Friday, October 10, 2003

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By William Fisher

The sweeping political and social reforms recently proposed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his son and heir-apparent, Gamal, demonstrate how well these leaders can talk the talk. The unanswered question is: how well can they walk the walk?
For the past two decades, Egypt has lived under the so-called Emergency Law, which gives the government iron-fisted powers to choke free speech and assembly, limit press freedom, and arrest and detain people for long periods without charge or representation. The US State Department, while noting some recent improvement, continues to give the country failing grades in its annual Human Rights Report. Thus, the proposed reforms – in civil liberties, education, transportation, population, urban planning, health, women’s issues, private sector strengthening, and a host of other as yet undefined changes – are radical indeed. They would transform the Mubaraks’ National Democratic Party (NDP), from an unelected and unaccountable dinosaur to a caring, representative and inclusive paragon of prosperity and equal rights.
Speaking on the opening day of the National Democratic Party's annual congress, Gamal Mubarak did not, however, spell out how far the party should go in opening up the political process. “The time has come to say that human rights include political and economic rights,'' said the younger Mubarak. ``If we do not consolidate the concept of (political) participation, we cannot solve the problems ahead.''
But many Egyptians and others in the Arab Middle East are skeptical, including officials of the NDP. Said Conference Delegate Hamdi Handel: “The problem is there is a big difference between words and reality.” The skeptics have good reason. Their reaction: “been there, (not) done that”.

Over the past 40 years, authoritarian, mostly one-party Arab governments in the Middle East have mastered the vocabularies of the rich donor countries upon whose generosity they depend. During the 1970s and 80s, they adopted the lexicon of their oil-rich neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula. Later, they embraced the goals of Japanese and European donors. Today, the rhetoric in Egypt is strictly ‘made in the USA’: reform, democracy and peace. And the volume has been turned up by the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the Ba’athist Party. America gives Egypt more than a billion dollars a year in grants.

Egypt’s political power structure has ample cause to seek an image-change, but cosmetics won’t be nearly enough. In the 2000 elections, the NDP won fewer seats in the largely rubber-stamp Parliament than ever before in its history (though it still retains a large majority). A recent World Bank study warns that poverty is rising again, after falling from 23 percent in 1995 to 17 percent in 2000. Today, economists estimate that 40 per cent of Egyptians could be living below the poverty line. The economy continues to be in free-fall. Unemployment is the highest it has been in many years, even for university graduates who are willing to bribe officials to get jobs as manual laborers. Egypt’s system of free higher education only exacerbates this problem. Corruption and ‘crony capitalism’ are still rampant. The State inefficiently continues to own and operate many basic industries. The country’s infrastructure, notably the roads, ports and other facilities that would help the private sector to increase exports, either never existed, are unaffordable, or are in a serious state of disrepair. The Government drags its feet on the issue of removing policy and regulatory constraints to private sector growth. The World Bank and the IMF are recommending that the country reform its antiquated investment, taxation and financial policies. And opposition parties are reportedly planning a nationwide campaign to urge the Mubarak government to adopt reforms such as amending the Constitution, holding general presidential elections, and easing restrictions on forming political parties or publishing newspapers.

A recent World Bank study, ‘Better Governance for Development in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) Region’, holds one of the keys to actually seeing implementation of any of the proposed reforms. The study posits that good governance rests on two pillars: inclusiveness and accountability. Inclusiveness based on equality, it says, “protects people’s basic rights, treating everyone uniformly before the law, allowing all to participate in governance, and assuring equal opportunities to access public services.” Accountability depends on public transparency. The Bank notes that these characteristics are lower in the MENA region than in others at similar levels of income. And certainly in Egypt, both inclusiveness and transparency have been in pitifully short supply for a very long time.

While most of us abhor the excesses of American politics, we do have at least one lesson that could help the rest of the world: if you aspire to be a change-agent, you need to get out on the road, talk to ordinary people about their needs and fears, start a public discussion, and reach a consensus. That kind of process is virtually unknown in Egypt. But intra-party dialogue won’t do the trick because in Egypt the pronouncements of party politicians are even less credible than they are here at home. Sustainable change needs to grow from the grassroots; it cannot be imposed from above.

The willingness of the Mubarak machine to talk with rather than at ordinary Egyptians, and to embrace the notions of inclusiveness, transparency and accountability, will be the litmus test of whether real reform in this gifted country can even begin. A good first step – already known to be a major public desire --would be to amend the Emergency Law so that it targets terrorists, not ordinary law-abiding Egyptians.

The writer lived in and traveled to Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa for a number of years while managing donor projects for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development.