Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Dealing with half-truths

Recently The Economist magazine lambasted Egypt and its president. It was an unjust attack, but going on the counter-offensive may not be the best response, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Economist is, without doubt, a very respectable magazine, published weekly and read closely by influential decision makers around the world. Not only politicians are keen to read its headlines and its coverage of political, economic and financial news, but also businessmen, financiers, economists and investors. It helps its readers grasp world developments. But like other news outlets, the Economist is not infallible.

Take its coverage of Egypt. The cover story of its issue dated 6-12 August was dedicated to Egypt, and in a very stunning way. The magazine cover carried a picture of the Giza pyramids in the back with an officer riding a camel in the front. Next to the pyramids you could see the sun setting. This cover with its heavy symbolism had this title splashed across the cover: “The ruining of Egypt.”

Egypt was taken by surprise and felt, and rightly so, that there could be a hidden message intended for Egyptians, those who are pro-regime and detractors and opponents of the post-June 30 Egypt. And to be more precise, the opponents and adversaries of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. For them, it was a heaven-sent gift.

The main article of the magazine was entitled: “The ruining of Egypt: Repression and the incompetence of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi are stoking the next uprising.”

Another article on the situation in Egypt carried the ominous title: “Egypt’s economy: State of denial.”

Those readers who consult the Economist weekly, and on a regular basis, must have been taken aback by the very harsh criticism levelled by the magazine against the Egyptian president, to the extent that they may have questioned the professional credibility of the magazine as far as its coverage of Egyptian developments is concerned. They could not have missed the main point that the British weekly wanted to make; namely, that President Al-Sisi should not run for a second term in 2018 when his first term in office expires, claiming, erroneously, that he “cannot provide lasting stability”.

Strangely enough, there was no mention, whatsoever, both in the lead and the article of the fact that Al-Sisi came to power through democratic elections. Or that for a majority of Egyptians today, President Al-Sisi remains their best hope for providing not only stability, but also security, which has been a main determinant of the political choices of the majority of Egyptians. From the perspective of the Economist, if the Egyptian president cannot provide stability, the logical conclusion that should follow from this mistaken premise is for President Al-Sisi to “announce that he will not stand again for election in 2018”. The irony resides in the fact that while the English weekly has called for a more opened political system in the country, it has called on the Egyptian president not to stand for re-election once his present term expires. It is difficult to see how a democratically-elected head of state should foreswear a second term if the constitution allows him to do so.

It seems to me that the message the Economist intended was nothing less than laying the blame of all Egypt’s present travails, challenges and hardships on the shoulders of the Egyptian president. Is this a reflection of objective truths on the ground? No objective and unbiased observer would subscribe to this claim. The magazine considered it to be the ultimate and unquestioned truth.

The magazine, in covering latest developments in Egypt, adopted a three-pronged approach. It dealt with the economy, the exercise of power and governmental policies to meet the myriad of economic and financial difficulties facing Egypt. The score sheet in the three fields was not good at all. On the contrary, the magazine painted a very gloomy picture. I am not sure, to say the least, that the well-read and influential readers of the Economist were rightly served by such coverage.

The main story on the economy, while stating some facts, glossed over some basic points about the present situation in Egypt, such as the heavy toll that terrorism is exacting on Egyptians. Another point that should not have been missed relates to the sudden British decision to ban British tourists from travelling to Egypt in the wake of the crash of the Russian charter plane over Sinai last year. There was no threat to the security of British nationals in various Egyptian resorts in Sinai and on the Red Sea that could have warranted such a decision.

One particular claim by the Economist stands out; namely, that some big projects being implemented in infrastructure are meant to rub the ego of the Egyptian president. I am not sure that Egyptians would really buy this line of thinking. Maybe they would disagree with the priorities set by the government, and maybe they would object to carrying out all these projects at the same time. But they don’t think these projects serve no purpose.

Not everything in the two pieces published by the Economist on Egypt is unfounded. A case in point is the failure of the Egyptian government to capitalise on the success of the Sharm El-Sheikh conference on the Egyptian economy in March 2015. Undoubtedly, the Egyptian government has been very slow in drawing up policies and enacting a new regulatory system to attract foreign investment. Nor was it very imaginative in raising the corporate income tax rate in special economic zones, from 10 per cent to 22.5 per cent.

The way the Economist has dealt with the situation in Egypt, and its very pessimistic appraisal of the future of the Egyptian economy and the person of the president of Egypt, does not, however, warrant the fierce reactions on the part of both the government and the official media once the Economist issue on Egypt was out. The Egyptian foreign minister read a statement to refute what the magazine wrote, and the pro-government news media went on overdrive to attack the magazine. For sure this was not the best possible way to counter many of the assertions made. There must be another more professional and credible way of answering allegations by foreign media on the very complicated situation in Egypt.

Most of the time, we tend to be very sensitive to the harsh criticisms levelled at us in foreign papers and magazines. Perhaps the time has come for Egypt to address the world persuasively, credibly and professionally. I will go as far as requesting Egyptian officials read the two articles by the Economist, not once but twice, and thrice. It could be an eye-opener much needed to reflect on and to reassess some of the economic policies adopted by the government.

On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary to nominate an information minister who could engage the foreign media in serious debate on the course Egypt has taken after 30 June 2013 and the long-term objectives of the regime.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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