Sisi’s fridge and Egypt’s frosty economy

 
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By Khaled Diab

A gaffe by Egypt’s president about his refrigerator reveals just how much Egyptians have cooled towards Sisi and his chilling economics.

A sneak peak inside Sisi's fridge.

A sneak peak inside Sisi’s fridge.

Monday 7 November 2016

You could say that Egypt has had its very own Watergate. But unlike its American counterpart, this was not about tapes and spying and political scandal, but about water and a refrigerator and a scandalised social media.

At the first National Youth Conference in the upmarket resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi demonstrated to young Egyptians how he was “one of you” by informing them that, despite being the son of a wealthy merchant, “I lived for 10 years with nothing but water in my fridge.”

To many Egyptians, an empty refrigerator is a sign of affluence, as it could well indicate that its owner is well-off enough to eat out or order in. Besides, when Sisi was young, fridges were luxuries and so possessing one only to chill water would have struck many of his contemporaries as an extravagance they could ill afford.

But this is obviously not what Sisi intended. The president’s comments sought to inspire young Egyptians to aspire to achieve great things for themselves and their country through “self-esteem” and “independence”. But rather than motivating citizens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and tighten their belts – with the poor doing the majority of the tightening – his comments caused social media to erupt in guffaws of laughter.

Like his two predecessors, Sisi is prone to making memorable gaffes and Egyptians, who use humour to shield themselves against the unbearable tightness of seeing their country fall apart, mock such pompous soundbites bitingly.

One wit on Twitter likened the Egyptian president to Sponge Bob because he could survive on a diet of water. Employing the “one careful owner” format of advertising, another user pretended to sell a refrigerator on Twitter which, he said, had been owned by the “doctor of philosophers”.

This is a far cry from the Sisi-mania which gripped millions of Egyptians when the former general ousted his unpopular predecessor Mohamed Morsi, who is still languishing behind bars on trumped up charges. Sisi’s initial appeal was constructed on a studied mystique of impenetrable silence, an illusion which was quickly shattered by his increasingly eccentric and unfathomable pronouncements.

The initial enthusiasm of many Egyptians to this self-appointed leader whom they believed would be a strongman who could steer Egypt to safety and security has given way to growing unease, alarm and opposition to Sisi’s repressive, arbitrary and increasingly erratic model of governance.

Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and secular activists, including many of the leaders of the 2011 revolution, are in prison, while freedom of expression and assembly have been seriously curtailed.

Beyond authoritarianism and oppression, there is the economic bottomline. Exhausted by the upheavals of revolutionary change and counterrevolutionary inertia, many Egyptians were willing to turn a blind eye to Sisi’s myriad abuses and brutality, buoyed by his pledge of security, stability and, above all, prosperity.

Instead, the economy has continued to nosedive, as reflected in the devaluation, and the subsequent floating, of the Egyptian pound and the shortage of hard currency which has seen the dollar exceed 16LE on the black market. This highlight both Egypt’s economic ill-health and the unfairness of the global trading system, based as it is on “reserve currencies”, which can easily cause a crisis in smaller economies to spin into a catastrophe.

Of course, not all of this is Sisi’s fault. Like Morsi before him, Sisi inherited a poisoned chalice from the three decades of Mubarak excess and mismanagement – cloaked in neo-liberal hocus-pocus which gave the illusion of growth even while the economy tanked and wealth was concentrated in ever-fewer hands.

In addition, the negative feedback of Egypt’s various crises, especially terrorism and insurgency, has led to the drying up of many of its main exports, most notably tourism, the levels of which have hit record lows.

However, Sisi has made matters considerably worse. In fact, it is hard to imagine a less productive path out of Egypt’s economic malaise than that pursued by the current president. Instead of focusing on bread-and-butter sectors, getting the wheel of industry turning or addressing Egypt’s numerous social and environmental challenges, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has spent his presidency herding white elephants, including the aborted idea of building a new capital city.

Sisi’s first mega-project, the widening of the iconic Suez Canal was bound to run into dire straits. Even I, no clairvoyant or expert, predicted as much. In its first year of operations, revenues from the expanded canal remained largely stagnant. Billions are also being wasted on a nuclear power white elephant, when the resources could be better channelled into more effective means to shore up Egypt’s energy shortage.

The president’s difficulties are being exacerbated by the gradual shrinking of Arab assistance. Although Egypt has relied on foreign aid to varying degrees since the Free Officers came to power in 1952, the years since the 2011 revolution have seen Egypt receive an unprecedented flow of aid from the Gulf allies of the moment, with inevitable strings attached. However, tumbling oil prices and Egypt’s wish to steer an independent course from its allies is leading to the drying up of this source.

After years of faltering on the edge of the abyss, I fear that Egypt’s economy is close to freefall. For the sake the country, I hope Sisi and his government have some real ideas about how to bring Egypt back from the brink.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 31 October 2016.

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Tis the season to be sociable

 
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By Khaled Diab

The British are famously reserved, but so are the Belgians. Let’s break the ice and make the public sphere more friendly.

30 December 2009

On a wintry commuter train, I sat immersed in a short story by the English dandy and essayist Max Beerbohm in which two Englishmen convalescing from the flu by the sea astutely avoid any communications with each other beyond a cursory nod of recognition.

“Anywhere but in England it would be impossible for two solitary men … to spend five or six days in the same hostel and not exchange a single word,” Beerbohm observes.

Despite the massive changes that have occurred in British society since Beerbohm wrote these words, “reserve” remains something of a byword. For example, it is no accident that, in English, getting to know someone is painfully known as “breaking the ice”, as if strangers and new acquaintances were stranded on a social iceberg in the middle of the ocean.

Nevertheless, looking around the carriage, where the vast majority of commuters have concealed their eyes behind the veil of a book or newspaper, their ears behind a wall of music, or have drawn the blanket of sleep between themselves and their fellow passengers, I begged to differ with Beerbohm.

Here in Belgium, “Belgian reserve” would give its English counterpart a serious run for its money. In Beerbohm’s England, people might spend days at a hotel without exchanging a single word; in the Belgium I know, people can spend years taking the same train and remain oblivious to one another.

I became a commuter when I moved to Ghent, but continued to work in Brussels, some four and a half years ago. During that time, I’ve become visually acquainted with a fair number of regular commuters on the same line.

Come rain or shine, sleet or snow, wintry darkness or summery light, we all exhibit an exemplary level of decorum. Even the most eccentric – such as the passenger my wife and I call Newspaper Man because of his habit of gathering up all the abandoned papers on his trip home – elicit no reaction.

While some will exchange a nod or a smile of recognition, others will go to the extraordinary lengths of pretending they are not even aware of one another’s mutual existence, like blank-, or bleary-eyed automatons on the office conveyor belt. But even among this breed I occasionally spot signs of recognition, if not in their eyes then at least in their actions.

One man is so professional at blanking out his fellow commuters that the busy platform he stands on may as well be occupied by phantoms took the unprecedented step of keeping the tram door open for me when he noticed me sprinting to catch it. When I turned to him and smiled with gratitude, he looked so excruciatingly uncomfortable that I vowed to do him the favour of never again acknowledging him.

That’s not to say there is no spontaneity in public. People do sometimes engage one another in spontaneous conversation in cafes and bars, and even on trains, especially in the summer – one enduring friendship was even sparked by a book I was reading on sexual ethics in Islam. But the occasions are rare enough to be memorable.

Even though I’ve lived here for more than eight years, the extremes to which people go to maintain their privacy and that of others still fascinate and baffle me.

The situation couldn’t be more different in Egypt, which largely occupies the opposite extreme on the privacy and reserve spectrum – though in certain respects, such as interactions between the sexes, Egypt is more private.

In bustling Cairo, a spontaneous social encounter is waiting and impatiently kicking its heels around every corner. Though Egyptians are getting more private and the level of reserve rises with social class, it is difficult to pass a day – often even a few hours – without a friendly interaction with strangers, from cabbies to fellow passengers.

In fact bring together any number of Egyptians for more than half an hour in one place and they’re likely to start chatting happily to while away the minutes. And the nature of that interaction differs, too. A cursory first encounter is quite often enough for Egyptians, if they warm to one another, to exchange phone numbers and agree to meet again.

The downside of this is that, in the dash, or even stampede, to be friendly and sociable, the intensity of the public sphere can be overwhelming and notions of privacy too often get ditched by the wayside.

To my mind, we need a happy medium between public introversion and extroversion – a sort of interversion. People should make an effort to make the public sphere more friendly and personal, but they should also respect one another’s privacy and be sensitive to other people’s personal space.

So, during this festive season, why not go out and exchange some friendly words with a stranger – preferably without the tongue-loosening catalyst of the seasonal spirits.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 22 December 2009. Read the related discussion.

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