Ten Pressing Issues for Egypt

Photo by Lilian Wagdy

Photo by Lilian Wagdy

If you have been watching the news at all over the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that things aren’t going too well in Egypt.  President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist with close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by the military just one year into his term after massive protests accusing him of authoritarian tactics and a failure to address many of the biggest problems facing the country.  That has led to a counter reaction in which Morsi’s supporters are taking to the streets as well, demanding a return to “legitimacy” and the restoration of the country’s first freely elected president.  It is difficult to predict whether the interim government introduced by the military – which is strikingly free of Islamists – will be able to bring some kind of stability before new elections.  As all of this is happening, the country is also teetering on the brink of complete economic collapse.

Keeping track of all the different factions vying for power in Egypt can be difficult enough for those who study the Middle East, let alone the average observer.  However, there is no question that this is an issue of great importance for the United States.  Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, with a particularly large amount going to the same military that just pulled off what some are calling a “coup” (though others insist that it does not share the same characteristics as a typical military takeover).  It is also the most populous country in the Arab world and a historic leader in the region.  Equally important for many Americans is the fact that Egypt has the longest standing peace treaty with Israel of any Arab country, and its border with both Israel and the Gaza Strip mean that it will always be an important player in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

With that in mind, I wanted to provide a summary of some of the biggest problems facing Egypt today, the kinds of issues that will need to be addressed if the land of the Pharaohs is ever going to become both a stable democracy and an economic power.  The Egyptian people deserve a more successful country than the one they currently have, but to get there will take a Herculean effort.  Here are a few areas that will need to be tackled.

1. Improved Education

Egyptian grade schools often fail to provide their pupils with an adequate education, particularly those in more rural areas.  Illiteracy is higher than much of the Arab world, particularly among women.  For those who are lucky enough to advance to the college level, they will find few options within Egypt that provide a world class education.  On the whole, colleges are not preparing students particularly well for future careers, as many of them will be unemployed once graduating.  No plan for turning the country around will ever succeed apart from better education.

2. Cutting Red Tape

Speaking from personal experience, the Egyptian bureaucracy makes molasses in January look fast.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some applications being processed now that were started around the time Cleopatra was in the midst of her love affair with Marc Anthony.  This is a major burden for Egyptians and foreigners alike who need government approval to start a business, construct a building, obtain a permit, or renew a passport.  Many Egyptians are forced to resort to giving a bit of extra cash to individual officials in order to get things done, money that would have been better off going to the central treasury and then being redistributed to the people.  Many attribute this trend to an Egyptian cultural trend, but it may be time for the Egyptian culture to become more efficient.

3. Security Sector Reform

If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that the police and other security forces in Egypt need to be reformed.  A comedian such as satirist Bassem Youssef can be hauled in for questioning, and less famous activists can be subject to unwarranted physical abuse, while rapists and murderers all too often are able to avoid legal action.  Perhaps most worryingly, the police have simply neglected to do their duty when something is happening that they don’t like politically, such as when they walked off the job during the 2011 revolution and allowed looters and other criminals to spread chaos throughout Cairo.  The mindset of those in the security sector seems to be that they are not required to enforce the rule of law, protect the people, or answer to elected civilian leaders if they do not wish to do so.  There are persistent rumors that many in the police force are loyal to the old Mubarak regime and hope that by allowing chaos to break out, they can prevent a more democratic alternative from developing.  A better life for Egyptians definitely requires their leaders to take on the security sector.

4. Privatization

An overly large percentage of Egyptians are employed by the state, too much real estate is owned by the military, and too little competition is occurring within the marketplace.  The Mubarak regime attempted to move the country away from the more socialist system of years past, but most of the benefits went to the rich rather than the common people.  Thus, it is easy to see why average Egyptians might be wary of greater privatization.  Still, it is a necessary long-term strategy if Egypt is going to become more competitive in the global market.  This time, it must simply be done with the benefit of all in mind.

5. Boost Civil Society

Just when the government is failing and people are in need of some outside help, many civil society groups have been demonized and shut down due to real or perceived foreign influence.  In its current situation, the benefits of civil society groups outweigh the costs of foreign involvement for Egypt.  These groups can help the country in its transition to democracy, present ideas for improving the economy, and provide a peaceful way for Egyptians to make their voices heard.  The government can start by restoring domestic groups and then move on to welcoming back the foreign institutions that have been shuttered over the past two years.  Charges against members of civil society groups should be dropped as they waste government resources that would be better spent on the real problems facing Egypt – not to mention the fact that the charges are usually rather frivolous.

6. Decrease Subsidies

This is wading pretty deep into economic issues that I know less about, but practically every international economic expert agrees that the Egyptian government is paying too much money every year to subsidize fuel and bread.  An immediate cutoff of these subsidies could lead to serious problems for Egypt’s many impoverished citizens, so there will need to be a plan in place to reduce the natural costs of these products by tackling the causes of these high prices.  Increasing job growth would also make it easier for Egyptians to pay for these products with their own income.  More immediately, the International Monetary Fund will likely require cuts in subsidies in exchange for a loan.

7. Reign in the Military

Public opinion of the military surged with its toppling of Mubarak, then dropped significantly during the year that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ruled the country rather incompetently.  Thus, it says something about how much many Egyptians disliked Morsi that they were eager to have the military kick him out and take over another political transition.  While the country’s liberals may have seen the military as their savior in this situation, rule by military is not a good long-term solution.  If Egypt is ever going to have a fully functioning democracy, it badly needs to have civilian control of the military and a decrease in the armed forces’ influence over government policy.

8. End Censorship

Press freedom got a major boost following Mubarak’s dismissal, but that did not keep many journalists from being harassed and arrested for daring to criticize the military or the president.  The past few weeks have seen many Islamist publications shut down, which may please advocates of a more secular system, but it does not bode well for the future of Egypt’s media.  Democracy requires that everyone’s voices are heard and ideas can be debated in the public square.  If the president and the military cannot take a joke from a comedian, they are in serious trouble.

9. Tackle the Traffic

Traffic jams and a general neglect of the rules of the road are chief complaints of anyone visiting Cairo.  It’s not just a safety hazard and an annoyance for Westerners: crippling traffic congestion limits the city’s ability to function properly.  In order to see some improvement, the city will need increased enforcement of traffic rules, improved and expanded public transportation, installation of more traffic lights and other helpful devices, and perhaps even a public campaign to promote better driving.  Less cars on the road would be particularly helpful in reducing the smog and allowing Cairenes to breathe a bit easier.

10. Recycle

The global swine flu scare back in 2009 led the Egyptian government to overreact by ordering the slaughter of all the country’s pigs.  As the pig is very haram in Islam, these animals were exclusively owned by Christians, many of whom used them to eat (and thus dispose of) trash that littered the streets of Cairo.  Unfortunately for Egypt, this has led to a situation in which trash is increasingly piling up in the streets.  Not only is this an eye sore and a major stink, but it is also a health hazard.  President Morsi’s campaign promise to clean up the streets came to naught.  However, were a large amount of this trash to be recycled, it could provide a serious benefit to Egypt.  Those piles of rubbish should be thought of as a potential natural resource going to waste (literally and figuratively).

These ten issues are hardly the only ones facing Egypt.  I didn’t even mention the continuing concerns about civil rights and sectarian violence, which are particularly concerning for many in the United States.  While this list may not cover everything, it does give a brief picture of where Egypt stands and what it will need to accomplish in order for it to once again become the regional leader that it has historically been.