Before, during and after Egypt’s long-vaunted investment conference, a sense of great optimism seemed to fill the air in Cairo. That buoyancy carried internationally, it appeared – at least if you read certain newspapers.
One would want to hope that such sanguinity is warranted, or even underestimates the magnificent strides into a progressive ‘Egypt of the Future.’ One would want to hope, but perhaps a note of realism would be appropriate at this juncture.
Take the claim that the conference will instil growth in Egypt’s economy, which will thus address the country’s core structural issues. That would be nice, most certainly. Egypt’s economy is not doing particularly well, and the tourism industry - which is a big proportion of the country’s economy - still has not met pre-revolutionary levels of capacity.
Most economists seem to agree that if all investments come in, growth is inevitable, and thus Egypt’s overall financial health will be back on track. Well… perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. There is no guarantee that all these investments from the Gulf in particular, which were actually less than some expected, will materialize.
Nor is tourism suddenly off to a great re-start. Beyond all the advertising and promotion the country’s institutions did for this conference, the tourism industry was immediately dealt a heavy blow.
The day after the closing of the conference, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the system of individuals getting visas upon arrival, which so benefited tourism, would be cancelled. That might impact up to a quarter of visitors to Egypt, at a time when the country is investing tremendously in trying to attract tourists. It is unclear how sensible this move is.
If one rewinds the clock back to Jan. 24, 2011, a day before the revolution, the economy was doing quite well. Or at least ‘well’ was then defined as overall GDP, which was at a respectable level, and thus encouraged observers to see Egypt as quite stable.
The same was said about Tunisia, whose GDP had also been going up in 2010. Neither of these countries, however, had ‘healthy’ economies, because despite overall GDP, the trickle-down effect to the average Egyptian or Tunisian simply was not there.
The country needs to address genuine structural and economic challenges, and raise millions out of poverty.H.A. Hellyer
The rich got richer, but the poor certainly did not. If Egypt’s GDP rises in 2015 and beyond, that is not sufficient for the economy to be described as ‘successful.’ Rather, the country needs to address genuine structural and economic challenges, and raise millions out of poverty. Otherwise, Egypt will simply repeat the mistakes of previous authorities – this may be a habit, in many different fields, but it is a good one to break.
Cult of personality
Beyond the conference, there have been numerous articles promoting not only Egypt as a country, or its government, but the new president as an individual. In the space of a few hours, some U.S. media outlets carried rather flattering profiles of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, based on gratifying interviews with the former defense minister.
Little to nothing was mentioned about the deteriorating state of affairs with regards to fundamental rights in the country, or accountability for deaths at the hands of security services over the last five years under five heads of state.
What was raised, however, and which many in the international arena have repeated, is the notion that Sisi is somehow a contemporary Martin Luther who will carry out some kind of ‘Islamic Reformation.’
It is a rather dubious notion, to say the least, for a number of reasons. For one, irrespective of his record in government, it is unclear if a former military officer is equipped for such a religious task, even if he wanted to carry one out – and it is doubtful that he does.
With friends like these...
What is also intriguing is identifying the promoters of this notion abroad. When one interrogates slightly the chronicles of extremely recent history of many in the non-Arab arena who so vigorously support Sisi as a ‘Muslim Martin Luther,’ one is struck by a common theme that pops up time and again.
Far from being advocates for the Arab world, their statements about Arabs and Muslims are hardly laudable. On the contrary, they range from being rather bigoted, to having incredibly low and demeaning expectations.
The enthusiasm of Sisi’s supporters within the Arab world, when backed by such energetic, full-throated encouragement from beyond, is understandable. However, they ought to be careful.
When personalities, figures and individuals who have such blatant records of antipathy toward Arabs and Muslims, as Arabs and Muslims (as opposed to simply pursuing opposing political agendas), their endorsements are not really items to be happy about. If they say things such as ‘we need to be realistic about how democratic these Arabs can be,’ they are not likely to be intrinsically good friends of this region.
If they harbor deep prejudices about Islam and Muslims, viewing them essentially as threats and not simply the extremists among them, it might be difficult to consider such forces as real supporters, as opposed to cynical opportunists.
It is in the interest of the Arab world and the international community that Egypt does well. Forces aimed at destabilizing it just for the sake of their own power plays are foolish to try. However, the most stable Egypt is the one that upholds a holistic sense of economic development and protection of fundamental rights.
There are those who back such stability in the international arena who genuinely care about Egypt for Egyptians’ sakes. They may have harder questions for Egypt, but it is better to have a friend who truly cares for you than one who not-so-secretly views you as less than an equal. Egypt has many of the latter, and Egyptians should not embrace them, even if they say what so many want desperately to hear.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.