Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Assem El-Kersh

2020: Sooner than you think

The future will not wait and no one can stop its coming. It brings along the opportunities it offers, writes Assem El-Kersh*

"The future comes apace." -- William Shakespeare

2010 will begin in a flash. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and ask yourself the following: in the furthest realms of possibility what might or might not change over the next 10 years? What is the worst, or the best, thing that could happen to a country as prominent as Egypt, with its diversity, its various states of stasis and of change, its burdens and restrictions as it strives to realise its aspirations?

What lies ahead for the Arab-Islamic world, whose image and complexity have always been the victims of mistrust and misconduct? In what direction will the world be headed as it rushes headlong into the future, propelled by its own instincts and interests, never pausing to catch its breath or cast a look backwards? What shocks or prospects will be borne on winds that blow in every direction? What dreams or nightmares, and what defeats or victories?

In short, what scenarios can we envision from where we stand today, 10 full years into the 21st century and the third millennium? This is the mother of all the questions that arise at the closing moments of a difficult and tumultuous decade that swept by like a hurricane, leaving in its wake a path strewn with wreckage and misery. It was a decade in which political tempests, technological leaps and economic miscalculations combined in extraordinary ways with the whims of the climate and the surprises of life to toy with the fate of mankind.

The real start of the century -- waited for almost two years. It was on 11 September 2001 that the world's greatest superpower received the most stinging blow in its history in the form of an unprecedented mainland attack. It was then that the world's psyche completely changed.

New types of conflicts superseded older, more familiar ones. The following years brought confrontations by the dozen and hostilities of every sort: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that changed the fate of an entire region, the battles in Lebanon and Gaza, and campaigns to settle scores in Sudan and Yemen. It hardly needs pointing out that all these clashes took place in our own unfortunate part of the world, and with it ushered in a new era of misperceptions of Islam.

Nature, too, made numerous entrances onto the world scene with floods, landslides and destructive hurricanes. Its most powerful vengeance took place in 2004 with the tsunami that struck eight Asian countries, resulting in 200,000 fatalities and incalculable damage.

Then, as if to top it all, the calamitous decade closed with the global financial crisis. Perhaps the dot-com revolution, the Olympics in China and the election of the first African- American president of the United States gave reasons for hope.

Egypt was certainly no exception to the general rule. In tandem with constitutional amendments, various attempts were made to spur our political and economic life forward, and more and more windows were opened to fresh air. There were unique occasions for jubilation and for hoisting the flag high, many involving a football victory, or a noteworthy achievement scored by an Egyptian national on behalf of us all.

There were also moments of unhappiness, brought about by misfortune and crisis: the sinking of a ferry, a landslide in the heart of Cairo that buried sleeping people in their homes, train accidents and fires, assorted flu epidemics, not to mention waves of crushing inflation in spite of an economic reform programme that has yet to deliver on all its promises.

As today wanes, we can take comfort in the fact that these years have passed, never to return. One might even derive some pleasure from thinking up a fitting description for them -- summing up the past 10 years as the worst in American history, Time magazine called them "The Decade from Hell". But do we have grounds for optimism today? Are things going to look up, or should we continue to worry? The answer is reliant on us. On how well we prepare for the future and, in so doing, on whether we have learned anything from what we and others have gone through.

For many generations the way we view the future has been governed by confusion and apprehension with only a sprinkling of confidence. Perhaps this has to do with an ingrained fatalism, with a belief that what is "written" is indecipherable, an inscrutable mystery and, therefore, confusing and disturbing. Many of us may have a feeling that the future can only get worse and that the only way to deal with it is to put our hands on our hearts and pray, or to close our eyes and hope it doesn't see us.

Certainly this is one explanation of why we tend to prefer the present and perhaps even the past. The devil you know is better than the one you don't, as the Egyptian proverb goes. Unfortunately, when our behaviour is shaped by this kind of gut reaction we end up forfeiting opportunities. Maybe that is why some of us fear everything that's different, resist change and balk at trying anything new. It is also probably why some of us are so given to taking refuge in the past, boasting of erstwhile glories, nitpicking over decades old details and claiming wisdom retroactively without fully appreciating the lessons of history.

With only rare exceptions, it has never been one of our basic instincts to concern ourselves with the future in the sense of truly appreciating its importance. We even think of it as some kind of luxury.

Although we all know that we can be certain of nothing when it comes to the future, and that there is no escaping what the next few years might bring, this should not prevent us from exerting ourselves to probe the future, make forecasts and even try to shape the future to whatever extent is in our power.

Nothing is certain when it comes to the stock exchange, politics, petrol prices and affairs of the heart. They all appear as incalculable as anything one sets one's hopes on, while life more often than not has an entirely different view of the matter. Then, to complicate matters further, everything is either possible or ruled out: war or peace, victory or loss, love or hate, health or illness, stability or chaos, happiness or sadness, and so on. All is possible, or impossible, to stick with such dichotomies.

It was never the task of the forecasters of the 20th century to predict the surprises that we ourselves ended up encountering at the beginning of the 21st. Similarly, the futurists of today are not seers. They have no crystal balls. Like specialists in other fields, the most they can do is make educated guesses about the general direction of events and the possible opportunities and risks, though not about the exact where and when that these will arrive. Their role is to place their knowledge, insight and analytical skills at the disposal of decision-makers and planners, so as to help them prepare for the future.

In spite of many obstacles, Egypt offers some encouraging examples of such respectable, scientifically sound attempts to forecast the future. The most important are the Egypt 2020 Project and the Egypt Future Vision 2030 implemented by the Council of Ministers Information and Decision Support Centre. However, it is still unclear whether the effort put into these projects has been accorded the praise it merits, or whether their ideas and recommendations will be put into effect or be consigned to an archive already so full of dust-collecting study papers on the future that couldn't foretell their misfortune.

Whatever the case may be, here in Egypt we can take heart from the only narrow gap, if gap there is, between the expertise that created these studies and that which gave rise to counterpart studies in the US, China, India and other countries that refuse to let the present divert them from the need to look ahead and be as thoroughly prepared as possible for the next half century or so.

We can be fairly confident that the next 10 years will not turn Egypt into a different country, regardless of what these years will bring (on p.5 see my personal list of things that will not change over the next 10 years). However, the way we live might change, and life might have a different flavour. Certainly with some hard choices, challenges and opportunities are on the way.

Demographics will change as a new generation adds to the crowds. Perhaps we will be no closer to building a modern and less noisy and chaotic capital city. However, the country's geography, the sun, the Nile and the far-flung desert will remain, as will the Egyptian nation itself. None of the major players will vanish, and the weak and strong traits of the people and the state will remain the same. Perhaps we will see a new president and new cabinets, even as the forces that move society, set the pace of life, sow corruption, solve problems or aggravate them, pull the country forward or drag it backwards, will still be here, with the balances between them possibly shifting one way or another.

The overall picture of Egypt, with its government, people, religious make-up, elite, sports, army, political opposition, capital, media, crises, periods of recuperation and, even, improvement, will be here 10 years from now and even 100 years from now. What will change are details and circumstances, whether for the better or for the worse depending on how we deal with them, whether decisively or irresolutely, in accordance with the nature and pace of the age.

In this spirit, we at Al-Ahram Weekly have decided to undertake this exceptional edition of the paper as we stand on the threshold of a new decade of opportunity and choice in a world stretching miles ahead of us. Through a compilation of future-looking projections, perceptions and discussions, we offer what we hope will be a useful addition to efforts to understand the future and prepare for its eventualities.

Throughout, we have been inspired by the hope of stimulating fresh thinking on such crucial issues. Perhaps for this reason alone, the beginnings of new years, decades or centuries should afford opportunities for reflection -- before the trip goes on. Fasten your seat belts.

"Allah changeth not the condition of a people until they change themselves." -- Quran, Raad 13:11

* Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly. <>

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