The gas bill collector cried at my door. He is not a young man but an Egyptian man in his mid-forties, who is a husband and a father. Culturally, men are not supposed to cry, but nevertheless, he did. He fought the tears in his eyes and the lump in his throat and lost. He cried. Living in Egypt today has become too much – too much anger, aggression, and violence with too little respect, honesty, kindness and humanity. I listened and tried to understand. What I understood was that he needed to see real changes and real reasons to have hope for a better tomorrow.
The problem is this: real changes and real reasons for hope don’t happen quickly. I hope the post-February 11, 2011 and post-July 3, 2013 realities have made that clear. Real changes and real reasons for hope come from lots of small changes and small reasons for hope. But ‘battle cries’ kill hope, daily. I believe they are cheap, easy, and often untrue. And if you can easily accept the post-presidential removal realities, you should also accept the pre-removal realities. People need hope.
Ask yourself whether these daily battle cries are legitimate and fair. Or are they more like old mantras, held onto with a bone-crushing grip and unbelievable stubbornness, no matter the amount of new, real facts presented? Have people been in battle for so long, screaming for anyone to listen about the injustice and inequity, that they simply cannot or will not see all of the relevant evidence to their own war?
I am talking about the battle cries that feed anger better than fuel on fire, robbing any clarity of mind to look at facts and evidence to really judge for ourselves what tomorrow will bring. The ones that wipe clean away the ability to think about the value and credibility of ‘expert opinions’ by preying on the strong emotions felt about the injustice and inequity all around us.
Where is the mental space for clear judgement in the daily barrage of battle cries? “There is still no transparency in government.”
“Education is the only solution and fixing this will take decades.”
“The Mubarak security state is back and any reform of the Ministry of Interior will take decades or will never happen.”
“The essence of democracy is to be part of decision-making and without it there is no democracy.”
“Egyptian workers are lazy and so Egypt can never prosper.”
“Egyptians will never change.”
Who can muster the energy to get out of bed in the morning? Because all together, these battle cries leave us with very little, if any, hope of anything at all. Taken all together they do very little more than paint a fantastic apocalyptic doom and gloom picture. And things are really bad, not yet apocalyptic, but in some cases dire. So it makes it just that much easier to believe these battle cries without consideration of facts. It makes all the easier to look past any new information or evidence. These battle cries kill hope even when it is reasonable to have a little. Please allow me to analyse two of my favourite battle cries I feel need updating.
There is still no transparency in government
Land deals under former President Hosni Mubarak were widely viewed as suspicious and often cited as top examples of corruption, as were the sales of state-owned enterprises. At the heart of both issues were the valuations of the lands and the companies. The battle cry goes something like this: there is no transparency in the dealings of government and without transparency, there will always be corruption and so we are doomed to a fate of nothing but corruption and injustice. Is this really true? Is this our fate? What if there were small changes in transparency, particularly among the most troubling issues like land sales or human rights? Would that be reason for small hope?
I am arguing there are. Recently, the Ministry of Finance re-evaluated 48.6 million square metres of land for sale to investors for the purpose of industrial development. In an official statement, Lofty Shendy, the head of Ministry’s Land Re-evaluation Committee, went on record saying, “These [land] prices are valid for 6 months only and if no investment developments occurred then they will be re-revaluated once again to ensure transparency and maintain the rights of the public treasury.” Similarly, as I have argued elsewhere, the reshuffling of the National Council on Human Rights to include people like Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a very vocal critic of the state’s past human rights abuses is also a sign of small changes towards transparency.
Neither gives reason to claim victory in the war for transparency in Egypt. Transparency of government is always an issue, for any country. And Egypt is among the world’s worst offenders. In fact, large, power-yielding organisations like the World Bank and the IMF have fought unsuccessfully for some time for transparency from previous Egyptian governments. Real change will take time. But there are small changes, more than just these two examples. In the meantime, could the ‘no transparency’ battle cry update to include new information?
The interim government has no plan for the economy
I must admit, as an economist, I really enjoy this one. Behind the concern for the stalled economy is the indictment of the failure of the new economic managers. The battle cry goes something like this: I don’t know what the new economic plan is, so they have yet to put together a plan for economic recovery; however, are they hiding behind vague reports on plans for the economy and so we have no hope for economic recovery and our future is doomed. Is this really true?
Again, I would argue there is evidence to signal the contrary. Within weeks of his appointment, the Minister of Finance, Ahmed Galal, announced that the economic recovery plan would be based on stimulus while trying to avoid austerity. He clearly stated there would be no tax increases or spending cuts. Unlike the previous governments, this one has stuck to these announcements. Government wages would not increase. This was welcomed given these were attempts by previous governments to silence powerful groups that provided little help to the majority, despite the irresponsible burden put on the public budget. A budget deficit target of 9% was set. There have been announcements on industrial zone upgrades and developments, including specific investment levels. The emphasis on industrialisation could be a powerful producer of jobs. The Central Bank of Egypt’s exceptional auction last week released much needed foreign currency to secure key imports and aid in liquidity. The official EGP:USD exchange rate was closer to the black market rate than in quite some time. To help those most in need in Egypt, food subsidies would remain while there was consideration of a conditional cash transfer for the poor. The latter is one of the most effective and efficient known ways to help the poor now, as well as future generations.
Here is the problem with economic plans: they are difficult for the average person to fully understand and judge. That does not mean a plan does not exist or that details have not been released. For one thing, the few details above are only a small piece of the very complicated and intertwined factors and dynamics that define economic recovery. We need to rely on ‘expert opinions’ and that is admittedly hard to do, especially with so many self-proclaimed experts these days. Who can we believe? For another, Egypt currently has a technocratic government. And what you get in an honest, technocratic approach, you often lose in communications and public relations, usually the forte of more ‘political’ governments. Communication issues aside, this is not an indictment that reasonably supports the battle cry that the government does not have a plan for the economy.
I do not have it. But I know the battle cries do not help. They distract, misinform or mislead, ultimately fuelling anger. They kill hope. These are the things that I believe brought Mohammed, my gas bill collector, to tears. I did not know the solution. But I am very convinced that the battle cries need to stop. I believe people need hope. And I see facts as an important part of the solution. Both can be powerful forces for change in Egypt. We have seen two presidents removed in the fight for hope for a better tomorrow. I would love to see how facts could add more for a better tomorrow.