Monday, April 14, 2008

Egyptian tremors

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turns 80 next month. He assumed power 26 years ago, after Islamists assassinated Anwar Sadat for having made peace with Israel.

Egypt's political system remains weak on legitimacy. The liberal opposition, led by the Democratic Front Party, is in disarray. A leading reformist critic of the regime, Ayman Nour, is imprisoned.

Egyptians mostly ignored the April 8 local elections to fill 52,000 places on municipal and village councils. Seventy percent of the seats were earmarked for Mubarak's National Democratic Party because they were "uncontested." Mubarak's son, Gamal, happens to head the NDP.
Recalling the failed policies of the Shah of Iran, Mubarak has defeated the non-Islamist opposition, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the only credible voice of reform. This is the same toxic movement, founded in 1928, whose world-view spawned al-Qaida and Hamas. It wants Shari'a law imposed in Egypt and relations with Israel broken off. Prudently, the Brotherhood eschews violent revolution, patiently waiting for power to fall into its hands. Despite Mubarak's machinations, Brotherhood-supported "independent" candidates captured 20% of the 454-seat parliament.

Mubarak has stayed in power by making an implicit contract with Egypt's masses: We provide food, you keep your noses out of politics. That deal is now fraying.

Egypt is a vast country of some 76 million people, of whom 53% are under 24. Hope and economic prospects are in short supply; religion, however, is bountiful. Mosques are everywhere (one for every 745 people). Most women in Cairo, once a cosmopolitan city, now cover their hair.
Globalization, worldwide economic factors, even climate change have all conspired to make the temporal lives of average Egyptians more difficult. In recent weeks, labor and food riots have broken out in the Nile Delta industrial city of Mahallah-Al-Kobra. Two protesters were killed, 100 wounded and over 300 arrested. Opponents organized protests, using text messaging and even Web-based social networks to circumvent the state-controlled media. A nationwide one-day strike had been planned, but was ultimately stymied by the authorities.

Fearing the spread of rioting, Mubarak dispatched Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to meet with workers at the state-owned weaving factory in Mahallah, which employs 25,000 people, and where the average monthly salary is $34. And to appease the local opposition, Nazif granted it 15 seats in the municipal government.

Six people have died since March waiting on bread lines, either from exhaustion or because frustration led to fighting. A piece of bread costs 5 piasters - about a US penny. Thirty million Egyptians depend on subsidized bread under a scheme that is riddled with corruption. Forty percent of Egyptians live under the $2-a-day poverty line.

As an emergency measure Mubarak ordered the army to start baking bread.

Amr Elshobaki of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told The Washington Post last week that "The mood of the people is angry. I think it's near collapse, the state."
To address the larger crisis, the regime has halted the export of rice and cement for the next six months and continues to impose price controls on a wide range of commodities. Food is subsidized at a staggering $13.7 billion annually.

Not everyone is suffering. The disparity between rich and poor is immense. Sales of some luxury cars are up 20 percent. The economy has grown 7%. The Cairo and Alexandria stock exchanges are up 40%. Foreign investment has surged to $11 billion. Egypt's international reserves stand at $30 billion; foreign debt is $7.8 billion. Thousands of new companies are established every year. For its part, Washington contributes $1.3 billion in military aid and a paltry $200 million in economic assistance. More constructively, however, annual trade with the US stands at $8 billion.

How well the regime feeds, clothes and employs its population, how swiftly it creates a civil society and system of representative government should be of foremost concern to Israel.

Mubarak is mistaken in emasculating the moderate opposition, misguided in trying to "out-Islam" the Brotherhood by persecuting homosexuals. He is wide off the mark in allowing Egypt's media to demonize Jews and Israel. It took him too long to realize that letting Hamas bleed Israel was ultimately not in Cairo's interest.

But we who have an interest in a stable and flourishing Egypt understand the enormity of the challenges Mubarak faces. May he continue to enjoy good health, and be blessed with better judgment.

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