Saturday, July 26, 2008

All is not fine in Egypt

By Ahmad Mustafa*

Egyptian demonstrators carrying bread (AP)

Although there are no major riots or violent protests in Egypt that can make headlines on satellite channels, the country is not at all quiet under the surface. It appears that the honeymoon of the energetic government, installed four years ago, is coming to an end soon. You can easily feel it through what you hear from the majority of Egyptians, from all walks of life, who share one negative theme: no trust in the future.
When President Hosni Mubarak appointed Dr Ahmad Nazif as the prime minister of the country in the summer of 2004, everybody - in and out of Egypt - was talking about a new generation of government in which Mubarak's son, Jamal, has been playing a major part from behind-the-scene. With limited reshuffles, Nazif's cabinet included more business people than technocrats and the influential body within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) led by Jamal Mubarak became more and more powerful.
At that time, many analysts and international institutions hailed the developments as they were keen to see any sort of reform in a stagnant Egypt.
Initially, the new government did live up to its expectations and did not falter. In its first couple of years, it launched an ambitious programme to reform the economy and set straight most of the books on macro-economy.
Though some of the reforms were painful and stirred internal opposition, most Egyptians gave the government the benefit of the doubt and waited to see its trickle-down effect.
Except for a section of the elite - a marginal minority in Egypt - most people did not care too much about the issue of "inheritance of power" from the father to the son and the preparation for the rise of Mubarak Jr.
Majority of the Egyptians are indifferent to the ruling regime, to the extent that in the 19th century when they had the power in their hands they brought in an Albanian (Mohammad Ali) to rule them.
Being indifferent does not essentially mean that they do not know; they know about the sins of omission and commission in their country. But they always say: OK, fine, as I can live and sustain it. But of late they are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs and foresee a bleak future.

Not successful

Clever and enthusiastic ministers in Nazif's government, especially those in charge of the economy, were not successful in gaining the trust of the people in what they were doing. They were keener to talk in English to the outside world and left the more than 70 million Egyptians to the anxious wait to see any benefit.
If it were acceptable in the first half of the government's time in office to focus on major - and sometimes shocking - moves to liberalise the economy, it might not be the case in the last couple of years.
As the government kept on its programme without any political effort to convince the people of the "light at the end of the tunnel", the tide is now turning against it and unfortunately against the much needed reforms itself.
One might argue that economic reform without political reform cannot be a remedy, especially in a country such as Egypt. Yet, even though the pace of political reform does not match the economic reform, the government is trying to force the latter with some political oppression.
That cannot work, and might even strip the economic reform of any meaning. The number of laws passed in the legislature and amendments made to them in a very short time is not a safeguard to a change; rather they are fragile rules that are forced on the people who have no say, or are just ignored as ignorant.
Self-proclaimed economic super-geeks will not be able to keep on like this. Their actions threaten the delicate socio-political fabric of the country. You cannot simply impose models that look perfect on paper and expect the tens of millions of people to cheer you as a hero.
Egypt is not a poor country and seeing the number of Egyptian millionaires living in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and North America, you can tell that the country is gifted.
It was ill-managed, right. But it does not seem to be well-managed now as far as its people are deprived of everything: basic needs and rights including having a say in what is going on in their country.

*Dr Ahmad Mustafa, a London-based Arab writer. Apart from many other journalistic activities, Dr Mustafa is a regular columnist for the Emirati Gulf News newspaper. (This article was published in Gulf News on the 29th of June 2008.