Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

From the Toshka Republic to the Facebook Republic | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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At the same time as the world’s media was preoccupied with the protests that were taking place in Egypt over the past three weeks, two of the largest internet-service providers in China blocked the word “Egypt” from their search engines, whilst the Twitter-like micro-blogging website Sina blocked any comments about the Egyptian demonstrations. China is behind the world’s largest firewall, and this firewall is capable of blocking social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. Last week the Chinese Global Times newspaper published an editorial entitled “Color revolutions will not bring about real democracy” which cautioned that the revolutions that took place in Egypt and other countries could result in political and economic unrest, warning that although democracy had been successful in the west “whether the system is applicable in other countries is in question…[and] some emerging democracies in Asia and Africa are taking hit after hit from street-level clamor.”

There can be no doubt that the Chinese fear of the spread of the “infection” from Tunisia and Egypt into Asia is justified, and the Chinese authorities are arguing that their priority is not implementing a western-style democracy [in China] but rather providing development and services for more than a billion people. There are many, of course, who would disagree with this Chinese viewpoint which marginalizes democracy and freedom of expression, however the Chinese officials contend that the industrial revival in China has rescued hundreds of millions of Chine’s people from poverty. In 1978 64 percent of the Chinese popular lived below the poverty line, however thanks to economic development and capitalist economic policies the percentage of Chinese people living below the poverty line has been reduced today to just 18 percent. Chinese officials like to compare the Chinese [political] model with the democratic Indian model, for despite the firmly established democratic principles in India, during the 1960s it had almost the same proportion of its population living below the poverty line. However due to the obstacles put in place by the trade union’s with regards to India’s democratic experience, over 41 percent of the country’s population continue to live below the poverty line whereas the Chinese economy has this year overtaken the Japanese economy to become the second strongest economy in the world, whilst the Indian economy ranks at number 11.

By looking at both the Chinese and Indian models, it is clear that both Egypt and Tunisia are facing an extremely tough challenge with regards to the peaceful transfer of power. This is because both countries have to rebuild their countries infrastructure at a time when their economies are experiencing a worrying retreat. Thousands of Cairene activists utilized Facebook to stage demonstrations which overnight ignited into popular protests, resulting in an unprecedented state of civil disobedience. The majority of the opposition forces joined protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding an end to the “system.” Despite all the concessions, [constitutional] amendments, and pledges made by former president Mubarak, the protestors continued to reject a “constitutional transition [of power]”, welcoming power being handed over to the [Egyptian] Supreme Military Council, and the suspension of the constitution. History will judge whether or not the protestors’ insistence on toppling the entire regime was, politically and economically, in the interests of the Egyptian people.

In both cases [Egypt and Tunisia], it was repeatedly stated that the barrier of fear had been broken, however some have wondered whether the barrier of law and order was also broken. Citizens grew distrustful of security apparatus, and prison gates were thrown open allowing convicted criminals to escape. The problem with situations such as this is that an absence of security, a weak government, and the non-presence of law enforcement, opens the door for an endless torrent of protests and demonstrations that begin with demands for democracy and political rights but which will also see employees of the banking and transport sectors, and even the police, coming out to protest, until civil servants employed on temporary contracts in the public sector come out demanding job security, promotions, and bonuses. This state of chaos and disorder can be viewed as a natural side effect of any transitional phase. However, the real danger lies in the vulnerability of the economy and it potentially experiencing a sharp decline in the coming period, particularly as the economy played a key role in inciting the recent protests with regards to the soaring price of food and rising unemployment, which are both something that is being experienced globally.

The youth generation have achieved significant and historic demands with regards to constitutional amendments and combating corruption, however the internet or cyberspace is far removed from the hard facts with regards to the country’s economic condition on the ground. Between 2006 and 2008, the Egyptian economy achieved a growth rate of more than 7 percent whilst during the global financial crisis the Egyptian economy maintained a growth rate of 4.7 percent. Some argue that Egypt’s open-door economic policy has widened the class gap between Egyptian [social] classes. However it is also true – at least according to the latest World Bank report – that the economic reforms in Egypt contributed to improving the income of millions of working class Egyptians. These reforms have helped to keep poverty rates under the 20 percent barrier.

There can be no doubt that many place the blame for this on former president [Hosni Mubarak] and his successive governments over a period of 30 years, but what is really concerning is that these latest protests have cost Egypt more than 30 billion dollars, whilst the tourism sector – which makes up 10 percent of Egypt’s labour force – has suffered substantial losses. This is not the only problem, but a country like Tunisia which has witnessed remarkable economic growth over the past few years has also seen more Tunisian citizens illegally migrating to Europe. However experts are now warning that the growth rate in countries like Egypt and Tunisia may fall to nothing over the coming three years. These countries largely depend on their tourism sectors, and the tourism industry in these countries may decline, not because tourists might be disinclined to visit these countries – for tourists may today want to visit these countries even more than before – but because travel agencies and the banks that finance them, will refrain from funding [foreign] projects out of fears over the changes that could be made to legislation and laws pertaining to the right of ownership and foreign investment during these countries transition to democracy.

In this week’s Newsweek magazine’s cover article [Demise of the Dictators], Professor Fouad Ajami argues that “from afar, the “realists” tell the Arabs that they are playing with fire, that beyond the prison walls there is danger and chaos. Luckily for them the Arabs pay no heed to these realists.” Whilst in Britain’s current affairs magazine “The New Statement”, Olivier Roy, author of the book “The Failure of Political Islam” wrote that “the process of change will undoubtedly be long and chaotic, but one thing is certain: the age of Arab-Muslim exceptionalism is over.” They are both right, and this path will indeed be long and chaotic, and unless these countries learn the logical lessons with regards to establishment a moderate and economically successful state, they may not succeed. The most important thing is not gaining freedoms or the right to political participation, but rather achieving economic progress and rescuing millions of poor people from the miserable conditions that they live in. This requires avoiding deceptive idealism and the virtual dreams of the internet revolutionaries and rather working on the ground to rebuild the state in a practical manner.

In the late 1990s, [former Egyptian prime minister] Kamal Ganzouri’s government put forward the Toshka [New Valley] project, an irrigation project which the government pledged would lift millions of Egyptians out of poverty. However this project failed for a number of reasons, most notably because it was far too ambitious and unrealistic, and was inconsistent with the economic realities on the ground. Egyptian film director Khaled Youssef portrayed this failure in his comedic movie “Kalemni Shukran” [Call Me, Please]. The plot revolves around a character named Ibrahim Toshka, an example of an ordinary Egyptian youth living in a slum-area and working at odd jobs. For example, we see him working as a movie extra, a wedding organizer, whilst he also owns a small store that rents mobile phones. Toshka juggles all these jobs in order to earn a living and the film comments on the influence that media outlets now have on the lives of ordinary people, and [in the film] we see ordinary Egyptians demanding free telephone calls, whereas in the past they would have been demanding bread.

The Facebook youth have succeeded in stirring political life in Egypt in an unprecedented manner. But can they transform those protests into political and economic gains that go beyond Facebook’s virtual republic? They rebelled against the Toshka republic that was based upon promises beyond the realm of reality, but will they succeed in creating a real republic that is capable of building a state and a developing economy. This is the question.