Political Minutes: The Egypt Symposium, Part I

Part I of Two Part Series 

With Egypt’s constitutional assembly beginning the following day, Saturday’s Egypt Symposium, hosted by Turath, the Arab Students Association, could not have been hosted at a better time. The conference, which focused on the Egypt’s post-revolution phase, drew a large crowd of Egyptians, Arabs, and interested non-Arabs from around the Tri-State area to hear from some of Egypt’s biggest political, activist, and artistic figures. It included Mohamed Aboulghar, obstetrician and founder of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party; Mesbah Qotb, economist, Economics Editor, and Assistant Editor-in-Chief at Egypt’s largest newspaper, Al Masry Al-Youm; Rasha Azb, bold activist and revolutionary, as well as journalist and columnist; Hamdi Kandil, famous, influential, and sometimes controversial media pundit; and Bilal Fadl, screenwriter, novelist, and director.

Dr. Aboulghar began his talk, entitled “(Islamist?) Democracy at Last," with a discussion of the causes of the revolution. In his estimation, political inequities, more than just the economic explanations of poverty, were responsible for the ferocity of the revolution. Consistent fraud, increased police brutality, and the seeming readying of power transfer to Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, in addition to the semi-recent success of revolutions in Eastern Europe, South America, South Africa, and finally, Tunisia, were what sparked this revolution. Of course, the fuel for this flame was provided by economic despair entangled with widespread corruption in government as well as the private sector.  Aboulghar then focused on Egyptian politics in their current state; as a leader of one of the most important liberal parties in Egypt, his perspective was steeped in the practical concerns of working with a new parliament, 30 percent of whose seats are held by the far right-wing Salafis and 40 percent by the right wing Muslim Brotherhood, elected in the freest elections of the country’s history. For the audience, which seemed to be mostly made up of liberal Egyptians, this question was perhaps the most important of the political realm. Aboulghar discussed worrying possibilities—that the Salafis who sit on the Education Committee may attempt to Islamize the schools, lower the marriage age, and eliminate the right of women to travel freely, get a divorce, and work and study alongside men.

But perhaps the most interesting revelation to those not learned in Egyptian politics was that the secular liberal parties were agreeable to the Salafist demand that the constitution contain a clause specifying Shariah as a major source of law for the country. He worried, though, that if the Salafis pushed for any more, or did not guarantee the rights of the Copts and other minorities, there could be deep division in the country. With Egypt’s constitutional assembly members being named the following day, the feasibility of his hope that the Islamist MPs be “reasonable” was to be determined very soon. Sunday’s news that a bloc of Liberal MPs had walked out of the selection vote was certainly not a good sign to that effect.

Mesbah Qotb’s take on the revolution and Mubarak’s reign, “Economic Standstill and Egyptian Market Upheaval,” focused on what the economic discipline had to contribute. He outlined the major economic trends that ran throughout Mubarak’s rule and how they played a major role in both the consolidation of power and the livelihood of the nation. Interestingly, there seemed to be a parallel and deeply intertwined transformation in Mubarak’s personality. As Qotb put it, the popular "citizen Mubarak" who took power in 1981, who declared that “the coffin has no pockets,” who polished his own shoes, slowly became the dictator worth $70 billion dollars. The "mish-mash" of policies that represented with the early part of his rule, where one economic problem was leveraged to manage the other, and the economists were certain to ‘make sure the curves always sloped up’ represented an almost accidental management of the country. Reacting to the oil shocks of the 1970s and 1980s and the increase in tourism, it seemed that the country was making enough that no one complained about the ‘sustainable corruption,’ which was not a factor until much later, when it became "corruption gone bad."

Indeed, the story of Egypt’s huge increase in inequality and Mubarak’s institution of the Washington Consensus after oil prices dropped in 1987 is a story not unfamiliar to those who study developing markets. Indeed, Qotb even argues that Mubarak purposefully encouraged the amassment of enormous fortunes by private citizens through objectively corrupt practices in order to mimic what he saw in other Middle Eastern countries, where private citizens controlled enough cash to inject the economy with liquidity in tough times.  The central bank became an instrument of embezzlement, until it was said that “there was nothing left for Alaa and Gamal [Mubarak’s sons] to steal;” yet the regime continued chugging along, instituting the "Milton Friedman school" of leadership with Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif’s all businessmen cabinet in 2004. The numbers were cooked, inequality increased, and the “gated cities” that divided the rich and the poor seemed to prosper, until it all exploded in the revolution. The revolution, of course, resulted in a quarter of negative growth before returning slightly positive growth, and unemployment has remained significantly higher. But Qotb says it is “ridiculous to blame the revolution… for something that is temporary.” In all, Qotb’s talk emphasized the idea that the slogans “bread, freedom, and social justice” were not empty; a country with unsustainable economics is a country with unsustainable politics.

 Part II of our coverage