Unlike those who cheered the collapse of ’s former government I had serious doubts about the country’s future. It was uplifting to witness young people ready to sacrifice their lives for their convictions. However, while I hoped for a happy ending for the sake of this nation close to the heart of every Arab, I’m also a realist. Idealism alone cannot solve ’s fundamental problems which have worsened since President Mubarak’s downfall.
On Monday, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces warned the economy could collapse. “The poverty rate is approaching 70 percent and domestic and foreign debt has reached 1080 billion pounds, which is 90 percent of GDP,” said the Assistant Defense Minister for Financial Affairs Mahmoud Nasr. Moreover, there is zero foreign investment largely because the country has been downgraded as “risky”.
Mr. Nasr said tourism is down 80 percent causing losses of US$40 million a day. The foreign currency reserve has been reduced by US$ 8 billion, there is a burgeoning budget deficit – and growth won’t exceed two percent.
The reasons he gives for this grave downturn are mixed. They include corruption, declining social values, poor education and worsened relations between the public and law enforcement. But, all is not lost, he says, as the economy’s infrastructure remains. His panacea for improvement rests on “true democracy”, eradicating corruption and the creation of a stable investment climate. Those are fine aspirations but how can they be fulfilled while 70 percent of Egyptians worry where their next meal is coming from?
The extent of the emergency hasn’t hit home yet, but I predict that when it does there will a revolution of the hungry - at this rate within three months - on the lines of the 1977 ‘Bread Riots’ when millions took to the streets shouting “The people are starving”. Last month saw rising food and beverage prices (up 21.7 percent on last year) due to the high cost of fuel and a weakening of the currency making imports more expensive.
It seems to me that the caretaker government needs to get its priorities in order. It is one thing to be open to the concerns of the street and quite another to be its slave. When people don’t have jobs and can’t afford to educate their kids, ‘democracy’ rings hollow.
The first thing that should be done is for the interim government to get a grip on internal security. My friends in tell me people are afraid to go late at night for fear of being robbed or kidnapped for ransom which wasn’t the case before the . Young men on previously banned motorbikes are snatching handbags and thugs are extorting cash from motorists by threatening to damage their cars.
Then there is the growing rift between Muslims and Copts that spiraled out of control last month in Upper and again earlier this month when sectarian violence left 12 dead and over 200 injured in one of Cairo’s poorest areas where, until recently, Copts and Muslims lived together peacefully.
Instead of pandering to the people’s lust for revenge by jailing politicians and businessmen, the military should institute a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation commission and then, once they’ve admitted their mistakes, draw upon their experience and expertise to put the country to rights.
Those currently in charge may be worthy individuals but they are mostly political novices. Furthermore, locking-up high profile business people representing the country’s backbone is destroying confidence. Their wealth will disappear abroad, their companies will falter and what message does their incarceration send to potential investors?
I admire the efforts of ’s former leader Jamal Abdul Nasser to unify the Arab world but his greatest error was to persecute the rich, expropriate their lands and factories and drive them from the country; a mistake that has never completely recovered from.
Watching ’s economy freefalling amid strikes, protests and lawlessness I can’t help wondering whether the was truly grassroots and spontaneous. Or whether some of the young leaders of the April 6th and January 25th movements were, indeed, funded and trained by big powers eager to see brought to its knees to suit their own geopolitical agendas, as certain US newspapers have suggested.
If the Mother of the Arab World is reduced to a shell by poverty, sectarian violence or civil war or carved up like Sudan to allow for a separate Christian mini-state, the entire Arab world will be traumatized – and the powers that be in Israel and Iran will be rubbing their hands with glee.
There must be wise people in who see disaster on the horizon if action isn’t taken now to get things under control. Those people must be courageous enough to dampen unrealistic revolutionary fervor with a dose of tough love. They must not allow chants of “the people want…” to drown out hard reality. There’s still time. I can only pray that influential Egyptians will make good use of it before it’s too late.