Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Challenges of Tomorrow's Egypt

A close look at the writings of Egyptian intellectuals shows that most of them are so immensely consumed by contemporary problems that they lose sight of the challenges of tomorrow's Egypt. The current transgressions of Mubarak's authoritarian regime are, indeed, onerous and hard to escape. However, Mubarak's phase in Egyptian politics is approaching its end, and the future of the political system is pregnant with uncertainty.

The nature of the 'new leadership' notwithstanding, it would have to deal with a number of underlying problems that have several aspects in common: 1) if not properly addressed, these problems will exacerbate in the future, turning into fully-fledged crises; 2) they would have dire effects on the nation's wellbeing; and 3) their solution would require creative unorthodox approaches.

On top of these challenges is the specter of sectarian discord. Muslim-Christian clashes are now daily news, reflecting deep-rooted ill feelings and a disposition toward xenophobia. Therefore, the frequency and intensity of these confrontations are expected to rise in the future.

Certainly, Egypt's social homogeneity --hence its national security-- will be plagued if the crisis is not addressed competently. The task is not easy though. Whereas progress on the economic front depends on increasing machinery and updating technology, the alleviation of social tensions deals with hearts and minds, thus requiring time, perseverance and a great deal of patience.

The symbiotic relationship between money and power requires attention too. Egyptians used to think that "whoever did not make money under Sadat, will never be able to do so." But that expectation turned out to be erroneous. Wealth accumulated in the 1970s looks like petty cash compared to the vast riches amassed over the past two decades. Along with capital came economic clout and political power, in unprecedented levels since the revolution of 1952.

An intrinsic feature of the structure of the Egyptian bureaucracy and economy is that the lines separating political and economic powers are becoming ever more blurred, thus corrupting politics and undermining competition. If this process is unimpeded, dismantling the edifice that merges the interests of numerous political and economic circles and provides impunity to their corrupt activities will be tantamount to swimming against an indomitable current.

Furthermore, the future is loaded with a number of economic nuisances. For example, food security is greatly at stake. The previous months were marked by severe bread shortages and soaring food inflation, and experts contend that food prices would continue to rise for some years. Certainly, the least well-off consumers will be hardest hit by that rise – i.e. no less than 40% of Egypt's population. Nobel economics laureate Gary Becker points out that a 30% raise in food prices instantly leads to a 20% decline in living standards in poor countries.

In addition, the increase of global prices will continue to haunt Egypt's balance of trade. At present, Egypt imports most of its basic food necessities. The population boom and scarcity of agricultural land ensure a continuation of food dependency, thus further straining Egypt's import bill.

The same dynamics seem to dominate the future of energy resources. Egypt's reserves of oil are almost depleted and the heaven-sent natural gas resources are expected to follow suit in a few decades.

The era of cheap oil has come to an end, experts agree. Olivier Appert, President of the French Petroleum Institute, said that by 2015, the price of an oil barrel could well reach $300, a nightmarish scenario for oil importing nations, Egypt possibly included.

Finally, the detrimental effects of global warming constitute the bleakest prospects, but they receive the least attention of Egyptian intellectuals. The World Bank thinks that Egypt is "vulnerable" to the consequences of global warming, saying that it would possibly face a "catastrophic" fate. Scientists predict that the rise of the Mediterranean by the end of the century will flood the coastal areas along the Nile's Delta, forcing millions of Egyptians out of their homes and causing the worst human catastrophe in Egypt's modern history.

The Mediterranean has been sneaking upward around 0.8 inches yearly for the past decade, deluging parts of Egypt's seashore. "The situation is serious and requires immediate attention. Any delay would mean extra losses," an environmental scientist told The Associated Press last summer.

The future of post-Mubarak Egypt is 'uncertain', a term that many readily equate with negative consequences. That is not true; 'uncertainty' implies both negative and positive outcomes. Still, even the most promising leadership would have to deal with these social, political, economic and ecological challenges, both quickly and effectively. Otherwise, today's Egypt will look like a life of bliss compared to tomorrow's Egypt.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 3, 2008.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very good analysis of Egypt's current problems. But what is the solution?