Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

No economising without democracy

By Ibrahim Nafie

Ibrahim Nafie President Hosni Mubarak has established clear tenets for comprehensive reform. It is an integrative process, and as such requires the coordination of the efforts of the diverse institutions of government and society. This process demands courage, for it beckons us to explore new and radical ways to remedy problems in our economic system and boost domestic production. But above all it must remain a humanitarian process. Material progress must never overshadow the principles of fairness and equity.

The president has enjoined the new government, headed by Atef Ebeid, to forge ahead with a comprehensive reform process in order to consolidate and build upon the successes of the last 18 years. One of the new government's most pressing tasks will be to ensure that the national economic indicators reflect healthy growth. An array of measures to cut back on government expenditure, curb inflationary trends and reduce the balance of trade deficit are, therefore, likely. Such measures are essential to safeguard the vitality of the national economy, better equipping it to weather the many challenges we face and will continue to face during the process of increasing integration with the global economy.

However, as the president stressed in his inaugural address to the Peoples' Assembly and Shura Council, expanding the scope of participation is also a vital element of sustained comprehensive reform. In this regard the government will be expected to encourage greater private sector investment in the national economy. And the private sector, for its part, must be fully prepared to shoulder its responsibilities. More than ever it is required to relinquish its preference for securing the franchises of foreign made consumer and luxury items for which the vast majority of Egyptians have little need, and to devote greater energy and ingenuity into upgrading the manufacturing base.

The government must provide incentives to encourage the private sector in this endeavour. It must furnish the appropriate communications and transportation infrastructure, lift bureaucratic impediments to export trade and assist in developing new markets. And in the spirit of mutual commitment the private sector must creatively engage in enhancing the competitivity of its products in international markets. Towards this end, it needs to allocate resources to the research and development necessary if local products are to meet international specifications.

Democratic development is the necessary complement to economic reform. Political systems that bar plurality of opinion, the free and responsible exchange of ideas and fair competition between diverse political forces have, in today's world, lost all credence. By any standards, Egypt has already scored outstanding progress in democratic development. Nonetheless, we aspire to build on that record in order to make Egypt a model for comprehensive development that can be emulated elsewhere in the world.

Achieving this ambition will continue to be the focus of our combined efforts as we move towards greater mutual understanding and open-mindedness. However our opinions might diverge, we all share in the aspirations for progress and development.

Pertinent here is President Mubarak's frequently expressed belief in a free and responsible press, and his repeated affirmation that there is no authority above the press but the law. After all, a free press is the clearest manifestation of free expression, and its adherence to the principles of journalistic integrity reflects society's capacity for a responsible, rational exchange of views.

Another important hallmark of a sound democratic environment is a healthy opposition. Opposition implies not simply a vociferous facade, but rather a dynamic force that spurs the conscience of all competing political parties, compelling them to attune themselves more closely to the interests of the people.

There are many different political parties in Egypt, some more than two decades old, others barely twelve months. In spite of their differences in age and outlook, they share two major characteristics -- they have lost touch with ordinary citizens and they lack internal democratic mechanisms. It is these two shortcomings that explain these parties' inefficacy. The absence of democratic mechanisms leads to stagnation, as energies are wasted on infighting for rank and privilege. With the focus diverted from effective political lobbying on behalf of their constituencies, their supporters eventually lose heart and grow disillusioned. It is easy for opposition parties to cast the blame elsewhere for their failings; to point, for example, to alleged impediments to their activities. It takes far more courage to adopt the structural and democratic reforms necessary to permit younger party members to rise to positions of leadership, imbue the party with new dynamism and bring it closer to the people it is meant to serve.

The ruling party, meanwhile, would derive considerable impetus from a healthy, democratic opposition. When opposition parties prove successful in revitalising themselves and extending the base of their support, ruling party leaders will see the inevitability of adopting similar reforms. The upshot will be a heightening of democratic practice, which in turn is certain to generate a political bolster for economic reform.

The approaching parliamentary elections offer a golden opportunity for every political party to assess its standing with the ordinary citizen. For most parties, their ratings in the ballot box will depend on their ability to act now to reform themselves internally. We have, before us, a chance for the ruling party and the opposition parties together to create a parliament that is more truly representative of the people. Moreover, no political party will be in a position to plead excuses for failure. The president has pledged himself to the complete integrity of these elections, which will be monitored at every phase by the judiciary. The political parties, then, must look to themselves in allocating the blame or praise for success or failure.

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