Monday, May 19, 2008

Egypt's 'Smart' Government: Language vs. Rhetoric

Throughout history, even the most dishonorable deeds have been supplemented with assertions of noble intent and devotion to humanity and freedom. Hitler. Pol Pot and George W. Bush propagated the nobility of their 'sacred missions' and 'services to civilization', against the backdrop of mass killings, misery and devastation.

In Egypt, state propaganda is pervasive. Beautifying ugly realities, distorting truths and fabricating lies of all sorts is the routine job of state officials and the gigantic media apparatus they control. For example, last month, the National Democratic Party's Secretary-General, Safwat Al-Sharif, proudly declared "a big and honorable win" by the candidates of the party in the municipal elections.

That the elections were rigged, regime critics detained and thousands of independent candidates blocked from running in the contest is not really relevant to Al-Sharif and his cohorts, and does not make the elections any less "honorable". To decipher the official discourse, clearly, the golden rule is: "war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength," as George Orwell shrewdly depicted the propaganda machine of totalitarian states in his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. Terms like 'democracy', 'reform' and 'freedom' are likewise prevalent, indicating however - or maybe therefore - their sheer absence.

Amidst such manipulations, which aim, in the final analysis, at dulling peoples' mental faculties, revisiting the dictionary remains an advisable trip. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, four meanings are assigned to the adjective 'stupid': 1) slow to learn or understand; 2) tending to make poor decisions; 3) marked by a lack of intelligence; 4) dazed, or stunned.

Having this definition in mind, one can turn to the heated controversy of the government's handling of exporting natural gas to Israel. According to the $2.5 billion deal signed in April 2005, Egypt would supply Israel with 1.7 million cubic meters of liquefied natural gas over a period of 15 years, at a fixed price of $1.5/million British Thermal Unit (BTU). The massive supply would generate one fifth of Israel's electricity in the coming decade.

To start with, conflating a long-term deal with a fixed price was not the brightest strategy. The Egyptian government failed to notice that "once you sign a long-term contract, the producer is in a losing position," as the Algerian Energy & Mines Minister told the Wall Street Journal last month. Moreover, Egypt is incurring pure loses since the actual cost of production, experts contend, ranges from $2.6-3/BTU. As one commentator lamented, "instead of subsidizing bread for the needy, the government decided to use its natural resources to subsidize Israeli citizens".

In a meeting with the Industry and Energy Committee at the Shura Council, Minister of Petroleum, Sameh Fahmy, regretted, indeed, the "poor decision" of expansively exporting Egyptian gas in the last years when international prices were considerably low. To the credit of the government's 'smart' negotiators, the Israeli deal is luckily a minor mistake that, according to some estimates, would deprive the national budget of just 10 billion pounds, a scant figure in light of the vast wealth of Egypt, whose public debts amount to LE591 billion, external debts estimated at $30 billion, and who suffers from a chronic - and growing - imbalance of trade that exceeded $15 billion in the fiscal year 2006/2007, the largest ever. The provisions of the gas deal were, to say the least, "marked by a lack of intelligence".

In addition, the Egyptian government was "slow to learn" that the rapid rise of crude oil prices led to a similar upsurge in the prices of gas in international markets, which more than doubled in the last three years. Current demand/supply imbalances are likely to exacerbate the problem. For instance, the price of recent Russian exports to Ukraine has exceeded $9/million BTU.

Questions raised in the print press about the favorable treatment of Israel fell on deaf ears; the government and the Ministry of Petroleum offered no explanations. In the People's Assembly, an independent MP made a similar inquiry in the presence of Fahmy, who - not incidentally, one can assume - was "stunned," and failed to come up with any answer. After minutes of quiet deliberation with Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Mufid Shehab, the allegedly number one expert on Egypt's natural resources who approved the multi-billion dollar deal requested a respite to come up with "the right statistics" on the issue at hand, eliciting a sarcastic applause on the part of independent and Muslim Brotherhood members.

The following day, Shehab - the 'devil's faithful advocate' in the eyes of many columnists - came up with a couple of genius answers that proved the waiting of people's representatives worthwhile. The first was that prices are "confidential" and "could only be revealed by the approval of both parties". And the second was that the Egyptian government provides gas to Israel via a third party (an Egyptian-Israeli consortium), which means, technically speaking, that it is not the exporting party, something that renders it immune from the nosey scrutiny of parliamentarians.

A wave of sarcasm ensued. An MP thought the poor pretexts would not be articulated in slapdash coffee shop chitchats; "nor in a ghurza (place where drug-addicts meet and smoke)", the head of Parliament, Fathy Soroor, jokingly consented. Doubtless, the farcical performance guaranteed the audience lots of fun, diluted however by fury and bitterness.

The current Egyptian government has repeatedly associated itself with smartness; its chief resides in the 'smart village', it boasts about the smart e-government schemes it introduced, advocates the issuance of 'intelligent' social solidarity cards, inaugurates what it calls 'smart schools', and promises smart scientific approaches to current problems that will take Egypt swiftly into the twenty-first century. That’s another reason for Safwat Al-Sharif to feel proud.

Orwell must be giggling in his grave.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily news (Egypt) on May 19, 2008.

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