necessary. Such a measure, however, could not keep up with the soaring Egyptian population thus bringing Gamal Abd el-Nasser to embark on a new and more important project: the so-called Aswan High Dam (1958-70)[1].

The demographic growth of the 1980s and early 1990s started to pose serious threats to the Egyptian water supplies when the population overcame the 50 million quota. It was precisely in that moment that a part of the Nasser project abandoned during 1964 was revived. The plan consisted in the construction of a canal rooted west from Lake Nasser, the lake that emerged from the construction of the High Dam. Hence, in 1996 it was presented the so-called ‘Toshka project’ with the aim of building a 240 km canal that would have created 3.4 million feddan[2] of virgin land (Wahish, 1998, El-Din, 2006 and Fecteau, 2012).

The plan had a large political eco since it could have responded to a set of problems. At the international level, the New Nile Valley would have helped the Government to provide a dynamic image of Egypt after the massacre in Luxor (Wahish, 1998 and Pintus, 2014). At the internal level, the construction of the Canal (entitled to then Abu Dhabi Emir Sheikh Zayed) was supposed to generate tens of thousands of job positions and, once completed, the New Valley of the Nile would have constituted a new house for between 8-10 percent of young Egyptians. The long term effects were even more positive since the project would have ‘turned to green’ as much as 3.4 million feddans of virgin land (about 15,000 sq/km) that would have been destined to the cultivation of high quality vegetables and fruits to sell in Europe[3] (El-Samman, 2003).

The project was as much interesting as the possibilities that it opened for speculative investments. In 1992, in fact, it was passed the so-called Law 96 which dismissed all the pre-existing limits to arable land possession for private individuals. According to the new Law, the land emerging from the Toshka project would have been allocated according to market rules. Such new provision, created the substrata that made the new investment worthy and thus, it was able to attract several investors (Waterbury, 2008: 160 and Bush, 2009: 59-62). The project would also have been relatively cheap for the Egyptian finances since the government would have paid only 20 percent of the total cost of the investment LE60 billion (about $18 billion)[4]. The remaining 80 percent was divided between both domestic and international investors where Al-Walid bin Talal (the Saudi Prince), played a central role. The prince decided to commit himself to invest as much as $1 billion with a contract for the ownership of 120,000 feddans of land (about 500 sq/km) and the prospect not to destine the land only to agriculture but also to industries (Sami, 1998).

The political and the economic commitment, however, did not proceed at the same pace of the material feasibility of the plan. The work on the pumping station that served to pump the water into the new Canal of the New Valley never proceeded on time. As early as the year 2000, it was noticed that the project was not expressing its potential. It took almost twice the scheduled time for the construction of the sole pumping station which was due in middle 2002, but it was completed only in 2005 (El-Din, 2000 and Hope, 2012). During 2005, the considerable delays in the plan brought the Government to renounce to the so-called ‘second phase’ of the plan and to postpone the completion of the first phase by ten years, moving the deadline to 2022. In other words, it was decided to conclude the project with the 74 km of the Sheikh Zayed Canal and to stop at a quota inferior to one million feddans[5] (about 4000 sq/km) of new land (Fecteau, 2012).

The lack of results and the three-year delay in the construction of the sole pumping station were at the centre of a major debate within the Egyptian National Assembly in 2006. By 2006, in fact, the project should have provided Egypt with 520,000 feddans of land (over 2,000 sq/km) devoted to agriculture but the reality was different. Only 20,000 feddans of land were irrigated and the auspicated tens of thousands of job positions that would have opened resulted in only 10 thousand people employed at Toshka (Khalil, 2003, El-Din, 2006 and El-Sayed, 2007).

The project was kept alive throughout the early years 2000 by a strong marketing campaign (Wahish, 2006 and Al-Khamissi, 2008: 91-93), the lack of results, though, tackled dramatically the margin of movement of the government. Originally, the land was assigned to four investor groups (three of them were Egyptians) but, as the project was not implemented, they started to lose interest for the plan (Bush, 2007: 1610-11). During the years 2005-06 the idea of buying underpriced lands and then selling them once the price soared started to have no longer a real application and the crowding out of the investors’ groups left the sole Prince Al-Walid to defend the scheme.

The collapse of the plan was highlighted by two elements: the first was the call by the Government to the Armed Forces and the universities to buy the land that emerged from the construction of the Canal (El-Sayed, 2007). The second element was the gulf that emerged after the 2011 revolts between the money spent (about $25 billion) and the real achievements which were far from being proportional[6] (Sarhadoi Nelson, 2012).

In conclusion, the Toshka Project can be employed as a metaphor capable of explaining vast segments of the political behaviour in the country. The project was born under the best auspices and it should have represented a scheme to help the economy of the country (by giving a new home for many young Egyptians) and a low-risk investment for the richest strata of society. The paralysis of the construction during the first years of the works, however. casted lights on the unsustainability of the plan. A possible Israeli interferences in late 1997 in order to secure their agricultural exports and the later crowding out of the investors represented the failure of a project that, in the end, presented only its worst downsides to the population. After sixteen years from the beginning of the works, the total price of the project represented about 30 percent of the 2013 Egyptian GDP. The project finally resulted in the misemployment of about $25 billion which also worsened the life conditions of the people in the delta of the Nile. At present, in fact, the pumping station still channels water into the new Canal; by doing so, the pumping station reduces the available water in the delta of the Nile. As a consequence to it, the furthest villages from Aswan are experiencing an increasing scarcity of water. In practical terms, the project which was initially called ‘the fourth pyramid’, ended up being an incomplete cathedral in the desert.



Master of Arts in International Relations at L.U.I.S.S. “Guido Carli”




Al-Khamissi K. (2008), Taxi. Le strade del Cairo si raccontano, Il Sirente.

Bush R. (2007), ‘Politics, Power and Poverty: Twenty Years of Agricultural Reform and Market Liberalization in Egypt’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28 (8), pp. 1599-1615.

Bush R. (2009), ‘The Land and the People’, Egypt: the Moment of Change, ed. El-Mahdi R. and Marfleet R., Zed Books, London.

El-Din G. E. (2000), ‘Toshka in the Crossfire’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 466, 27 January – 2 February 2000

El-Din G. E.  (2006), ‘Parliament to Scrutinize Toshka’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 789, 6 – 12 April 2006

El-Samman A. (2003), ‘Toshka is TOPs’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 620, 9 – 15 January 2003

El-Sayed M. (2007), ‘Mega Money Losers’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 840, 12 – 18 August 2007

Fecteau A. ‘On Toshka New Valley Mega-Failure’, Egypt Independent, 26 April 2012.

Hope B. (2012), ‘Egypt’s New Nile Valley: Grand Plan Gone Bad’, The National, 22 April 2012.

Khalil N. (2003), ‘Land of Promise’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 621, 16 – 22 January 2003.

Pintus S. (2014), ‘Tourism and Egypt: Reflections on the Future of the Country Through One of Its Leading Industries’,, 17 March 2014.

Sami A. (1998), ‘Big Boost for Toshka’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 396, 24 – 30 September 1998.

Sarhadoi Nelson S. (2012), ‘Mubarak’s Dream Remains Just That in Egypt’s Desert’, NPR, 10 July 2012.

Wahish N. (1998), ‘Toshka Turns Millennial Green’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 392, 27 August – 2 September 1998.

Wahish N. (2006), ‘Marketing Toshka’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 782, 16 – 22 February 2006.

Waterbury J. (2008), A Political Economy of the Middle East, Westview Press, Boulder.



[1] The dam built by the British (also known as the Low Dam) could store as much as 5,3 cubic kilometers of water, whilst the present High Dam can store 132 cubic kilometers of water, almost 25 times more.

[2] A feddan is equal to to 0.42 hectares.

[3] The products would have taken the TOP denomination, acronym for ‘Toshka Organic Product’ (El-Samman, 2003)

[4] The price was estimated at about LE300 billion or $90 billion for the construction of the whole infrastructure.

[5] Even if there exist no academic literature for such argumentation, it is plausible to think that there were international constraints behind such decision. The Toshka project with the idea to cultivate high quality fruits and vegetable to export would have helped dramatically the Egyptian economy but, incidentally, it would have also harmed the Israeli one. In fact, an extension of the Egyptian arable land by some 15,000 sq/km would have posed serious threats to the Israeli agricultural export. According to some informal sources and without any formal proofs, it is plausible to think that the November 1997 Luxor massacre was an action led against Egypt in order to make it renounce to the Toshka project. Such fact, again supported by no formal proofs, is able to explain why the Government decided to renounce to a project financed with considerable funds in a positive economic period (2001-05) and that was of major importance to help the economy and relocate people.

[6] According to informal sources, in June 2012 there were dig only 60 of the 74 km of the Canal which was originally due in 2005.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More