Arab spring turns to gloomy summer

August 4, 2011

By Anya Schiffrin
The views expressed are her own.

The mood at dinner in Alexandria last week was so gloomy that the only time anyone cracked a smile was when I told them about Donald Trump being roasted at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April. Everyone vowed to get on YouTube straight away to see the look of agony that crossed the visage of the legendary stubby- fingered vulgarian as he was mocked for his hideous taste in architecture.

Architecture is very much on their minds, because among the casualties of the new controlled chaos in Egypt are the historic Alexandrian villas that are being torn down at night by property owners who realize they can now get away with turning their storied houses into apartment blocks. With the police more or less out of commission, these law-breakers are no longer punished and architectural preservationists said that in the new Egypt they are viewed as “snobbish elitists” clinging to a nostalgic past.

The lamenting of the needless cultural destruction was just one sign that, in some quarters, the excitement of the Arab Spring has given away to gloom. Egyptians are riding an emotional roller coaster and this past week has been grim.  The news coverage of tens of thousands of bearded men entering Tahrir square last Friday, and on Monday clearing out the liberal protestors who had been camped there for weeks, shocked the intellectuals of Cairo and Alexandria. “Those pictures. That’s just not who we are,” one economist told me.  “I see Iran before my eyes. It is frightening,” said one woman who is already trying to figure out where to emigrate.

The older generation that I spoke to hopes for a Turkey-type scenario with a moderate Islamic government that respects the rights of those who don’t want to wear veils and likes museums that have sculpture and figurative painting. The internet savvy youth are bubbling with energy and plans for cleaning up the slums, delivering health care and creating jobs. But they need to figure out how to turn their democratic, disparate social networks into organized political parties with strong leaders. It would help if they could be brought into government in a meaningful way and use their formidable technical skills to create a functioning e-government that would help drag the entrenched bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Instead, everyone seems paralyzed by the enormity of the tasks before them and the government is now on its third finance minister in six months.  More important than the destruction of Alexandria’s patrimony is the urgent need to create jobs. There are millions of new entrants into the job market every year and tourism has fallen sharply on fear of political instability. Even before the revolution, unemployment was a massive problem but at least there was work in the sprawling government bureaucracy. New hires are unlikely and with the future so uncertain, investors are afraid to put their money into creating new companies

The obvious solution to Egypt’s macroeconomic problems would be for the government to stimulate the economy in the hope that the spending will grow the economy. But the government’s deficit is large and if it borrows, it will face high interest payments over the coming years. The  Gulf States have offered loans at ridiculously high interest rates. The IMF and World Bank have offered cheaper money but no one in Egypt wants to borrow from these foreign organizations out of fear that they will impose strict conditions

Fuel subsidies take up a third of the government budget, tying up funds that are badly needed for spending on  health and education but getting rid of the subsidies is not seen as an option anytime soon. These subsidies are a form of populist symbolism although in fact they mostly benefit wealthy car and factory owners. There are ways of eliminating subsidies and still helping the poor but Egypt has not yet come up with a plan.

In the meantime, controlled chaos reigns. Small cafes and stalls have set up all over the country, spilling from sidewalks into streets and worsening the perennial traffic jams. Everyone complains about the new talk shows on television that bring in random people who comment on all manner of topics despite not having any expertise.

There is still some excitement about the revolution and the feeling that government officials are more respectful now. Dignity was one of the main demands of the January protestors and there is a new sense of pride in the country. Egypt is now known not only for its ancient civilization and rich culture but for showing the world what peaceful protest can achieve.  As for those worrying about the future, one person told me that what keeps her going is the feeling “it  can’t get worse than it was.” Let’s hope that’s true.

PHOTO: Thousands of protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 29, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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Check back in one year…it will be much much worse than it ever was before.

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