Dateline Cairo: Can Egypt Fulfill Its Potential?
Is Egypt poised to finally overcome its decades of stagnation?
- Mubarak's time in power has stifled not only innovation in Egypt, but also the most basic of reforms.
- During this year's World Cup, a widely circulated cartoon showed Paul the Octopus choosing Egypt's next president: The "choices" were Hosni Mubarak and Hosni Mubarak.
- There are powerful undercurrents at work, most visible in the growing momentum behind presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.
- The young people I saw and spoke with are entrepreneurial, organized and ready to join and compete in a global middle class.
At the heart of Egypt's widespread malaise is the leadership, or lack thereof. During this year’s World Cup, a widely circulated cartoon showed Paul the Octopus choosing Egypt’s next president: The “choices” were Hosni Mubarak and Hosni Mubarak.
This time around, there may well be a choice in next year’s presidential elections. After all, the 82-year-old strongman is rumored to have been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer.
While no one can confirm this, what is clear is that Mubarak's time in power has stifled not only innovation in Egypt, but also the most basic of reforms. However, many of the individuals with whom I spent time told me that the “strongman view” was too simplistic — explaining instead that a 10,000-strong group of elite officials runs the country.
Regardless of which view is right, the results manifest themselves in surprising ways. Consider tourism, which is one of Egypt’s major industries. One would expect that major tourist destinations would be clean.
And yet, virtually without exception, there was litter strewn about every hotspot I visited, and the bathrooms looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned in ages. It was as though the message was: You came here to see the sights, not survey the grounds or inspect the bathrooms, so why bother taking care of them? A very "third world" attitude.
A similar kind of nonchalance extends to corruption. As our guides took us from place to place, I routinely observed tourist police being paid off by the omnipresent illegal vendors. I wasn’t surprised that this corruption was occurring. I was instead shocked that the police made little effort to conceal it from passersby.
It’s easy to come away with the impression of Egypt as stagnant, even incorrigible in some respects. But there are powerful undercurrents at work, most visible in the growing momentum behind presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize — and a passionate advocate of reform.
He has tapped into the power of Facebook and Twitter to capture the energy of young people, who make up 25% of the country’s population. Perhaps even more surprisingly, one of his major backers is the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that forms the largest opposition bloc in the government.
It claims to have collected some 100,000 signatures for his pro-reform statement, which calls for a set of reforms that would directly challenge the Mubarak monopoly on power.
It will be some time before we can assess with a degree of reliability whether ElBaradei has a real chance. Many say that he faces impossible odds because he doesn’t have the support of the military, whose members make up a healthy fraction of the 10,000-strong group mentioned above.
And yet, one can’t help but feel that the momentum around his campaign, driven in large part by Egypt’s young people, could be a harbinger of things to come. The young people I saw and spoke with are entrepreneurial, organized and ready to join and compete in a global middle class. Mubarak and his cronies might be able to beat them down in the short term, but not indefinitely.
If Egypt's youth can be motivated, focused and ambitious enough to change the culture of corruption, their country has a chance to rise as an economic power and lead reform efforts in the broader region.
Even if ElBaradei does not succeed, his followers' reform efforts may very well be aided by a "dynastic" succession from father Mubarak to son Mubarak. While a far-from-optimal outcome, that change is considered a significant improvement even by pro-democracy forces.
This is because the son and his team — already very active in the government in ministerial ranks — is bound to make a decisive leap forward in modernizing Egypt and breaking up outdated economic structures. While some of these reforms have been carried out already, much more can be done.
Despite the country's myriad problems, the sense of possibility in Egypt is reflected among the young people of Iran. An Iranian family I spent time with was upbeat and confident that, despite last year's brutal crackdown on the Green Movement, social and economic change would eventually transform their nation.
How wonderful it would be if Egypt could lead the way. With its population of 80 million, it certainly has enormous potential.