Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 June 2008
Issue No. 900
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In focus:

Galal Nassar

Time for a change

Egypt's government has lost all credibility and should go, writes Galal Nassar

Something is wrong either with the government or the people. The government, led by Ahmed Nazif, is talking about achievements, unprecedented steps towards reform and a better future for the people. Egypt, it says, is living its brightest political and economic period ever. And yet the nation, across most class divisions that is, is shedding tears of pain, bemoaning the harshness of life, diminishing living standards, and the continuing state of emergency. The gap between what the government says and how the people live is so huge that it seems to me that the government is governing another country, not this one.

I admit to being one of those who don't believe the government or trust it. I don't feel any of its alleged achievements and see cause to change it, for governments lose their reason to exist when they lose trust and credibility. For me, this government is not fit to lead the country at this critical stage of our history. I know that the government and its supporters are going to brand me a dissident, for anyone who dislikes the policies of the government is automatically viewed as a foe, as someone with no care for the country, if not indeed a traitor. This reminds me of the famous words of Bush regarding his so-called war on terror: "You're either with us or against us."

I also confess to be one of those people our cabinet members accuse of failing to comprehend the lofty aims of government policies. But once again I have to admit that I don't trust the government and its policies. For me, good policies put a smile on people's faces. This is a simple measure that every official should take to heart before taking office. Those who want to judge the government's performance should look around them. The eyes of our people are not happy; their smiles are cut with sadness.

This is our government. It belongs to all of us. Having trust between the government and the pubic is a requisite to progress in this country. If someone cannot get this into his head, then it's time for that person to leave office. What we have here is a group of ministers who have lost touch with the realities and complexities of Egyptian life, even at a time when poverty is hitting the country like a tornado. According to the UNDP, poverty in Egypt is at 52 per cent. In other words, more than half the nation is living under the poverty line. The government and the opposition have debated the point with the former claiming that only 30 per cent of the population lives in poverty and the latter saying that it is 60 per cent or more. In either case, this is not a situation that befits Egypt. And with international shortages of food and fuel putting the brakes on the global economy, things are likely to get worse, more so for the poor.

I believe the ratio to be just as the UNDP estimated. My reasons are: first, the methods used are not in any way controversial and there is no history of animosity between the UNDP and the Egyptian government; second, even if the UN is lying, would the World Bank, which provides essential funding for the Egyptian reform programme, be lying as well? Regardless, what matters is not how poor we are, or even how we got to be so. We've all seen the bread lines that satellite TV stations are airing for the whole world to see. What is in question is the poverty of the solutions the government has to offer. Our government has resorted to pre-capitalist methods to get money out of our pockets. It has gone back to the days of the poll tax and other arbitrary means to fill up its coffers. Its aim is no longer to better our lives, but to keep us where we are.

This is a government that was put in office with a mandate to take Egypt into the information age, to help us catch up with the rest of the world. Then several businessmen were brought into the cabinet, disregarding the conflict of their private and public interests, a conflict that later on proved crucial. Those ministers ran their own show with no recourse to an overall policy that takes the concerns of average citizens into account. This is what got us here. This is what caused past problems to get worse. Due to their mismanagement and lack of vision, our ministers seem unable to lift a finger to alleviate the suffering of ordinary citizens without the personal intervention of President Mubarak.

Many cabinet members, including Nazif, act as if being presentable and fluent in a foreign language is the key to the future. But talking to foreign correspondents in their own language is not how one gets the confidence of investors. It is not how one gains the trust of international organisations. A laptop in meetings is not a magic wand. E- governments, for all their language and computer skills, fail too. The government failed to get its message across to average citizens. It failed to connect with the people, mostly because it spoke a different language. And when the government handpicked writers and journalists to write about it, it chose those who have no credibility and no skills to mention, not in language, or even communication.

In Germany, France, Japan, China, Russia, the US, the UK, Latin America, and even Israel, officials use exclusively their mother tongue in press conferences and in front of the media. This is because, even while talking to foreigners in public, they are actually speaking to their constituency at home. They want their message to reach ordinary citizens and they want to keep their language alive. In meetings I attended in foreign countries, this was always the case. This is something that may not seem essential to our government, but it is crucial in other countries that understand what progress is about. Choice of language matters.

There are other factors that widened the gap between citizen and government, such as clear contradictions in the statements of cabinet ministers and inconsistencies in figures released -- if ever -- by government institutions. We don't even have laws that make access to information a right for citizens and journalists, a situation that adds to the ambiguity and lack of transparency in the country. It also makes people doubt everything the government says.

Take for example the government's habit of denying any intention to raise prices, right before it does exactly that. No wonder ordinary people feel uneasy whenever a minister says that there are no plans to increase prices. This is what happened before the prices of basic foodstuffs (rice, cooking oil, beans, etc) went up. It also happened in the case of gasoline and diesel prices. Such behaviour is criminal, for both the government and the people know that when you increase the price of fuel, everything else will get costlier. So don't blame the public when it cannot believe the government's promise to keep price inflation down.

As if a costlier life is not bad enough, the government kept pushing laws through the parliament without allowing pubic debate to emerge and without giving us a chance to take our breath. It is as if the country didn't have any laws before. And all the new laws, without exception, only serve to heighten discontent and widen the gap between the public and the regime.

Take, for example, the traffic law and the real estate tax. Both laws show that the government is intent on taking as much money as possible from all segments of society. The reason is that it failed to promote real revenues that finance the state's budget without having to dig deeper into the pockets of the people. Even the government's friends call the new taxes a bitter pill.

The government's policies and widespread discontent in the Egyptian street is likely to awaken -- if it hasn't already awakened -- social ills such as robbery, violence, sectarianism, the black market and corruption among government officials. We'll see students dropping out because they cannot afford to go on. We'll see more instances of commercial fraud, as with the recent selling of donkey meat for human consumption. There is already negligence in public hospitals, price gouging in private hospitals and poor service in public and private transportation.

The truth is that the government doesn't have a plan to control the market or the street, or even its own institutions. The government makes its decisions behind closed doors and then watches the public reaction on television, as if it were a mere spectator. The government is unleashing its police and security services to deal with demonstrations, protests and disturbances as if the latter were security problems, not the consequence of misguided policies. As a result, Egypt is being seen abroad as a police state intent on repressing freedoms.

The worst part is that the government failed to lift the state of emergency declared and upheld since Sadat's assassination in 1981. It has so far failed to rally pubic opinion around an alternative law that it calls the terrorism law, saying that it is working on it. The government has allowed the country to appear to the world as unsafe. If otherwise, why do we live in a state of emergency and why are we unable to function without emergency laws? That's why investors and businessmen are reluctant to invest in Egypt. And that's why the country is incapable of moving forward, notwithstanding the prime minister's claim that extraordinary measures are a "necessary evil".

Those who keep track of what the National Democratic Party (NDP) government is doing cannot help but notice the power struggle ongoing within its ranks. This power struggle is affecting its decisions and undermining its popularity. Private as well as government media have noted it. Apparently, rival groups have formed within the government and the ruling party. They often leak news about their counterparts in order to undermine their standing -- all part of the ongoing conflict between the old guard and the new. Then again, the new guard are fighting among themselves. Even big NDP businessmen no longer keep their internal wars a secret.

The NDP may have offices in every governorate, town and village, but apparently it has no clue as to the feelings of the people. It has failed to explain the government's policies to the masses. Had it done so, perhaps the anger we see all around may have abated. So what exactly are the NDP's specialised committees doing? And why are they not examining the party's decisions and sense of timing? And why are they not explaining all that to the public?

The NDP's failure, from the bottom up and vice versa, is eroding its popularity and setting it up for an unpleasant surprise in the event of genuinely democratic elections. Punitive votes against the NDP now outweigh any support it still has. Perhaps it is time for the NDP to admit this and sack the government before it does more damage to the country and the party that put it in power.

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