Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

What is happening to Egyptians?

Economist and political thinker Galal Amin talks to Shaden Shehab about Egypt’s political, economic and social dilemmas

Al-Ahram Weekly

‘The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments’
— George Washington

‘We must deal with the roots of violence, particularly those that exist within each of us. We need to embrace “inner disarmament”, reducing our own emotions of suspicion, hatred and hostility towards our brothers and sisters’
— Dalai Lama XIV

Three years after the revolution Egypt is still in a state of turmoil. Why?
Egypt is definitely in a mess, economically, politically, culturally, psychologically and security wise. It is not just a minority that feels this. Everybody does. But before trying to explain this we need to remember how different our feelings were in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster. Then we were exceedingly optimistic. We felt we had got rid of a corrupt regime and that Egypt could turn a new page.
That past optimism heightens our present disappointment. There is a feeling of shock when we contrast our feelings before and after. The same thing was repeated — though to a lesser degree — following 30 June. Five months ago we again thought we were on the way to finding a pathway out of our economic, political and security crises, but we were again disappointed.  
So why aren’t we?
No one can give a definite answer. Some will emphasise one factor in a complex equation, others a different factor.  
The two revolutions through which we have passed can be called à la mode revolutions. They are revolutions in a new fashion. In the past a revolution was deemed to have succeeded when the people who made it took over and began to govern. This was what happened in 1952. The young army officers who made the revolution took over and implemented revolutionary decisions like the land reform law and the dissolution of political parties.
The 25 January Revolution was made by the young and not so young but then others took over. First came the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which appointed prime ministers associated with the old regime. Then we had presidential elections in which the public was presented with a choice between Ahmed Shafik, a member of the old regime who wanted to drag Egypt back 30 years, and Mohamed Morsi, a man barely known to the public and who wanted to drag the country back at least three centuries. Then 30 June brought a series of non-revolutionary figures to the fore, whether in government — with the exception of two or three ministers — or the interim president himself.
Our revolutions of 2011 and 2013 were peaceful, they were neither a coup d’état like that of Nasser nor violent like the French and the Russian, which is why it was admired around the world. But we paid a price for this. I’m not saying there should have been violence but we must look at what actually followed.

But who was going to fill the gap given the absence of any credible revolutionary leaders?
I don’t agree this was the case. Young revolutionary figures with leadership qualities could have been included in the government but they were not. Many people including myself proposed the idea of a presidential council that would have consisted of young people but it was rejected by SCAF. It will always be resisted.
The so-called dialogues that took place one after the other were between the people who belong to the older generation. Younger people were never given a chance. The issues and measures that were being discussed could never be described as revolutionary.

Many argue that the youth movements failed to throw up any convincing leaders. If they had the public would probably have rallied behind them.
But whose fault is it? The media didn’t help. Those who were in control didn’t make it easy. There were some young people who wanted to become presidential candidates but one way or another they were excluded.

There is a perception that the only thing Egypt’s revolutionary youth are capable of is protesting against the regime. They are not fighting to become part of the decision-making process or presenting solutions of their own...
But there is no avenue open to them except to protest. They never saw any opening or received any encouragement to be included in the political process, whether under Mubarak or after.
However, I don’t blame people who no longer sympathise with the revolutionary youth. The fact is many are sick and tired of the economic situation.

But Tamarod comprised young people and it played a leading role in the 30 June Revolution. Some even go so far as to argue it was instrumental in organising the mobilisation that got rid of Morsi’s regime. Why were they successful?
The people were fed up with Morsi’s rule. It was dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood that moved the people.
Will the referendum on the constitution — the first step on the roadmap — lead us beyond the current mess?
I am pessimistic, not just for the short term outlook but beyond it. Of course, in the long run, some progress will have to be made. Unfortunately, real progress will take some time.
Formulating a constitution has taken too long and in the end is not the real issue. The most important thing is how whoever is in power interprets it. The endless bickering over one or two words; I’d like the people who engaged in these quarrels to give one practical example of how it might make a real, concrete difference.

Will things be clearer after presidential and parliamentary elections?
To put it bluntly, the influence of foreign powers is much more important than people think. In Al-Mashrek Al-Araby Wal Gharb (The Arab East and the West) and Keset Al-Iktesad Al-Masry (The Story of the Egyptian Economy), I wrote about how, over the last 200 years, the ups and downs of the Egyptian economy have been MAINLY a result of foreign interference. We may appear to be more independent now but really we are not.
There is one new development that offers optimism, and that is the Iranian nuclear deal which is likely to be good for us. Without going into details the deal is not in Israel’s interests. It represents a fundamental shift in American policy. There is a degree of clarification happening in the international arena and it is possibly to Egypt’s advantage. It opens up an opportunity for better decisions to be made by those at the top of the decision-making process, and for the Muslim Brotherhood to be dealt with more firmly. Qatar’s eclipse in regional politics will have a positive outcome. It has been playing a far from positive role.

Yet the message being fed to the public is that there is a foreign conspiracy against Egypt and that we must unite to face that. Are there not attempts to escape the yoke of foreign interference?  
How can this happen when no one admits that we are being played with? Without first acknowledging what is happening we cannot move on.

What qualities should the next president possess?
Egypt is full of good people. The president doesn’t have to possess superhuman qualities. He doesn’t have to be a genius. He should be intelligent, and feel the sufferings of the people. More importantly, he must be honest. He needs to be sincere in his desire to see Egypt progress, and be capable of establishing the right set of priorities.

What do you think of the prospect of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as president?
I haven’t seen much of how he operates so I can’t judge how his mind works. We need to see him more.
He became popular with the public because the public loathed the Muslim Brotherhood and he delivered them from the group. The people didn’t expect that the Brotherhood would be so easily removed.

How do you judge the performance of the Hazem Al-Beblawi government?
Al-Beblawi is an honest man who works for the people. Many of his ministers are as honest but Egypt is passing through a very difficult stage and the truth is Al-Beblawi doesn’t have much power.

How do you assess the state’s handling of the Brotherhood?
I don’t think the state is being sufficiently resolute.  Brotherhood violence is dragging the country into chaos.  

The government is accused of either being too harsh, with the new protest law being seen as a return to the police state, or else too lenient. What is the right approach?
I’ll tell you what the problem is. There is no real will to impose law and order. There was no need for the protest law in the first place. The penal code has articles enough to deal with the situation. It is not a question of new or old laws but of how the law is implemented. Is it applied strictly, consistently? The fact is it is not. This absence of consistency belies the lack of any real will to impose order.

Do you think Egypt is returning to the Mubarak-era police state?
There is no going back in time. The Mubarak era is finished for good. But I don’t think Egypt under Mubarak was a police state. At certain periods under Nasser it was.

Three years on from January 2011 protesters are still dying, investigations continue to be announced yet those responsible seem never to be brought to justice.
It takes a serious state to pursue investigations that will uncover who committed these crimes. Unless the people at the top have the will, nothing right will happen.  

Is there any reason to assume that Egypt’s economy will pick up?
Improving the economy — in terms of production, investment, tourism, everything — depends on imposing law and order. We will only be able to begin to escape the current economic mess when security and order prevail.
A journalist recently asked me about the ideal economic model Egypt should follow. I told him I couldn’t even think about his question. When you are in prison you don’t spend your time thinking about which restaurant you will go to. You don’t have the luxury to consider such issues.
I don’t blame those who are reluctant to go into details of what we should do. I take little interest in discussions of things like the minimum and maximum wage. There are other issues that are far more important. The main thing is to solve unemployment. Whatever level the minimum wage is fixed at will not be respected as long as there are queues of people ready to work for less.
When the land reform law was issued in 1952 everything went smoothly except for the issue of a minimum wage, and this was because there was VAST agricultural unemployment. What solved the problem then was Nasser’s development drive — industrialisation and projects like the High Dam. Talking up minimum wages is a sleight of hand, a trick used to keep people quiet. What is the point of setting a minimum wage when inflation is running at such a high rate?
Fixing a maximum wage is a joke. Some people can’t find money to eat while the maximum wage is LE42,000. Payments above are often not a result of real contributions to production. The state needs first to combat corruption to be able to apply a maximum wage fairly and even then it will be impossible to apply IT to the private sector.

Do you think the government is adopting such measures because the public demands immediate change while tackling corruption will take time? Meanwhile people want cheaper food and a butane gas cylinder...
The public is not stupid. They know when the government is serious and when it is not. Providing gas cylinders is important. The decision to give a meal to schoolchildren is also important. But if you don’t tackle corruption the meal will probably end up being two inedible biscuits.

Do you believe loans from the Gulf will help the Egyptian economy?
If you add up the loans from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait they are less than the $11.5 billion Egypt earned from tourism in 2010. And you have to pay loans back with interest. Until tourism flourishes again Gulf money will help, of course, but it will not get the economy out of the mess.

Partially lifting subsidies is likely to help, is it not?
We have been saying we have to reduce or abolish subsidies for the past 40 years. Yet successive governments shied away from doing this. They did not dare antagonise the public. They wanted to keep people calm so they could continue their corrupt practices.
The problems of income inequality and corruption must be tackled hand in hand with any reduction in subsidies. And the commodities on which subsidies are reduced must be chosen with care. Bread should be the last to be affected. People are ready to make sacrifices but only if they feel the state is not corrupt and on the right track.

So what really happened to the Egyptians? People seem to be becoming more violent and less moral. Have the revolutions brought out their best or worst?
Egyptians have been patient for years. I don’t like this expression “best or worst”. A more useful way to view what has happened is to do so in the context of declining law and order. Any population will become more violent as law and order decline. Add to this the deterioration in economic conditions and you have a breeding ground for conflict. The man or the woman who can’t find a gas cylinder and can’t get food for their children will feel anger, and anger feeds violence.
Violence is also a result of the political turmoil Egypt is passing through, partly encouraged from abroad and partly from within. The violence associated with the Rabaa sit-in was encouraged by a political group some of whose members were in prison before the revolution, and was fanned with the help of money from Qatar and elsewhere.
Nor can we forget the legacy of 30 years of Mubarak. Three decades in which many millions have grown up, unable to find a job. Look at the faces of people in the streets. They are desperate. Life doesn’t mean much to them. They spend all their time running after absolute basics.  
All this contributes to a climate of violence. To blame the revolutions is wrong, just as it would be wrong to argue that the revolutions brought out the very best in Egyptians. The revolution brought 30 years of economic decline and political agony and corruption to the fore. Add to this the catalogue of post-revolutionary failures, and what do you expect?

Some observers predict a third revolution...
I don’t think such predictions hold much water, not when people have passed through two revolutions already and seen how little has changed.

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