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What the Economic Conference Got Right, and Wrong, in Sharm el-Sheikh: The Scorecard

March 25, 2015

Photograph by U.S. Department of State - Flickr: President al-Sisi Listens as Secretary Kerry Addresses Audience of Several Thousand Attending Egyptian Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

“Today is not the time for criticizing. Today is the time for cheerleading. Tomorrow, we criticize,” said my venture capitalist friend, responding to my skeptical comments after we attended the presentation for the Capital Cairo project the government wishes to build, at a cost of $45 billion. The desperate need for optimism took away their critical capacities, as many attendees at the Egypt Economic Development Conference left no room whatsoever for even a healthy skepticism. One speaker took the cheerleading very much to heart, shouting “Go Egypt!” repeatedly from the stage, his fist pumped, asking the audience to follow.

Most did.

But after the conference excitement calmed down, sending everyone back to real life after three days in a secluded conference room by the Red Sea basking in the spring sun, taking a step back and evaluating the conference with a clear mind is in order.

It is difficult to define what success would be for an event that has had difficulties defining what it is. The conference could not settle on a name, and the “Egypt Economic Development Conference” (or EEDC) had a different name in Arabic: the “Egyptian Economy Support and Development Conference”. While the support element is certainly accurate—the conference was originally set to be a donor conference by “friends of Egypt,” and the opening ceremony was a series of speeches by foreign royal heirs, princes, and dignitaries pledging multi-billion-dollar donations and announcing their support for Egypt and its president—the rest of the conference was a government policy forum, where the state expanded on its macroeconomic and sectorial plans for the years ahead.

Although the news coverage focused on photo ops, signings of memoranda of understanding, and the rising tally of investment deals announced every day of the conference (though they had been negotiated days or weeks prior), these were secondary. People meeting in corridors argued about the minister of energy’s plan or the technical merits of the Suez Canal Zone project, networked, learned about each other’s work across sectors, and many attendees found this to be a key success of the conference.

At the end, numbers dominated the headlines.  Investment Minister Ashraf Salman put the conference’s financial outcome at $38.2 billion in signed deals, in addition to $12.5 billion pledged by Gulf countries. The minister also floated the figure of $92 billion in memoranda of understanding for future deals. As President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi put the figure of funding needed to “rebuild the economy” at $200 to 300 billion a year, one may wonder if the triumphant euphoria was justified, or whether all would be better served if the conference was seen as the success that it was, without being sacralized as it was in the local media.

Ultimately, the EEDC should be perceived as an excellent kick-start to the Egyptian economy, without obfuscating the hard work that needs to follow, and with no pretenses that the international goodwill will be repeated every year, along with new editions of the EEDC. The yearly EEDC gathering—Sisi promised it would become an annual event—should gather the various parts of the investment ecosystem, lower the barriers between economic operators and the government, and shift the discussion to a real development conversation, involving all segments of society and, more importantly, relying on local resources.

To offer a more detailed assessment of the conference’s successes, below is a scorecard for what went well and what did not at the EEDC.

Photograph by Mohamed El Dahshan

1. Offer a vision and sustain optimism

The president’s opening speech, which outlined the government’s economic strategy and its sustainable development strategy 2030, had a single message: “We have a vision.” This vision was summarized, in one document distributed at the conference, as:

The government is committed to continue supporting a market, comprehensive, diversified, knowledge-based, and private-sector led economy, characterized by a stable macroeconomic environment, sustainable inclusive growth, maximizing value-added, and generating adequate and productive job opportunities. By 2030, the Egyptian economy will be an active player in the world economy, capable of adjusting to international developments and well positioned to join the ranks of the world’s medium-income countries.

But aside from the statement, the document (and Sisi’s speech) included a novelty: actual targets and key performance indicators. For most of the audience, this was a refreshing change. Coupled with the message that this government is here to stay, many economic actors felt confident that this was a government with an action-oriented plan, with difficult but achievable targets if the proper conditions are met. This plan was summarized in a “five-year macroeconomic framework and strategy”, published in English under the title “Strat_EGY”. The strategy lists a plan for restoring macroeconomic stability and supporting growth, through fiscal consolidation, tax reform, public spending prioritization, managing the public debt, a deflationary monetary policy, an export promotion strategy, and other means. Interestingly, attendees were more impressed by the mere existence of this strategy than by its content (which is very reasonable in itself).

“The economy is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” one investor reminded me. “If we feel optimistic, we will put our money in, and the economy will engage in a virtuous cycle; conversely, if we feel down on the prospects of the economy, we will not, and the economy will suffer.”

As it stands, the EEDC has engaged investors on the first step toward an upward spiral. The onus on it remains to sustain this optimism. It takes more than a three-day conference to reboot an economy, but this was an excellent first step.

Score: A on creating a positive economic environment.

2. Build an investment ecosystem

A second and equally successful outcome of the conference has been the creation of an “investment ecosystem gathering” where policymakers and economic agents could meet, discuss, and learn about the work of other sectors. There was an obvious hunger for such dialogue, and hopefully this ecosystem will outlive the conference.

However, this investment ecosystem was limited to the larger economic players, chiefly the government’s economic authorities, large companies and investors, some banks, a few international companies operating in Egypt, and has excluded representatives of small and medium enterprises, most independent policy think-tanks, other financing institutions such as microfinance institutions, as well as actors in connected sectors, such as labor or education. Nevertheless, this was an excellent first step.

Score: B+, with hopes that this process will be sustained and widened in the future to include more economic actors.

3. Allow participation in policymaking

Egypt has been ruled by its executive for nearly two years, and more than 200 laws have been passed by the government without a minute of public debate. While this may seem appropriate to proponents of a strong government, it certainly is not for an aspiring democracy. Much of the legislation passed is expected to have an adverse effect on the poorest; the absence of dissenting opinions from the legislation process has meant that no sufficient social mitigation measures were put in place.

The government did rely on economic experts, from within and outside Egypt, to develop its economic strategy, perhaps a minor saving grace. The prime minister also claims the strategy involved the input of the private and the nonprofit sector, but a closed consultations process may be as good as moot if it does not involve a diversity of perspectives.

Score for participatory policy-making formulation: C+, the low score for lack of participation partially offset by the quality of the end product.

4. Do not overpromise and underdeliver

“In the private sector, we try to underpromise and overdeliver. This government seems to be doing the opposite,” one businessman told me, shaking his head as he heard of the severely curtailed deadlines that the president has made a habit of imposing on contractors and service providers. While absolutely understandable that the state would wish to unveil its projects in the shortest timeframes, it can be risky to make promises that would only be kept in the unlikely event of a flawless implementation.

Recent examples under this very government should serve as a reminder. In March 2014, for instance, the Egyptian army announced a partnership with UAE construction firm Arabtec, aiming at the construction of one million affordable housing units at a cost of $40 billion. The project stalled, however, and a little over a year later, the project is struggling to survive.

Even the highly touted “New Suez Canal” has encountered difficulties. The day after the conference, Mada Masr, an online newspaper, reported that the Suez Canal Authority took out $450 million in short-term loans from local banks. The Authority had to contract with two foreign dredging consortia after ambitious deadlines set by the government made it impossible to rely solely on Egyptian companies.

The government’s goals and reputation would be better served if it loosened the pressure and accounted for eventual delays or failures. Otherwise, it will only hurt its reputation, and squander the goodwill it has accumulated.

Score: C, based on past performance and repeated mistakes.

A model of a planned new capital for Egypt is displayed for investors during the final day of Egypt Economic Development Conference

5. Heed the fine line between the inspiring and the unrealistic

Egypt’s plans for past national projects have alternately inspired its citizens (see the Aswan High Dam) and fallen flat (the Toshka project). The announced plans for a new capital city for Egypt (project title: The Capital Cairo) which would cost $45 billion USD and would be the size of 12 Manhattans (or the entirety of Singapore) squarely belongs in the latter category. At the very least, its feasibility, social value, adherence to budget, and return on investment are seriously dubious. The new capital’s business and government downtown area (not the entirety of the city, as is sometimes reported) is supposedly due to be completed within seven years. Other grand promises—such as plans to host the soccer World Cup in Egypt in 2028, as announced in one plenary session on the last day of the conference— also fall on the wrong side of the inspiring-unrealistic divide. These megaprojects bear some resemblance to the overpromising and underdelivering discussion above. The deadlines and promised benefits for some of the proposed projects are significantly more remote, perhaps even past the mandate of the leading government officials today, and almost certainly beyond the active memory of the population.

Score: D-. There is an infinitesimal chance those projects would pan out, but the projects rely on more unknowns than a Drake equation.

6. Pay proper attention to social justice

While speakers at the conference mentioned social inclusion—not the social justice that has been called for in revolutionary slogans of the past four years—the plan presented tended to be devoid of detail, making just vague, medium-term promises. The government’s macroeconomic strategy, and other official statements, did commit to “increased spending on health, education and Research and Development (up to at least 10% of GDP) as mandated by the constitution” (sic).

The conference did include a panel on social inclusion, which, as testimony to the topic’s importance, was held on the morning of the third day of the conference in parallel to four—yes, four—a workshops on various technical aspects of the Suez Canal Zone, arguably the only realistic megaproject in the government’s plans. Despite hosting such heavyweights as Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour who has for years championed bottom-up approaches to growth with the support of the private sector, or Oxford’s Paul Collier, one of the world’s most prominent development economists who specializes in post-conflict and transition economies, the session lasted a grand total of forty minutes, was dominated by a defensive minister of social solidarity, leaving the other panelists precious little time.

The government’s “Strat_EGY” included a paragraph on Egypt’s economic performance between 2004 and 2008, noting that growth in that period “did not alleviate rising social and political pressures primarily due to the lack of tailored programs to protect the people’s quality of life.” Nevertheless, the government’s current plan is headed precisely down the same path.

Score: A disappointing D for failing to consider the needs of the large segments of its population unrepresented in Sharm el-Sheikh, and forgetting that bread, freedom, and social justice do not merely comprise a slogan that can be swept under the rug, but are necessities and rights.

7. Continuing transparency with the business community and beyond

The main reason why so many Egyptian investors and economic agents were present in Sharm el-Sheikh was to hear from the government, and they were not disappointed.  Ministers in charge of various portfolios were candid, giving detailed PowerPoint presentations to rooms too full to accommodate overflow audiences, taking unmoderated questions from the floor—a genuinely unfamiliar sight in Egypt.  However, the density and importance of such information could not be absorbed on the spot and should not be confined to those participants. The government needs to make speeches, documents, and other materials from the conference available to the public.

While the level of transparency we saw in Sharm el-Sheikh will be difficult to replicate, various ministries must begin publishing more information about their work and exposing themselves to inquiries from the public. A good start would be for the documents distributed and presentations used during the EEDC to be made public. So far, only a few documents can be found on the conference website.

Score: B+. I am staying positive about this.

8. The quality of organization

The level of organization was really near world-class. While a number of inexcusable faux pas occurred—accredited media were not allowed inside the conference hall for a day and a half, nor were they offered meals—denting the perfect score that the organizers were going for, the quality of speakers made up for it. The organizers succeeded in gathering a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian business community, along with some quality guests from overseas. The government had also heavily invested in the use of multimedia—the infographics, video presentations and animations were surprisingly good—and this helped it pass along its message seamlessly.

Score: B+, on account of a few organizational errors as well as the unavailability of large parts of the material in Arabic.

Originally published by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).

What Egypt Should Realistically Expect from the Economic Development Conference

March 13, 2015
Logo of the Egypt Economic Development Conference

Egypt’s Economic Development Conference (EEDC), launches this weekend in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Its stakes, in Egypt at least, seem to be getting higher by the minute. The conference has become an event of national interest, and expectations rising as the public and media discourse has been touting the conference, in no ambiguous words, as the make-or-break event of Egypt’s recovery.

A poll conducted by a private polling institution claims that 84% of Egyptians have heard about the conference, a staggering figure in a country with an official adult illiteracy rate of one in four (and some put the figure twice that high). It is important to recognize though that the campaign runs intensely through all media. Print and television run countdowns to the conference. Newspapers offer “exclusive” headlines with leaked agendas, lists of projects, or names of participants to the conference—this national state of infatuation with what is really a specialized conference has never been seen before.

But this infatuation with the EEDC seems increasingly disconnected from reality and may run the risk to simply disappoint, even if it is deemed successful by any reasonable standards.

To put the EEDC in better context, it is important to remember the genesis of this event. In June 2014, late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for a donor conference to aid Egypt, saying that friends of Egypt should pledge financial support to the country. The goal was unequivocal: Egypt’s battered economy, like any country in a post-crisis situation, required urgent financial support to keep its economy afloat, its deficit in check, its currency from tumbling and the government from defaulting on its international engagements.

But the Egyptian state, more acquainted with hostingdonor conferences than being the subject of one, chose to present the event differently, and put Egypt in the driver’s seat rather than merely along for the ride. Buoyed by positive economic results in the short term—most notably a growth rate of more than 5% in the second half of 2014—the donors meeting thus became an investment conference, then a development one, and the key public message skillfully morphed from a fundraising drive into “Egypt the Future,” as goes the conference’s shorthand slogan, and so very much to the government’s credit.

The risk, however, is that this glitzy presentation might obfuscate the realities of the economy, as well as make implicit promises about the conference that are simply not in the government’s hands to keep. While the public may fall for the charm and well-designed YouTube advertisements for the conference, investors are well aware of Egypt’s current challenges and its hardly stable economy.

Politically, as long as the government fails to take steps toward long-term resolution of the existing political stalemate, the low-intensity conflict is expected to remain, as exemplified by the regular bombings occurring nearly daily in the capital and increasing in the run-up to the conference. Economically, while the fundamentals are improving on the short term, improvements are slow – and most observers keep their optimism in check. This is reflected in Egypt’s international credit, which had seen a slight improvement in 2014 but with ratings agencies remaining cautious about the medium and long term. Only last month, Standard & Poor’s reviewed and maintained its rating for Egyptat B- with a stable outlook, hailing the government’s fiscal reforms but recognizing high public spending, which would limit the government’s ability to rein in the public deficit—and the deficit would have been worse if it had not been for the influx of foreign assistance.

In the end, official development assistance packages and budget support will be announced; investment deals, some of which will be worth billions of dollars and likely agreed ahead of the conference, will be launched with great fanfare; several of the key investors, including state-owned enterprises of allied countries, hailed and their governments as true friends of Egypt and visionaries making the right bet. The sectors that will emerge with financing will overwhelmingly be those in the sectors that have systematically attracted investment in post-crisis countries: oil and gas, real estate, hard and soft infrastructure, and telecoms. Investments in industry and productive sectors are traditionally dwarfed in comparison, and this conference will likely be no different, perhaps to the disappointment of many of the hopeful Egyptian business owners and entrepreneurs earnestly taking part in the conference and seeking investment.

And while the government should be content with those pledges, it remains to be seen whether they are deemed satisfactory by the larger public and commensurate with their immense expectations. As donor pledges help replenish the State’s coffers and buoy the megaprojects that have become a key component of its economic policy, whether Egyptians’ development aspirations are met will be a longer-term affair, be it as a result of the conference’s investments and job creation, or as the  fallout of the multitude ofinvestment-friendly reforms passed ahead of the conference. The government would do well to temper expectations; declarations, such as Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman’s earlier this month that the conference “would form the backbone” of the state’s growth policy in the upcoming period do the opposite. The government should also adopt and maintain a policy of full transparency, and be clear that while the conference could represent an important stepping-stone to regaining investor confidence, the road to prosperity is still long.

Originally published by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).

Jordanians Unite in Mourning. Why Can’t Egyptians Do the Same?

February 10, 2015

Jordanians Unite in Mourning. Why Can’t Egyptians Do the Same?

Along with sadness, grief, and anger, there was another emotion I felt when I heard the news of the horrible death of Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh: namely, envy. I envied Jordan.

I envied Jordanians for their collective compassion and outrage. I envied them for their ability to cut through political lines to come together in a national moment of sadness and anger, out of respect for a heroic man who looked death in the eye and did not falter.

Even those who stand in opposition to the king, and those who vehemently oppose Jordan’s participation in the strikes against Islamic State (IS), were able to differentiate between their political positions and their unequivocal condemnation of Muath’s murder.

Despite the unfortunate frequency of political violence in my own country of Egypt, it’s been a long time since Egyptians came together in a moment like that. In Egypt, even death has become repulsively politicized. The killing of protesters and activists, now a tragic weekly occurrence, never fails to attract mockery, sometimes even malicious delight and unconcealed schadenfreudefrom government supporters. Victim-blaming has become the norm. “Why did they go there in the first place?” people ask cynically when they hear of yet another killing — as if protesters across the country had chosen to stand in the path of police bullets and clubs.

Such comments seem especially ironic coming from the supporters of a regime that explicitly acknowledges that it came to power on the back of protests. Even teenage soccer fans, like the 22 supporters of the Zamalek clubwho were killed yesterday when the police fired teargas and birdshot at them as they attempted to enter the stadium, find no sympathy from the state and its supporters. Government sympathizers insisted, as if that was somehow a justification for the death of two dozen teenagers, that “they didn’t have tickets.”

The public reaction isn’t much better when Egyptian soldiers die in military conflict. Sadly, there are those who have expressed indifference or, worse, joy at the death of Egyptian military personnel in Sinai. Those who exhibit such sentiments don’t seem able to differentiate between the military-political leadership and the conscripts standing at border posts; in some cases, they also appear to be suffering from a misplaced desire for vengeance against anyone in uniform. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that such people are failing to adhere to the quintessential Islamic edict that no one should be blamed for someone else’s faults.)

Unfortunately, the military leadership itself, and its media mouthpieces, have collectively cheapened the sacrifice made by these men. They persist in blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the deaths in Sinai because of its alleged connections with the IS-affiliated “Province of Sinai” terrorist group (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) — despite the complete lack of proof for such allegations, and contrary to the fact that an Islamic State spokesperson has declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be infidels. By doing so, the military has intentionally turned these brave men into political playthings, exploiting their memory (and allowing others to exploit it) for the sake of the odd disparaging headline and a few points of popularity. (The photo above shows relatives mourning members of the security forces killed in a terrorist attack in the Sinai at the end of last month.)

Some entirely well-minded activists find it hard to mourn military personnel as fervently as they do fellow members of the opposition, fearing they’ll be perceived as “pandering” to the military government. In doing so, such people have succumbed to the facile dichotomy that turns activists into automatic opponents of the military. Yet this simplistic stance tends to run roughshod over a positive Egyptian tradition of the military as the “army of the people” — or, as the Egyptians refer to it, the “army of the fellahin,” thefellahin being the peasants who have historically made up the core of the population of this agricultural nation.

It is difficult to think of Muath without thinking of Ayman El Dessouky, whose murder — while less spectacular than Muath’s – was also caught on camera just a few days prior.

Snatched from his vehicle in broad daylight, he can be heard, on the video released by the terrorists, telling his assailants that his wife is pregnant. Later, as the video continues, Dessouky reads out a message from the terrorist group demanding the release of female prisoners; cut to the next scene, where, blindfolded, be he is brought to his knees and shot in the back of the head.

Yet these widely viewed images have failed to drum up the kind of national outrage we’ve seen in Jordan.

The Egyptian compassion deficit has reached dangerous levels. If the fates of all of these myriad victims fail to bring people together in shared moments of grief and simply become tools for cheap political point scoring, then the lack of compassion may very well be irreversible.

Originally Published in Foreign Policy Magazine – Transitions.

Dear Egyptians: Happy January 25th. For What It’s Worth.

January 25, 2015

Dear Egyptians: Happy January 25th. For What It’s Worth.

Egypt’s government has cancelled its planned official commemoration of the January 25th Revolution in 2011. The reason: the seven-day mourning period announced after the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Friday. The timing of the Saudi monarch’s demise can be seen as an ironic favor for the pro-revolutionary camp, since it thwarts President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts to appropriate the legacy of the revolution to his own ends. In life, of course, King Abdullah was actually a great proponent of the pre-revolutionary status quo, and systematically sought to undermine the Arab Spring movements. He gave a home to Tunisia’s deposed dictator, actively supported Bahrain’s crackdown on its own protest movement, and bankrolled General Sisi’s brutal and reactionary administration from its first day.

The Sisi administration has always had a conflicted relationship to January 25th. Sisi wouldn’t be where is today without the Tahrir Square uprising that overthrew Mubarak four years ago, and he claims much of his legitimacy from the revolution — despite the fact that new Egyptian president has restored quasi-military rule and many aspects of Mubarak-era autocracy. His alleged loyalty to the revolution is a crucial plank in his argument against those who see his accession to power as a coup. While Jan. 25, 2011, is hailed by many around the world as the end of a despot, Sisi’s supporters see June 30, 2013 — the day the general overthrew the government of Mohamed Morsi — as its logical extension.

This week the Egyptian state chose to celebrate the occasion in the way it knows best: A few hours before Jan. 25, the police shot and killed Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, a socialist political activist who also happens to be the mother of a 5-year-old son. Sabbagh was part of a small march to place flowers on a memorial to the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. Security forces brutally dispersed the march even though it had been authorized by the proper authorities. Some have already dubbed Sabbagh “the Rose Martyr.” Her violent death was documented on video, and the images are as heartbreakingas you’d expect them to be. (The photo above shows a plainclothes security officer detaining a demonstrator yesterday at gunpoint.)

The police killed another young woman the day before — 17-year-old Sondos Reda Abu Bakr, shot in the head and neck with birdshot as the police dispersed a pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest in Alexandria. The frail teenager was demanding justice for her aunt, who had been killed two months earlier. Activists quickly took to the web to post photos of Sabbagh and Abu Bakr under the title “Sisi, the Killer of Women.”

Today, limited protests around Cairo and other main cities have also been met with lethal violence. By the early afternoon, the ministry of health hadannounced 18 dead today, most clashes between protesters and uniformed or plain-clothed security forces. The actual toll is likely to be higher; 150 protesters were arrested.

The entire cycle seems absurd — and all too reminiscent of the period before 2011, when small protests, met with extreme violence, were the order of the day. The key difference today, however, is the attitude of the general public. Though once silently supportive, perhaps uttering a silent prayer for the protection of the brave protesters, large segments of the Egyptian population are now either indifferent to the protesters and their fate — or, more frighteningly, loudly approving of their killing. A cursory look at public statements by pro-regime media (some of whom were recently revealed to be receiving direct orders from the government on what to say and write) in the immediate aftermath of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing reveals a now-habitual pattern of denying state responsibility, usually by blaming some other culprit (either the Muslim Brotherhood or a fictional “third party”), then giving way to vitriolic celebration of the victims’ deaths, based on crude insinuations of criminal or subversive activity. The fact that this sort of state-sponsored defamation raises no eyebrows, and that no one dares to demand any sort of investigation (which would never happen anyway), is the new reality that we have to confront.

The dilemma facing pro-democracy Egyptians is that they feel a moral imperative to take a stand against state repression, officially sanctioned killing sprees, and a tragicomically unjust legal system. Emboldened by the recent memory of 2011, when mass protests led to change, the first impulse of the activists is to take to the streets, to chant, to make demands. At the same time, however, these killings and the corresponding culture of official impunity make it all too clear that the act of objecting is a potentially suicidal one, punishable by death or egregious prison sentences and police torture. The current limited protests are a manifestation of this cognitive dissonance, in which, for some, adherence to principles overrides the instinct for self-preservation. However one chooses to resolve this conflict, the courage of the protesters cannot be overstated.

The most heart-wrenching part of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing may be her last moments, which were recorded on video. As her husband carries her bleeding body through the narrow streets of downtown Cairo, frantically asking for help, for a ride to the hospital, for someone to hail a taxi for him, he is met with shrugs. People sitting at the café he walks past don’t get up to help. No car offers a ride. Finally he sets her down on a chair, helpless and tired, and caresses her hair.

The tragic metaphor is impossible to miss. The apathetic majority stares blankly at the dying embodiment of the ideals held by so many just a few years ago. Bystanders fail to lift a finger in assistance, preferring to watch life seep from her body rather than risk the chance that their tea might get cold.

For the past four years, the Egyptian masses have been so limited by short-term, myopic thinking that they’re willing to do anything — perhaps even to sacrifice their own future — for the sake of that warm cup of tea. Entrusting their destiny to a despot may serve to maintain this illusive “stability” that is constantly being promised, but in the long term, few of them, aside from members of the regime’s inner circle, will emerge victorious. Eventually almost everyone will suffer from systemic injustice, or at the very least from the mismanagement of state affairs by an unaccountable regime.

For all these reasons, this January 25th, despite its heartening associations, is hardly a day to celebrate. As political scientist Timothy Kaldas wrote, “Egypt should be in a state of mourning, but not for a foreign king who beheads his people. It should be in a state of mourning for Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, and the thousands like her who were murdered during their struggle for freedom.”

Happy January 25th. For what it’s worth.

Originally published on Foreign Policy Magazine: Transitions.

Egypt’s Digital Opposition has reached “Critical mass”

May 6, 2014

When a government attempts to quell dissent on the street, when distributing leafletson the street advocating a perfectly legal political position is met with arrest and jail sentences, when democratic protests are being met with police and mob violence, there is only one place where the political debate will be able to move: back online.

And the state does not like it one bit.

To understand the situation we currently stand in, some background is necessary.

Following the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 by the power of protests, Egypt witnessed an explosion in the number of social media users. Twitter, once the privileged domain of techies, activists, and journalists became a primary discussion forum for all. Following activist movements, political parties and government agencies, including the army, started Facebook pages and began publishing their communiqués there before anywhere else. As dissent and protest movement endured on the street throughout 2011 and into 2012, the online realm was an extension of real life debates: there was no dichotomy between what happened online and away-from-keyboard, an important distinction to notice.

After a year and a half of direct military rule, June 2012 brought about the election of a civilian yet sectarian president, Mohamed Morsi. On the first anniversary of his rule, on June 30th 2013, massive protests demanding his resignation and early elections gave the minister of defense, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, an excuse to stage a coup and remove Morsi on July 3rd. Al-Sisi has been the effective ruler ever since, despite the appointment of a nominal interim president.

Throughout all three post-revolution phases—military, then Islamic, then military rule again—the government has attempted to police or at least monitor cyberspace, with a hostility that seemed to have increased with time. In doing so, it has deployed all arrows in its quiver—police, army, prosecution, courts, media—in a feeble attempt to extend its online reach. In so doing, the state has adopted a multi-pronged tactic that we can analyze and break down.

1. Legal persecution
Prominent bloggers have been attacked and arrested for alleged crimes committed online—though these are but flimsy excuses. Alaa Abdel Fattah, for instance, was arrested in March 2013 on charges of “provoking violence”, with the evidence submitted being tweets from a pseudonymous user mentioning Abdel Fattah. He was acquitted, only to be arrested again in November 2013 on charges of organizing a protest on Twitter. He was arrested for nearly four months before being released on bail in March 2014. Though perhaps the most prominent, he is far from being the only one. To mention but a few of the most recent examples, blogger Ahmed Anwar found himself the target of a lawsuit over a YouTube video mocking the police – the prosecutor general, a man with little understanding of both humor and free speech, charged Anwar with “Insulting the Ministry of Interior”, “Abusing the internet”, and “harassment”. Sentenced to three months in jail, Anwar was able to commute his sentence after paying 10,000 EGP (1,500 USD). On February 15 2014, police arrested the administrator of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Facebook page, charging him with “spreading false news, inciting violence against security forces” as well as “spreading personal information of security officers”. During the same week, a Cairo University junior staff was suspended from his work on accusations of “insulting the university teaching staff” on his personal Facebook page.

This does not apply only to political dissent, but religious freedom and freedom of expression as well. Atheist blogger Alber Saber found himself guilty of “contempt of religion” for opinions expressed online, and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2012. Nearly lynched by an angry mob and facing prison, Saber left the country. And just last March, a senior police officer announced the formation of aspecial police taskforce to track down the members of an online atheist discussion group.

The modus operandi is simple: extend the reach of draconian laws (themselves of dubious constitutionality) to the online realm, and utilize politicized courts to crackdown on internet activists.

2. Online surveillance and hacking
The Mubarak government had contracted various international surveillance companies to access private data on activists and online dissenters. Egypt used FinFisher to monitor social media activity and VoIP communications, as well as software supplied by the UK’s Gamma to eavesdrop on Skype calls and by American company Narus to monitor emails, text messages, chats. And this practice did not end with Mubarak. In February 2014, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab identified the current Egyptian government (and quite possibly the previous) as a client of a new computer spyware, called “Remote Control System” (RCS). RCS, produced by Milan-based company “Hacking Team”, is sold exclusively to governments as a “the hacking suite for governmental interception” that can capture data on the target’s computer, without it being sent over the internet; monitor encrypted internet communications, record Skype calls, emails, IMs, and passwords typed into a browser; and remotely turn on a device’s webcam and microphone.

3. Online Censorship
On January 28th 2011, a very nervous Mubarak decided to pull the plug on the internet, hoping that this would discourage protests and prevent activists from organizing; as we now know this plan failed miserably, but it also attracted massiveinternational attention to Egypt. Successive governments have since been very weary of outright censorship; but in some instances, their sentiment of panic overtakes good judgment and the government decides to block access to particular websites.

The latest instance of this occurred on March 29th 2014, days after Marshall Al-Sisi announced his intention to run for president; many independent activists, as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other detractors of Al-Sisi took to Twitter, then subsequently to Facebook, with an insulting hashtag in Arabic that read “vote for the pimp”. Statistics on the use of the hashtag were widely shared by its supporters as proof of the generalized dislike of Al-Sisi, which prompted the authorities to block access to Twitter analytics website Keyhole.

Attempts to censor online speech have also, at times, been the work of proxy groups to the security apparatus rather than direct government intervention. Those “electronic committees”, coordinated groups of users, have been regularly deployed to spread pre-written positions (copied down to the last typo, in a beautiful testimony of collective idiocy) on discussion fora and Facebook pages, or to derail conversations by posting inflammatory comments. In several documented instances, for example, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood would conduct coordinated “reporting” campaigns to flag opposing Facebook pages and have them suspended, on supposed violations of terms of conducts.

In the face of this onslaught on the internet, what is the future of online dissent? Well, it’s still very bright. Egyptians are rapidly taking control of their cyberspace despite the pressures, and have been mounting successful campaigns, ranging from politics towomen’s rights. In the face of censorship, they have proven to be quick to adoptcircumvention tools—and more importantly, sharing the love. And perhaps most importantly, the rapid democratization of internet access and its increased use by people from all walks of life and across age categories as a discussion forum will make it increasingly difficult for any government to threaten internet use. And this is perhaps the most interesting development of social media over the past years: Egypt has reached a critical mass whereby numbers are strength.

Of course the battle is an uphill one, with the imbalance of resources between governments and activists; but neither is it settled. Far from it.

Originally published on Swedish Pen’s “The Dissident Blog”.

Bassem Sabry, Remembered

April 29, 2014

On April 29, analyst, writer, and an essential voice covering Egypt since the 2011 uprising, Bassem Sabry, passed away. He was 31. His death has seen an outpouring of condolences and remembrances on Twitter. A regular contributor to Al Monitor, as well as being published in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Masry Al Youm, and more, he was a prolific writer, whose work at once gave invaluable insight into the ongoing Egyptian crisis, and was proof of his love for his country. Below is a eulogy written by his friend and colleague, Mohamed El Dahshan. 

Hit the link above. The music will go well with the text, I think.

Here’s is what I have to tell you about Bassem Sabry:

Bassem was a fundamentally, deeply honest man.

This is perhaps not the first epithet used to describe someone in a eulogy; perhaps it will seem to you as a let-down, if you were expecting flowery superlatives and complex adverbs. And I will use those adverbs and superlatives, too, for Bassem was truly all of them. But all those who read him, whether on his blog or in the local and international  press he regularly contributed to, can tell you that he’s an extremely astute writer, a gifted analyst, an indefatigable storyteller, and even through the darkness, optimistic to a fault. He was also an excellent bilingual chronicler of the Egyptian revolution, regularly keeping the world informed. Those who knew him personally – and perhaps those who followed him on twitter for he was consistent online and away-from-keyboard – will add that he was ridiculously kind; he was a hopeless romantic; and an ever-reliable friend. He also had a predilection for self-deprecating humour, and a maintained a running joke about actually being Batman (since, as he rightfully pointed out, him and Batman had never been seen in the same place together).

But few will tell you that he was, too, extremely truthful to himself and others. His fundamentals never changed. He abhorred labels, and as such never advertised his political affiliations. He demanded rights for all a decade ago, as he did yesterday. He stood for the oppressed, never condoned injustice, and never censored himself for an unpopular position. He was always able to reach out, even to those who seemed the most distant.

I’ve known him for 13, 14 years – with a few years of lost contact in between – and I am struggling to remember him an iota different from what he is today. Besides gaining a few kilograms and experimenting with facial hair, he has remained the naturally charming and effortlessly cool guy he always was. Cool not as in trendy – though he was quite the dresser – but cool as in, chill. Or at least that was his façade. He was difficult to faze, and he never let anger get the best of his reasoning, a rare skills in today’s angry, over-caffeinated, over-nicotined Egypt. (And Bassem ran on coffee.) Inside though, he was a boiling mass, and mess, of emotions. He was deeply humanly fallible, and analytically mentally very strong at the same time.

He was also disarmingly sincere. Perhaps never so much as in an article he wrote  and published when he turned 30, which was less than two years ago. He posted an English translation , too, which reads like his manifesto for life. It is what I extracted those blockquotes in the article from. Perhaps the best description I can offer you of him, is that he consistently stood by his own words.

And he was a terrible politician – he was too principled for the job. In his tenure as head of the Political Planning Committee of Al-Dostour party, a glistening position he was always extremely low-key about, he attempted to do his work as best as possible amidst of political machinations and personal politics; as his methodical approach to his job – which involved, well, actual planning and consultations – seemed to be inconsistent with the egos at the top, he chose to bow out from his leadership position.

But he had an incredible facility to move across society and circles. Co-owning a film production company with his siblings (another fact he never advertised), he was equally at ease – and more importantly, equally happy I think – on a film set overseeing a Bollywood-style choreography, as he was brainstorming in a smoky living room with some of the country’s most respected political free-thinkers. More importantly though, he always brought something new to the table. A fresh idea. A different perspective. An astute critique. His added-value was unmistakable, whether you asked him for his thoughts about the upcoming elections , a romantic conundrum, or which car you wanted to buy. (I’ve had all those conversations with him, actually.)

In the few hours since Bassem’s passing, I have spoken to numerous friends on four continents. We all cried on the phone, and hung up. The number of people who loved Bassem – whose name, incidentally, means “Smiling” – is surprising. Well, hardly surprising given the person he is, but the deluge of love and the outpour of grief is unlike anything I’ve seen. Friends of his have driven to his house and are just standing there, in the dark of the night, as I type. The Egyptian social media sphere is, literally and across linguistic boundaries, a collective Bassem memorial, or a giant therapy group. Much has been written about the dynamics of grief and the internet, but it always was from an individual perspective, or a collective experience within groups sharing links. What we’re witnessing is deep sadness, like that you would experience at the death of a cousin of a close school friend, but at the scale of a celebrity passing. Those conversations are the online equivalent of hugging strangers at a loved one’s funeral. And many, many have comforted one another tonight.

Beyond mourning a dear friend who left far too soon, I also grieve losing what could have been. Many will say that Bassem could have had a brilliant political career – perhaps so. But he undoubtedly had so much to give. I am sad for a country that he loved deeply, for a future that needed him, and for all those who will never get the chance to meet him. The loss is personal and collective. And it’s infinitely difficult to process.

I think I’ll do just that. Here’s my random message to you all, and it’s a prayer: may you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.

Farewell, Batman. The world is a darker place tonight.

Originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source.

Does General Sisi Have a Plan for Egypt’s Economy?

April 18, 2014

Does General Sisi Have a Plan for Egypt’s Economy?

The front-runner in Egypt’s presidential election, which will be held on May 28 and 29, has several clear policy preferences. On the domestic security front, his priority is eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood. In foreign policy, he is appeasing all major international actors while cultivating animosity towards Turkey, Qatar, and Gaza. But an important question remains: What is candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s economic policy?

Then-General Sisi was appointed by Mohamed Morsi as minister of defensein August 2012 and deposed the president less than a year later. Since then, he has become the dominant figure in Egyptian politics and has been widely touted to run the country. On March 26, Sisi ended speculation about his presidential intentions when he formally resigned from the armed forces and announced his intention to run for president. (In the photo above, Sisi’s supporters rally in Alexandria after he announced his candidacy.) Sisi has already surrounded himself with a team of experts who will promptly churn out an economic policy document over the coming weeks. In the meantime, however, it is possible to obtain clues to his plans from the man himself — by analyzing his past statements, many of which are off-the-cuff and largely improvised.

Sisi: “Has anyone considered giving a month’s salary to help the poor survive? Has anyone thought about going to the university on foot every day to save money for the country? Don’t be upset with me. I see Egypt and its problems. Countries don’t advance with words. They advance with work and perseverance and selflessness and altruism. Perhaps one or two generations will be necessary for the country to live.”

In July 2013, the government of recently-resigned Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, buoyed by an influx of cash from the Gulf, instituted an expansionary policy, increasing debt and spending with hopes of jumpstarting the local economy. Sisi’s thinking seems to run counter to this, favoring an austerity policy that would involve higher taxation (“giving a month” of salary) and less spending on public services (implied by his description of transportation, already underfunded, as a waste of money that needs to be “saved”). There will be none of the quick improvements people are so eager to see; instead, Sisi warns them that no good will come their way — for a long time.

Sisi: “Egypt’s youth are its hope; they need to give and not expect to take anything now…. Egypt needs a lot from us. Egypt’s youth should not be thinking about when will they be able to get married or when will they ‘live.’ They need to build the country first.”

This statement, which uses the same strange definition of “altruism” as the first, is absurd and insulting. With 60 percent of the population below the age of 30, Egypt’s young people aren’t “its hope” — they are Egypt itself. Those youth also represent 69 percent of the total unemployed. How much further can they be expected, and morally asked, to tighten their belts? And if youth are indeed the majority, then for whom are they expected to sacrifice? They’re being asked to put their lives on hold. Even “living” — i.e. marrying and starting a family — is apparently too luxurious an aspiration. Their selflessness is not intended to create a better tomorrow for the children they shouldn’t hope to have, but rather benefits older generations, who have enjoyed the spoils of the country and hope to continue to do so.

Sisi: “There are over 9 million Egyptians living abroad. They all were educated in Egypt’s schools and universities and lived on Egyptian soil. Did any of them think to give one month’s salary for the poor in Egypt?”

Sisi’s view of Egyptian expatriates as a collective cash cow ignores the spending patterns of Egyptian workers. First, the immense majority of expatriates live abroad out of necessity, motivated by mediocre salaries and unemployment at an official rate of 13.4 percent (though the real rate is certainly much higher). The millions of expatriate Egyptians whose wallets Sisi is eyeing work menial jobs, often in harsh conditions, and sometimes inperil of their lives. More importantly, most of those expatriates, a majority of whom are unaccompanied males, regularly send money home to the tune of$19 billion over the past fiscal year. These remittances are one of the major sources of foreign currency, and give the economy a vital boost.

Nevertheless, the government-controlled Association of Egyptians Abroad was very quick to chime in, applauding the speech and putting forth a suggestion for a three-tiered tax on Egyptians working abroad which itsubmitted to the president for consideration. It is likely that some variant of this bill will pass, despite strong doubts about the overall benefits of the tax. Expatriates were prompt to respond, in televised interventions and in social and traditional media, that aside from their already important contribution to the economy, they wouldn’t be working thousands of miles away from their families if they could have found proper employment opportunities near home. By residing abroad, they pointed out, they are saving the government their salary streams and social service expenses; it would be deeply unfair if they were to pay income taxes on money earned abroad if they were receiving no services from the state, since their local expenses are already subject to various consumption taxes.

Candidate Sisi does not promise any sort of improvement in the living conditions of Egyptians any time soon (for “a generation or two” at least, as he puts it). Is this grim realism, or an unwillingness to conduct difficult reforms?

In all likelihood, it’s the latter. His alignment with the big business interests of the Mubarak era, who have already pledged their support to him, entails the restoration of their private interests in public policy. The clearest example of this is the government’s reluctance to reform industrial subsidies. Cutting these subsidies would have relatively little impact on the average citizen and would go a long way to repairing public finance — yet officials continue to focus attention on the need to reduce personal consumption subsidies. Sisi also shows little interest in taking on urgently needed judicial reform, presumably because most members of the third estate are fully aligned with him. For similar reasons, few Egyptians expect him to attempt restructuring the all-important ministry of interior.

Sisi’s economic plan, which is conspicuous for its inability or unwillingness to offer specific solutions beyond a bleak and threatening outlook, can essentially be summarized as a warning to Egyptians to brace themselves for tough times ahead. It is fascinating that a candidate running for elections in a crisis-ridden country seems prepared to promise little more than darkness at the end of the tunnel.

It appears that the senior career officer has little understanding of the needs and pains of the people. Even more crucially, he seems unaware that civilians do not take marching orders the way military troops do. His tone deafness suggests that he will show little inclination to soften his policies.

The question then becomes: Will Sisi’s popularity allow him to push through harsh economic policies? One might argue that the current atmosphere of fawning over the man potentially gives him the needed political capital to pass difficult reforms. But this assumption discounts two important elements.

First, though Sisi completely dominates public discourse, his popularity is largely overestimated. The Muslim Brotherhood and his other most obvious political opponents will reject his policies from the get-go; likewise, the secular opposition and the apolitical masses will have no incentive to tow the line, especially if short term policies bring no relief.

Second, Sisi’s current popularity will quickly ebb if the Egyptian people, who have just endured three years of extraordinary hardship, do not see an immediate improvement in their quality of life. The expectation of an imminent rise in living standards has been fostered, ironically enough, by Sisi’s own grand speeches of the “Egypt will be as important as the world” type.

Indeed, one can easily imagine that Egypt’s economic challenges will hand Sisi his first hard-learned lesson in civilian politics: In a nation where politics is based on personality cults, people will analyze your every word, sometimes read between the lines, and — who knows — even hold you accountable.

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