To understand the significance of the Sino–Soviet technological exchange and transfer program of the 1950s that is the subject of the article by professors Zhang, Zhang, and Yao, it may be useful to consider the experience of another country that drew upon the Soviet Union for technological assistance during the same time period—Egypt. As was true in the Chinese case, the historical relationship between Egypt and Russia reflects the evolution of both countries' political cultures and foreign policies. The Soviet Union provided technical assistance to Egypt as part of the global geopolitical struggle with the West during the Cold War. This commentary describes four major examples of this cooperation and discusses their long-term impact on Egypt's own development. The results differ rather substantially from those witnessed in China.
The Czechoslovakian Weapons Agreement
In the period immediately following World War II, the West, and particularly the United States, was the only supplier of weapons to Egypt. When Egypt's King Farouk was deposed in a coup led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the new president's ideologies as a nonaligned socialist led him to agree to purchase weapons from Czechoslovakia in 1957, prompting similar agreements between other Arab countries (like Syria) and the Eastern Bloc.
The High Dam at Aswan
One American response to this development was an attempt to regain political and economic control, working through the World Bank to finance construction of the High Dam at Aswan on the Upper Nile. American policymakers understood the symbolic advantage of being identified with a large technological project that contributed to economic development in a peaceful and positive manner. The Russians countered by trying to convince Nasser that they had more experience building dams; he agreed to assign them authority over the industrial part of this immense project. As construction began in 1956, Nasser attempted to increase Egypt's options by also asking the Chinese for help. Furious, the Americans [End Page 168] decided to withdraw from financing the dam and the Soviet Union stepped into their place. Thus, the building of the High Dam became Egypt's first exposure to Soviet construction machinery, experts, and thousands of technicians who worked on the project site. But because all resources were controlled by the state rather than the private sector, it was hard for innovations from the Soviet Union to be diffused and adopted in other places at that time. However, the Arab Construction Company, the Egyptian counterpart in the building of the High Dam, later used this technology to build similar dams in other Arab and African countries. The High Dam had a tremendous positive economic impact. It reduced seasonal flooding, allowed Egypt to reclaim more than two million hectares of irrigable land, fed its growing population, and provided hydroelectric power for industrial development. However, this came at an environmental price, for the dam blocked the annual alluvial flows of silt that had for millennia made the Nile valley one of the most productive agricultural regions of the world.
Steel Mill in Helwan
Beginning in the 1950s, another Soviet transfer project concerned the development of a huge steel mill at Helwan. Although the steel mill provided local vocational training to new workers and represented the first step in transferring heavy industrial technology to Egypt, it was not an unqualified success. Even at the time it was built, the mill relied on outdated technology. Losses were astronomical, and Egypt was forced to hire many highly paid technicians and engineers from the Soviet Union to maintain productivity. This experience is similar to the results from construction of a Russian-subsidized aluminum production facility in Upper Egypt during the same period. The Russians designed the molds of the produced aluminum to fit only Russian standards, all but ensuring that the product could not be exported to other countries. As with the case of the steel factory, the aluminum factory was also outdated, inefficient, and consumed large amounts of electrical power. Parts...