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Getting in the way: politics and doing business in Egypt

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Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros

“If it bleeds, it leads.” That news industry fundamental is Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou’s October 7 morning business challenge. The leading stories by news agencies all over the world about the clashes that erupted in Cairo and other parts of Egypt on 6 October, Armed Forces Day, make his job more difficult. The repeated stories of violence hurt businesses (small and large) and labour (formal and informal) in his sector. They perpetuate the sector’s stalled contribution to the economy. As, once again, the fight for ‘political justice’ sacrifices steps needed to move towards more economic justice. The strategy of choice: getting in the way. The sad irony: it is an excellent strategy to perpetuate economic injustices.

Getting in the way is a top strategy in Egypt. And a well rewarded one in economic transactions. The idea is to get in the way until someone pays you to get out of the way. It’s really remarkable how successfully this strategy works in such a wide number of situations. You have imported goods that you need for your business? The customs officer is happy to allow those goods to sit under his supervision. You have wheat sitting in a port? The port worker is only more than happy to let that wheat rot on the premises. You want your children to advance to the next grade level or to learn in school? Well, someone at the local public school will ensure that does not happen with only the services offered at the school. It’s like the default setting is: getting in the way.

 

Getting in the way politics

Then it comes as no surprise that getting in the way is a strategy also used in the political arena. Here, again, it’s remarkable the versatility of situations where this strategy is chosen as the best option. We have watched this play out over and over. Demands are made and unfulfilled, and people and resources are mobilized to get in the way, quite literally at times. This has successfully prevented the use of streets, bridges and even trains. Downtown Cairo is a fortress of blocked vital streets, for instance. Courts, ministries, agencies and syndicates have all been blocked at some time or another. Time and time again, the chosen strategy is to get in the way.

Unlike with business transactions, however, I would argue that getting in the way has not worked out quite as well in politics. It has worked out at times. Some have certainly amassed and obstructed and have reaped rewards from it. And certainly, amassing for protest is an important thing that I am not arguing against, at least not in principle. Please do not misunderstand me. What I am questioning is the usefulness of getting in the way as the best strategy. And I am also questioning how often it is used as a best option among other possible strategies.

The 6 October events are all about getting in the way. The army and police made sure, as they have week after week in recent times, pro-Muslim Brotherhood marches did not get to important locations by physically getting in the way. Some could argue that the group’s own marches on 6 October were an effort to interfere with the celebrations of Armed Forces Day, putting aside the issue of whether they are justified in doing so or not. Local neighbourhood residents have also shown their willingness to get in the way of these marches in reaching their intended destinations. What happened on 6 October was the replaying of these strategies by these various players, ones that have been playing over and over for some time now, but with more emotion and thus, with more damage.

The successes of these strategies in politics do continue to come at high costs to us all, and in some cases are counter-productive. Yes, to some degree, all of these actors have had some success in meeting their goals. Sit-ins have not been re-established in Cairo, for instance. But neither have the levels of political and social stability that Egyptians want or need. The country continues to see injury and death. Small steps are being taken forwards (and backwards) but no player is reaching its ultimate goal. Getting in the way of the other, literally and figuratively, has been counter-productive to us all. Not to mention that the population has such protest fatigue, that calls about issues might be heard by more sympathetic ears if marches and protests didn’t get so much in the way of every day normal life.

Politics getting in the way of the economy

What worries me is that politics is again getting in the way of the economy, and not efficiently. Everyone sees that. Ultimately, getting in the way is not a terribly good economic solution either, but at least it works. Say, you have my goods in customs and I need them. You want more money, either because your pay is ridiculous or you just want more money. So I pay you to release my goods to me. Companies in Egypt spend non-trivial sums on fixers and payments as a regular part of doing business. It’s not a great solution. I would rather the problem just be fixed so that I can claim my goods without payment. But at least at the end of the day, I get them. It’s not that I will continually pay you and you will continually get in the way and I will never get my stuff. At least that’s not how it works in the strictly economic transaction. In politics, getting in the way is a strategy that can leave all involved with no gains. The issue is that these strategies are also getting very much in the way of the economy.

And that’s really bad news for Minister Zaazou and all the Egyptian workers and business in tourism. Through hard work and strategy, the Minister has convinced foreign governments to help encourage the return of tourism to Egypt, despite the continuing clashes. Thirteen countries have lifted and reduced their travel bans to the Red Sea and South Sinai beach resorts. Austria and Ireland were the latest two. Many countries issued strong travel warnings and bans after the clashes that erupted following 14 August.  Some tourists have finally returned to the beach resorts, although international tourist arrivals are still significantly down and the sector has suffered about $1bn in losses since July.

“We have waited until there were signs of security in the streets, and then we started to visit the countries to explain the situation and convince them to lift the travel alerts,” explained Minister Zaazou. He made use of independently issued reports on the current security situation, which probably help allay concerns foreign officials have about the safety of their citizens in Egypt. No doubt, his job has, again, been made more difficult. And while the clashes on 6 October may not have directly affected the security situation at Egypt’s beaches, it certainly does not make selling tourism to Egypt any easier. It also delays even further the return of tourists to Egypt’s historical treasures in Cairo, Alexandria, and the southern Nile route between Aswan and Luxor.

The irony of this all: this political getting in the way makes economic justice that much more of a distant goal. The clashes happen close enough to the tourist spots that are the more profitable and employ a significant share of the sector’s employees. They are also largely informal labour with basically no protection during economic downturns, like the current economic crisis. The clashes, and the politics that cause them, continue to move the livelihoods of these Egyptians from difficult to impossible, and any forms of economic justice a far off fantasy. Sure, a main strategy of politics, in Egypt and elsewhere, will always include getting in the way. Look at the United States, where congressmen would rather shut down the government with financial losses to workers, businesses and the entire economy. It’s a strategy used in politics. My own take is that it may not be the best strategy and it may be over-used in Egypt.

About the author

Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros


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