This is a piece I wrote in April 2013
Having been to Egypt recently and watching recent developments I thought to myself, ‘What would I do if I were the President of Egypt?’ Sadly as I write this, there has been a coup in Egypt and the democratically elected government has been removed by the military. While the opposition is chortling about it they may like to recall the saying, ‘Throwing the baby out with the bath water.’ A democracy by definition is a government where civilian authority is supreme, not military. Soldiers who call the shots are like wolves shepherding sheep and the results are predictable. What the opposition needs to realise is that a faulty democracy is a million times preferable to a perfect military dictatorship and by sabotaging and not supporting a democratically elected government, no matter their weaknesses, they have opened the door to their own destruction and have written slavery for themselves. What they don’t realise is that by their actions all that they have done is to strengthen and legitimize anti-democracy forces. That dog always bites.
Very similar to our (Muslim) lack of foresight when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered and the Khilafa was abolished by the British-French combine. Same logic to what the Opposition is doing in Egypt which shows that people who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The sheep who asks the wolf to help him against another sheep is bound to perish. Wolves eat sheep. Sheep can only forget or ignore that at their peril.
So what would I do if I were the president? Here are some thoughts.
The first thing that I would remind myself is that in politics facts mean nothing. Statistics less than nothing. Spectacle, impression, symbolism and communication mean everything. Symbolism, visibility and public eye are the platform on which politics runs. In politics being truthful is less important than being believable. That is the basis of all mythology. Politics is at the root of mythology and most mythology arises from political realities. Morsi’s dilemma proves that the economy supersedes ideology. Food before ideas. Hungry people are angry people, so feed them first. People who have nothing to lose are the most brave and reckless, so give them something to lose. Get people involved in development and they will see the benefit of government. Otherwise they will blame the same government no matter how unfair it seems. They may realise it is unfair but who else can they blame?
Nobody can cure Egypt’s economic problems in one year – except by magic. But I don’t think Egyptian magicians have it in them anymore. Maybe that is why the Pharaoh had so many of them in his time. The fact remains however that economic development must be seen to be happening. So Morsi needs (needed?) to concentrate on projects that will employ people. Large numbers of them. Infrastructure is a key area for this and Allah knows, Egypt needs it like a fish needs water. I was there in April and saw lots of men sitting in the tea shops. Very bad sign for the economy as well as for the government. They need to get those men off the streets. So employ them. There are any number of infrastructure companies in the world who will come with the money if you have the right scheme. That is what the government should do – create the schemes and invite investors.
Second major avenue of employment and high visibility is garbage collection – there are mountains waiting to be collected in the streets of Cairo. There are companies who collect garbage, recycle it, make compost and manure and fuel briquettes and generate electricity. All these are commercial activities and will employ people and clean the cities at the same time. High visibility and everyone will be positively affected.
Third is housing – not the fancy villas of Rehab but housing for the poor. Again a commercially viable alternative especially when combined with easy credit. Any number of ME countries will gladly fund something like that. Once again this will generate employment locally and solve a major problem.
Fourth is to encourage agriculture by handing out parcels of land to those who will farm them. Make a scheme where they will become the owners of the land if they can show that they can successfully farm it. Canada is a major success story in this respect. They did it by inviting Sikh farmers from Punjab. Egypt can do it with their own people. Seed and fertilizer companies will gladly partner with the government for this and so will various lending agencies.
Fifth is to concentrate on elementary and secondary schools – invite local companies to fund them and get philanthropic organizations like Qatar Foundation to help. In India, Bharati-Airtel has schools which have cumulatively more than 200,000 children. I am sure Egypt needs more than that but that alone is enough to create a buzz where it counts. Make funding of schools and housing a mandatory requirement for local and foreign companies operating in Egypt and give them tax breaks to do this. Get women involved in education and all developmental activities. They are more than 50% of the population with huge influence. No government can survive, much less sustain if it doesn’t engage its female population. So get women involved wherever they have the competence to contribute. In today’s world don’t underestimate the power of the woman in public. She will be there whether you like it or not. Your only choice is to decide if you want her with you or against you. So talk to them, involve them and leverage their presence for the good.
Market the handicrafts of Egypt. They make some really great stuff there but nobody knows about it. Having them sitting in Khan Al Khalili is not enough. They need to do exhibitions in the major cities of the West and take orders. Once again there are entrepreneurs who will do all this, provided the government provides a user friendly climate. The bureaucracy needs to go. So does the corruption.
Finally leverage tourism. Egypt has some unique monuments which like the Taj Mahal in India attract loads of foreign tourists. However Egyptian monuments are badly maintained (if at all), very difficult to get to because of extremely bad roads and riddled with touts and conmen. I was conned into sitting in a horse carriage to visit the pyramids and then the man demanded 500 Egyptian Pounds for the trip of a few hundred meters. I managed to escape from his clutches only by threatening violence. Then he followed me all the way as I walked bringing down his price until he begged me for 10 Egyptian Pounds – ‘only because you are my brother’. So clean up the act. Maintain the places, improve access and get rid of those who fleece tourists and give Egypt a bad name.
Then publicly invite the opposition to join the government and when they refuse, publicize that also. Let everyone know what you are doing, loudly and frequently. That way they can’t talk about non-inclusion. Keep the ideological agenda separate from the economic agenda. Sell the ideological agenda by communicating with people and giving them good information and allaying their fears. If not, the real and imaginary fears about the ideology will sabotage everything else. Ideology is a matter of belief; a matter of the heart. Hearts take time to change. If you link your success to that change, you will invariably fail. People must see the benefit of the ideology in action before they will believe that it is worth supporting and adopting. Talking about the ideology is pointless. Enforcing it is suicide.
Do all this very publicly so that people know what is going on. Remember that everyone has a stake in development and will support it. So involve them. Involvement means to delegate power, listen to their story, accept discord and learn to use it to build relationships. Involvement also means to accept that some things will need to be done in ways that are not necessarily what you would choose to do, but that is the real litmus test of delegation and empowerment; will you let them do it their way?
I hope lessons are learnt and democracy gets a genuine chance. Egypt is too important a country to be written off and forgotten. Or to allow once again to go back into dictatorship.