The second anniversary of the revolution was far from peaceful in clear contrast to the main characteristic of the revolution itself. Egypt was unnecessarily bleeding and violent crowds took to the streets everywhere from the very peaceful city of Luxor in Upper Egypt to the resilient city of Port Said in the far north. Celebrating the second anniversary in such a way has cast a dark shadow on the whole political process of transformation from a totalitarian regime to an emerging multi-party democracy in Egypt.
Our world has recently become one of global democratic order. In our time, new emerging democracies can live, grow, flourish and move up the international power ladder, while old ones are trying to survive at the top of the order. Democracy is seen now as a comprehensive set of values based upon individual civil liberties, economic freedom and peace. Regimes that do not respect these values are seen as anti-democratic, thus receiving no respect, and gaining the least or no benefits from the new world order. A new political brand was crafted for such regimes, labelling or shaming them as “failed states” or in some cases “rogue states”. On the contrary, countries moving towards adopting democratic values and embracing them within a national political order are being labelled “emerging democracies”. This latter brand appeals more to investors, tourists, and international assistance. The brand “emerging democracy” has become the magic password for a brighter future in developing countries since the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Looking at Egypt from a distance and you will find that the country enjoys excellent merits and advantages. Ironically, the country seems not able to capitalise on these merits and advantages. There is a science called “Egyptology” that studies the ancient Egyptian civilisation. No other country in the world has such a privilege. Egypt links the three old continents through the great man-made maritime passage, the Suez Canal, which carries more than 10 per cent of total world freight trade. Ancient treasures, human and natural resources, location and a leading role in Arab history and culture should qualify Egypt to acquire and maintain an excellent position on the world political map. Egypt, because of its political system, has stopped short of achieving this. Moreover, Egypt has recently wasted a great chance to capture a moment in history when the whole world greatly celebrated the success story of the 25 January Revolution. It was a great chance for Egypt to move up the international ladder as an emerging leading force for democracy. Tahrir Square lost its shine when almost all political factions preferred reaping selfish benefits to working for the goals of the revolution.
This failure to capture the historical moment overshadowed the whole political process since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. There are moments in history that cannot be re-created and 25 January 2011 is one of them. In order to make up for such a failure, Egyptians need to work hard to make a new brand for themselves. If we have to re-market Egypt in the whole world, we should think of this country as a brand, because the name “Egypt” alone is not enough to create a brand after such a series of fatal shortfalls. In all cases, we should know that above all Egypt would not be able to create a new brand for itself without becoming an emerging democracy.
Fortunately, we may be able to capitalise on some of our advantages and merits and use them as a base for advancement. Using right policies and with the help of the world, Egypt can market itself as a “global transportation hub”. We already have an ambitious plan to develop the Suez Canal region in order to make it one of the fast growing economic areas in the world. Without going into the details of the plan, I’d like to say that we can add a few projects, here and there, in order to achieve the goal of marketing Egypt as a potential “global transportation hub”. Two main projects I may add: one is a giant international airport in the middle of Sinai, surrounded by an advanced city full of the most diversified services that can make this area a heaven on earth. Such a giant airport can easily become the main air-crossing point between Europe, Asia and Africa. The second project is a fast railway line linking Ain Al-Sokhna port on the Red Sea with Borg Al-Arab port west of Alexandria on the Mediterranean. The merit of such a project is to create a combined system of transportation serving the trade between Asia, Africa and Europe. A combined system of transportation across land, sea and air would encourage regional, international and trans-continental trade, providing that the project would have adequate storage facilities and handling equipment and administration.
Not only that, but also Egypt can be marketed as a potential “trans-continental energy hub”. Egypt lies geographically between regions rich in energy resources in the Arab Gulf and North Africa, and regions thirsty for energy resources such as Europe and Africa. As a country that used to have surplus for export in the oil and gas trade, Egypt can build huge trans-continental refineries and storage facilities for oil and gas imported from the Gulf via pipelines, and then transported either by sea or land facilities to Africa and Europe. Providing that African countries can achieve a fast rate of growth in the few coming decades, Egypt can become the gateway for oil and gas exports to Africa. In addition, Egypt should go along with the European plan to build a network of solar power stations in the African Sahara desert that can be used to supply the European electricity grid with much needed green energy.
On the whole, these two ambitious projects, making Egypt a potential “global transportation hub” and a “trans-continental energy hub” mean that our economy in the short to medium term would depend more on service industries and that the economic growth rate would shift from being locally demand driven to become export driven growth. Production of manufactured goods and agriculture would be mainly geared at achieving self-sufficiency in our basic needs and food security. Although Egypt, in many cases, can be branded as a “low-cost producer”, it won’t be able to benefit from that before it rids itself of the dark and complicated jungle of laws regulating employment, wages, industrial licensing schemes, and land allocation. We also need to start, without delay, implementation of serious programmes aiming at developing our education and training systems in schools and universities. Having said that, I must add that Egypt is capable of achieving advances in areas such as information technology, communication software and computer programming, if it successfully utilised its centres of excellence in these areas.
One should remember, also, that Egypt is still far from best marketing its touristic attractions — ancient Egypt, its sun, sea and sand resorts, its deserts, and many other treasures — to become a real global touristic attraction. Countries such as France and Spain attract annually as many tourists as their population numbers. Egypt is still lagging behind. New investment in transportation, energy and tourism, either through joint ventures, private-public partnership projects, or foreign direct investment could attract huge amounts of funds from abroad and help the economy to recover and grow at a good pace.
It is very sad to realise that Egypt’s income from tourism amounts to nearly one per cent of world income from tourism. Egypt does not have a place in the top 10 touristic destinations in the world. With all that we have and can offer, Egypt should become a leading global touristic destination. This will not materialise before we stop dealing with our tourism industry as a business of fahlawa (adroitness). This industry is very important worldwide as an engine for growth and prosperity. Almost one billion tourists travelled the world last year spending $1.2 trillion. In order to have more of them we need to change the culture of this industry in Egypt and attract more investment from abroad in order to develop the industry infrastructure, services and marketing campaigns. But above all, tourism needs what other economic sectors also need in order to achieve healthy growth: stability and security.
The question is, can we really succeed in creating international interest in Egypt as a potential global transportation hub, trans-continental energy hub and global tourist destination? The answer is no if we suffer a very high deficit in democracy, security and political stability. Although these deficits are not the responsibility of the economy, it pays the price for them. The political leadership of the country and the wide spectrum of the political elite should bear this responsibility and create the right environment for economic growth and prosperity. Egypt should become an emerging democracy, not a failed state or a rogue state harbouring terrorism. This nation has a real chance to compete for a high-ranking place in the new world order.
The writer is chairman of the Arab Organisation for Freedom of the Press.