By Khaled Diab
With the right leadership, Egypt could rid itself of nepotism and inequality to become a prosperous and egalitarian society.
22 January 2010
While in most countries, even the most democratic, becoming president or prime minister is a far-fetched dream for almost everyone, in Egypt, the prospect exists mostly in the realm of fantasy. In the six or so decades since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has had just four leaders, none of whom were elected – at least not in free and fair elections.
The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the top seat for the past three decades or so. This means that the majority of Egyptians, given the country's ‘youth bulge', have known no other leader.
Next year, Mubarak's current term will end and, given his age and health, most Egyptians don't expect him to seek a sixth term. Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011, fear terrible instability and disruption, and some might even settle for ‘business as usual‘ in the form of Mubarak's son, Gamal – at least for a few years.
Reform-minded Egyptians hope that Mubarak will step aside honourably and take the unprecedented step of calling free and fair elections to find a replacement. The most popular potential candidate at the moment is former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, despite the fact that he has lived and worked outside Egypt for decades.
ElBaradei's popularity is not only a sign of his international standing but also indicates the Egyptian regime's unofficial policy of engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. Personally, I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm, though I doubt that Islamists are ready in the wings to take over. Nevertheless, I cannot help but hold out hope that 2011 will mark the birth of true Egyptian democracy.
This dream has got me contemplating, although I've never entertained political ambitions, what changes I would instigate if I were president. Since I stand about as much chance of being elected to that office as I have of being teleported to Mars, I don't have to limit myself to the realm of the possible and pragmatic and can let my imagination run loose. Surveying the troubled and dysfunctional typography of Egypt's society and economy, one is sadly spoilt for choice as to where to begin.
Upon taking office, and to avoid the temptations of power that have led so many initially well-meaning Egyptian leaders astray, I would probably begin with strengthening and shoring up Egypt's institutions, from the parliament to the judiciary, to ensure an effective separation and balance of powers. But top-down reforms can, at best, only play the role of a catalyst, and not bring about lasting change in themselves. In order to harness Egypt's massive grassroots potential, I would end the culture of fear and intimidation – at least, the state-sponsored side of this – that keeps Egyptians down.
I would strive to remove all the unconstitutional and undemocratic laws, such as those hindering freedom of expression and conscience, and dismantle Egypt's enormous police and state security apparatus.
In order to counteract and reverse growing religious fundamentalism and communal strife I would dig up the roots, rather than chop violently away at the outgrowth. A fish rots from the head down, so it is important to launch a serious campaign to root out corruption, first from the highest echelons of society.
More generally, it is essential to challenge the widespread practice of wasta – which permeates all levels of society and causes widespread cynicism and disenchantment – by strictly enforcing the rule of law, without making exceptions for the well-connected. This will be no mean feat, given how deeply ingrained the notion is, but if Egypt is to become a true meritocracy it is a crucial battle that must be won.
Then there's the economy, which is often erroneously viewed as somehow separate from society. Seeking political and social justice is meaningless if their economic counterpart continues to be denied – in fact, rather than more growth, Egypt needs more economic justice. Egypt's economy needs not only to continue to develop, but to do so sustainably and equitably.
In a country where economic inequality has grown to chronic proportions, the chasm between the have-alls and the have-nots needs desperately to be bridged. This should be done through a fair, effective and enforced progressive taxation system, as well as the reinstatement and further development of the country's dismantled social safety net and concerted government investment directed at stimulating Egypt's impoverished rural hinterland and neglected south.
This requires not just internal reform but also a revamping of the global economic system to make it fairer for developing countries. In addition, the strong arm with which the US-led west imposes its hegemony could foil such efforts if my “pinko” reforms are deemed somehow to be antagonist to US interests in the region.
In parallel with promoting economic justice, competitiveness also needs to be stimulated in order to generate the necessary wealth to boost everyone's wellbeing. This requires robust and enforceable regulations that level out the economic playing field and weed out the de facto monopolies and cartels that plague the Egyptian economy, as well as reforming the country's bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.
One reason why superstition reigns and people hark back to a mythical and glorious past is because they feel they lack a future. To give the coming generations a sense of purpose and to allow current generations to build a better future, I would slash military spending and abolish conscription, then use the released resources to invest heavily in education and scientific research.
Of course, I realise that my vision is but a dream untainted by political realities. Even a well-meaning, democratically elected president would have his or her work cut out simply steering Egypt away from the rocks towards which it is currently heading. The kind of transformation I dream of cannot be implemented by any one leader but will take generations of patient and careful change. But with the right political and civil leadership, Egypt can reinvent itself as a prosperous, modern and egalitarian society.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 17 January 2010. Read the related discussion.