“So, nobody told you that you are extremely poor?” asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the annual Youth Forum, held this year in the southern city of Aswan earlier this week.
“Then let me tell you that we are very poor. Very poor!” he added.
Despite the fact that the two-day conference witnessed discussions on several issues, especially ones pertaining to Upper Egypt, this statement was the most widely circulated.
Reactions to the statement mainly ranged between many taking it seriously and others were mocking it. Between the two lay a bunch of analytical speculations over the real meaning of the statement.
Journalist Hossam al-Hindi said that the statement is in line with the general discourse Sisi has been adopting since he came to power and which basically promotes austerity.
“In last year’s Youth Forum he said that for 10 years he had only water in his fridge yet never complained and following the crash of the Russian plane over Sinai he said that it is not important if we starve as long as we are united,” he wrote.
Hossam, however, sees an obvious contradiction between this discourse and actual state expenses. “For example, the inauguration of the New Suez Canal cost LE 250 million ($13 million) and the Economic Development Conference in Sharm al-Sheikh cost LE 100 million,” he explained, adding that huge amounts of money are spent on presidential motorcades and private jets and the salaries of ministers and officials. Hindi also mentioned examples of “provocative” statements by officials and which demonstrate lack of sensitivity towards the poor.
“For example, Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker said that the increase in electricity prices equals the prices of a cup of tea in a café, former Minister of Transportation Hani Dahi claimed that underground commuters demanded an increase in ticket prices, and former Minister of Justice Ahmed al-Zind claimed that the average Egyptian citizens can live with LE 2 daily.”
Professor of political science Moustafa Kamel al-Sayed disagreed with the notion that Egypt is a poor country.
“People who argue that Egypt is poor, among them the president, rely on the several factors such as the fact that 26% of the population do not get their basic needs and the decrease of the per capita share of natural resources,” he wrote.
“But this is not the only way poverty is measured.” According to Sayed, the president’s statement contradicts the view of major international institutions such as the World Bank, which does not classify Egypt as a low-income country.
“It also contradicts the fact the Egypt is rich in natural and human resources and enjoys several geographical, historical, and climate privileges.”
According to Sayed, there are three reasons why Egypt can be seen as poor: First, the inability to make the best use of resources; second, unfair distribution of wealth; third, public spending priorities. “Many countries can go through financial crises, but are not classified as poor. This was the case in Mexico, Brazil, and several countries in Southeast Asia.”
Meanwhile, journalist Mohamed Hammad questioned who the “we” in the president’s statement refered to. “Does this refer to the people? Or does it refer to the police, army, judges, ministers, and senior officials?” he wrote. “And if Egypt is poor, why is it being controlled by billionaires and foreign franchises?” Hammad argues that poverty is not about money and resources, but is rather about management and governance, policies and priorities.
“For example, Japan is poor in resources, but through good governance managed to become on the world’s greatest economies and China was not hindered by its population challenge,” he added. For Hammad, poverty is only an excuse for governments to maintain the status quo and not embark on a real change. “Governments talk about poverty as if it is a country’s destiny and totally overlook the fact that it can be subverted through a change. When Lula Da Silva came to power, he did not tell Brazilians that they are poor, but took serious steps towards taking Brazil from poverty to prosperity and in eight years made a miraculous transformation.”
Writer Mahmoud Khalil believed the Sisi’s was addressing officials and not the Egyptian people in order to warn them that their actions do not take into consideration the economic problems through which the country is going.
“The president is telling officials to make sure they do not take actions that provoke the poor,” he wrote. “These include the purchase three 18-million-pound cars by the House of Representatives and requests for increasing the salaries of senior officials such as the prime minister and his deputies, the ministers and their deputies, and governors and their deputies.”
On the other hand, Khalil noted, the government abstains from increasing minimum wages citing budget deficit and the large amounts allocated to wages and salaries and several major institutions, such as the National Bank of Egypt, which paid large bonuses to their staff following the recent price hike.” For Khalil, Sisi is siding with the poor in the way he criticizes the government and the parliament for their spending patterns that contradict their continuous statements about the financial crisis, which detach them from average people. “Sisi is instigating them to feel for the people and offer an example of wisdom and integrity.”