Dispatch

Can Egypt change?: prospects for economic reform

The question of whether Egypt can change makes a fundamental, but typical, mistake about what’s going on in today’s Egypt. Reading the U.S. press, you would think that Egypt is so brittle it is about to break into thousands of shards, and that the country will be left in chaos and confusion after the departure ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The question of whether Egypt can change makes a fundamental, but typical, mistake about what’s going on in today’s Egypt. Reading the U.S. press, you would think that Egypt is so brittle it is about to break into thousands of shards, and that the country will be left in chaos and confusion after the departure of the incumbent president, Hosni Mubarak, from office — whenever that may be. It’s true that the Egyptian government is not particularly confident and assured right now, nor the general population particularly content and satisfied. But apprehensive and ill-at-ease is a fair description of the world right now — so what’s different in Egypt? In fact, there has already been quite a bit of change in Egypt in the last decade, and most Egyptians are simultaneously pleased, eager for more, and uneasy about it. The question is not whether to change but how fast and how well change can be managed.

One need only start with the basic dilemma, which is not the succession to Hosni Mubarak. There are, give or take, about 80 million Egyptians. About 40,000 babies were born in Egypt this week — half as many as were born in the entire United States — and there will more than 2 million new Egyptians by the end of the year. Most of these children face daunting challenges. Twenty percent of them will be brought up on less than a dollar a day; the vast majority will go to schools that are overcrowded, the teachers poorly trained and even more poorly paid. They will consume more of the Nile’s water, and they will encounter a job market that requires skills they won’t have.

The policy challenges in Egypt are obvious, and they are on the front pages of the local newspapers daily. Just this week, the simmering disputes with the riparian states of the Nile Basin jostled for the headlines with complaints about low scores on the annual school-leavers exams. Less apparent is the perennial search for foreign financing — public and private — that keeps the government coffers from emptying and that has fueled a respectable six to seven percent growth rate in GDP since 2007 (and even in the depths of the global financial crisis, Egypt sustained a 4.5 percent growth rate, thanks in ironic part to its still small and old-fashioned banking sector).

These are the conventional policy problems that confront the current Egyptian government, and will confront any other Egyptian government. But it is worth noting that the horizons of the growing population of Egypt are also changing. Fifteen years ago, there were no mobile phones in Egypt; 10 years ago there were a million. Today, there are 60 million mobile phones in Egypt — many of them smart phones capable of accessing the Internet and communicating via SMS and MMS. There are now numerous Egyptian private satellite television stations, and a thriving, contentious press. It was the current government, committed as it is to taking advantage of the new information and communication technologies, that made this possible.

This technology may well have made a few Egyptians billionaires, but it has also made navigating Cairo’s dreadful traffic easier. It makes organizing spontaneous demonstrations of affection for the Egyptian national football team, or support for Mohamed ElBaradei’s calls for change, or protest against government labor policies, much easier. It facilitates the flow of information — true and false — and it changes the relationships within families, as women and children renegotiate their independence and autonomy while staying always a phone call away.

In part, perhaps because of the quickening pace of life, and against the conventional stereotypes, Egyptians are getting impatient. They see change, both good and bad, all around them, and they are eager to see it sorted out, organized, channeled, and effectively managed. The complaint of the moment in Cairo, from cab drivers to ministers: "there is no system!" This may not auger well for democracy — an unsystematic system if ever there was one — but it does militate against high drama, not to say chaos. Egypt is not brittle; it is navigating though a flood of change, and no-one, not even the most ardent critic of the incumbent government, wants to see it capsize.

Lisa Anderson is the provost of the American University in Cairo.

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