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Opinion: Egypt’s Five Major Crises | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A general view of the Nile River and the Cairo skyline is seen from the Cairo Tower in Cairo Tower in the Zamalek district on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Now that Egypt has elected its president, it must confront five long-term major crises, which must be dealt with collectively, and prioritized, so the country can avoid becoming bogged down in tactical issues at the expense of pursuing a wider strategy—which would keep Egypt stuck in a state of never-ending turmoil.

The five major problems I see as the biggest challenges to Egypt are: the crisis of identity in what is a very old culture and society on the brink of fragmentation; a crisis of legitimacy, of which elections are only a part and not a whole; the crisis of geography; the crisis of political participation; and the crisis of the failure of Egypt’s public institutions. These are crises which, if solved, will answer all the revolution’s demands—represented by liberty, dignity, humanity, and social justice.

To address the first crisis we need to rebuild the Egyptian character, not from the angle of ethnic, historical or cultural superiority, but around a new system of shared, national values. With time, these will come to define Egypt and Egyptians in the same way that there is a British character and an American character; the way some things are not British, and some un-American.

The second crisis we are facing, and which must be addressed quickly by any new government, is primarily a geographic one. For a long time we seem to have decided, of our own free will, to reduce this great country to one city: Cairo. We were not surrounded by a foreign enemy who forced us to become a single-city state; we did it ourselves.

The Egyptian state has become, especially in the past thirty years, only the state of Cairo, surrounded by resorts which are visited by Cairenes in their winter and summer vacations; resorts like Aswan on the Nile, and Sharm El-Sheikh on the Red Sea, and the north coast on the Mediterranean. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the idea of the old pasha, who visited his ranch in the countryside for a vacation, before returning to Cairo.

Turning the homeland to a city state is a crime against the rest of it. It is illogical that we allow all our media and politics to revolve around Cairo, and then expect people to pay attention to what’s happening in Sinai, or build an alliance which defends the Hala’ib and Shalateen triangle.

Cairo is not the sun, and neither is the rest of Egypt the moon or the smaller planets orbiting around it. That is not a valid formula for a healthy country, but a formula for a capital which controls other regions which in time may seek to break away from it, leading to a scenario which Yemen is now experiencing.

Solving this crisis of geography must be a priority in the building of a new state. It is not enough for a presidential candidate to announce their candidacy in Upper Egypt, or Sinai, or the Wahat area; what’s more important is an electoral program which integrates these areas in a formula in which all cities are equal and not just areas which are subordinate to the Ottoman wali (governor) of Cairo.

The third crisis is a one of legitimacy. And here I do not mean the legitimacy of Mohamed Mursi’s group or the legitimacy of the elections, but the contract of compromise between the ruler and the citizens, mediated through trusted, functioning institutions.

Let me explain this point further. Every day we buy books or travel tickets by credit card, and the question here is: What is it that makes the airline or the foreign company which sells books, cars or any other product trust this card, which is just a piece of plastic? Companies trust this piece of plastic because the bank which issued it guarantees all payments.

A bank as an intermediary institution gives a piece of plastic value, so how can we build alternative institutions, which assure the man in the village that his voice and opinion regarding how the country is governed will reach the ruler in Cairo, and that the services which this ruler has promised will reach their intended recipients?

Building intermediary institutions which are trusted by the ruler and the citizen alike is the foundation of building a new, functioning state.

The fourth crisis is the failure of institutions which distribute public goods. It is not a problem of rich and poor; it is one of institutions that fail to deliver these public goods. This problem is actually present in rich and poor countries alike, because a country’s being wealthy is not a guarantee that its institutions will spread this wealth effectively.

The fifth crisis we suffer—and it is similar to the one represented by the domination of Cairo—is the crisis of infiltration, where the state is infiltrated throughout the whole of its internationally-recognized territory.

We have a silly dialogue about the concept of a “deep state,” which is taken from the Turkish model, and which warns of the army and the intelligence services infiltrating civil service institutions. This is a long story, but not really part of our crisis; quite the opposite: we have a crisis of a shortage in depth, where there are, for example, people in Sinai and Upper Egypt who do not hold basic identification papers. I have seen this with my own eyes over the last 40 years; cases where a young man would join the army in place of his brother, if the family was even registered in the first place—many are not. In fact, many people in such areas only began to register their existence with the state during times of drought or in order to receive oil and sugar during the Nasser era.

In Sinai and Wahat, there are still people who are unregistered, so what can we expect from Hala’ib and Shalateen, Bishariyah in Edfu, Aswan, and others? Our state does not have lateral depth as some people may think. We need a new state where people are partners.

The final crisis, then, is the crisis of participation. I do not mean political participation in the sense of the ballot box, I mean creating a feeling of participation in the building of a new state through national projects which make individuals feel they are not just building something for their country, but for themselves.

These challenges impose on Egyptians and on the new president the need for a new, innovative approach to state-building; to move away from the opportunism and adolescent turmoil of revolution to the adulthood and full maturity of a truly functioning state.