What went wrong?
We are no longer the region's best in industry, science or even sports. Mamdouh Hamza* suggests a formula for pulling the nation back up by the bootstraps
A few months ago I published an article entitled, "Our own capabilities ... regression in double-time" (Al-Wafd, 6 June). In that article I looked at the multi-faceted deterioration in our country's capabilities, referring to international development reports for 2002 and 2003. The latter reports note the various ways in which Egypt is no longer a regional leader. The region's largest banks, biggest contracting companies, best consultative engineering and accountancy firms and top training centres are not in Egypt but in other Arab countries. Egypt no longer has the highest influx of tourists, the most relaxing tourist locations, or a top place in sports competitions. We have regressed in industry, agriculture, scientific research, education, economy, commerce, the media, information, national projects and training programmes. This sad course of events was not accidental. Our lack of fair competition in the domestic scene has sent to the top a group of incompetents who supervised our descent. As a community, we have failed to encourage talent or reward achievement. Why? Who is responsible for this debacle, the government or the nation?
An exhaustive answer to this question may call for years of work by experts and academics. For the moment, I have a word of sincerity that may shed light on the way that we do things, with a call for the competent authorities to seek ways to reverse our low standards and loss of confidence, and thereby banish the looming spectre of regional obsolescence.
The government and the nation are both part of the problem. Together, they form the country's body, the head and limbs. Currently, the government has monopolised the role of the head and cast the nation in the role of the limbs. Thus, the government's success has to be gauged by how efficiently the limbs are acting. Egypt's problem is not in overpopulation, but in the ability of individuals to find their talents and bearings. In democratic countries, the government is the "daughter" of the nation, for it is born of the nation's free choice. In Third World countries such as ours, the government assumes the "mother" role, closely supervising the education, conduct, and personality of the nation. The government, therefore, is a role model. Whatever it does, the children are liable to mimic. Where does this leave us?
The government pays unrealistically low salaries, so the nation does not work, or works 27 minutes or so per day. The government imposes an unjust tax system, and the nation evades taxes. The government imposes a complicated customs system, and the nation finds shortcuts. The government provides low quality education and the nation spends billions of pounds on private lessons. The government is committed to tuition-free education but cannot provide the necessary schools, so students join schools at the age of seven or eight, losing crucial early-learning time, or go to private schools their parents can barely afford.
The government provides complicated administrative services, so the nation bribes officials to get things done. This encourages low-ranking bureaucrats to complicate the procedures further to keep the bribes coming. The government issues resolutions and decisions that are thrown out in court, so the nation loses its faith in the government and its decisions. The judiciary passes rulings that the government fails to enforce, so the nation loses faith in the just course of law. The government uses creative accounting in its budget, so the nation doctors the books of private companies.
The government focusses authority in the hands of individuals with low respect for public money and a willingness to abuse their power, so the nation abandons dedication, perseverance, and accuracy, resorting instead to lying, hypocrisy and nepotism when dealing with officials -- from the smallest employees in the traffic department or local councils to top government officials.
The government provides the nation with a hobbled media, so the nation flips to Arab and foreign satellite stations. The government sponsors biased newspapers, so the nation switches to the tabloids. The government ignores scientific research, so scientists neglect research, focus on financial and administrative gains, and seek employment in private firms. In the process, the country loses its scientific edge.
The government issues a barrage of emergency laws and family crime, rape, addiction and violence rise. The government interferes in elections to secure a majority for its party, so the nation boycotts the elections and loses faith in the electoral process. The government prevents universities and syndicates from engaging in politics, so political illiteracy and alienation spread.
The government spends a fortune on sports facilities but neglects physical education and fitness programmes, and the nation loses its athletic edge. For the past four decades, our Olympic performance, regionally and internationally, has been nothing but dismal.
The government builds hospitals and buys modern medical equipment but forgets to train the medical staff on the use of new equipment. The government neglects public health and hygiene and fails to monitor potentially harmful food substances and the use of insecticides. The government fails to combat smoking, so the nation's expenditure on tobacco rises to equal one third of the health budget. The country now has one of the highest rates worldwide of young smokers and children with cancer.
The government fails to fulfil its promise of jobs, housing, and a decent life for the young, so the latter resort to narcotics, of which the national consumption now stands at around LE17 billion annually. The government encourages materialistic values and favours quantity over quality, so the nation loses interest in innovation and accuracy.
One can go on forever giving such examples. The worst sign of decay, however, is that the country has lost its regional standing and reputation for excellence. The Egyptian pound has lost half of its value over the past two years. Our internal debt has grown by LE100 billion over the same period, as compared to LE147 billion over the past 31 years. The country imports 60 per cent its food from abroad. Flash fights have been reported in breadlines. Four million people are unemployed. And the population keeps growing despite the country's harsh economic conditions. Swift and unconventional action is needed.
We are running out of time and we lack the democratic institutions capable of taking decisive action. Therefore, an intervention by the political leadership is in order. Such intervention should take into account that no one acting in isolation can possibly reverse the national decline. The situation we are facing is too grave to be resolved through individual efforts. Here is a proposal:
The political leadership, helped by some of the nation's best minds, should select a qualified salvation group, made up of the country's top experts and talents. This group, in my opinion, should not exceed 200 in number and would have to encompass ministers, governors, heads of universities and scientific researchers, heads of banks and holding companies, newspaper editors, and heads of television and radio services -- all to the exclusion of those who have already proved their incompetence. The salvation group should be given full responsibility and a freehand to act, and be held accountable for the outcome of its effort.
Meanwhile, all Egyptian organisations, parties, agencies and individuals should be permitted to discuss freely all aspects of the national crisis, and present their views publicly and through the media regardless of how critical these may be. These views would not only be of immense help to the salvation group, they would help make all citizens involved in the reform. The nation has to be part of the solution. Were such measures to be taken, I expect the country to emerge from its predicament in three years or thereabouts. The positive outcome of such a collective endeavour would be felt even earlier.
One last precautionary note: outside help is no longer useful. Neither assistance nor additional loans would help, not even the much-hyped European partnership. And, reliance on incompetent insiders and cronies is out of the question. The only way ahead is to trust in the judgement of our own capable citizens. This is what countries such as Singapore, China, and India did in the past, and this is what we should start doing, right now.
* The writer is a civil engineer and a businessman.