Wanted: A Marshall Plan for Egypt

What happens next in the land of the Nile will largely depend on the economy.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters protest in Cairo 370 (photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
Muslim Brotherhood supporters protest in Cairo 370
(photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
As demonstrations were still going on, though on a far lesser scale, Egypt’s statistics bureau released official figures on August 31 that put the country’s population at 85 million (not counting the 8 million or so living abroad).
Eight-hundred-thousand newly hopeful Egyptians crowd the job market each year, this in spite of the fact that the birthrate has dropped significantly to 2.4 percent.
Egypt is poised to reach the 100 million mark by 2020.
As it is, 40% to 50% of the population are living below the $2-a-day poverty line drawn by the UN, and some 30% are illiterate.
The scope of the efforts needed to feed the masses while propelling the country on the path of economic development is awesome, and nothing can be done without a return to some semblance of political stability.
The interim regime is doing its best to bring order to the political situation. According to the road map set down by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the presidential decree issued by interim president Adly Mansour, new civilian institutions should be up and running within nine months. A revised constitution will be submitted to the people by referendum; elections to the parliament and to the presidency will then follow.
Sisi is standing fast by his pledge to hand over his powers to the new civilian authorities, though some call him the new Nasser.
It’s hard to see how the newly empowered masses, who have gotten rid of two dictators in as many years, would let him, too, become one.
Sisi enjoys popular support as long as he keeps his word and works to restore civilian rule.
However, it is not an easy task.
First he has to neutralize, once and for all, the Muslim Brotherhood and put a stop to violence.
Then he has to supervise the drafting of a constitution representing all currents, while not letting Islamic parties back in.
Will the non-Islamic parties be able to set up a liberal-democratic front that can muster at least 40% of the vote and form a coalition government? And since it will still be a presidential system, can there be a candidate acceptable to all? The Brotherhood is still fighting, though it is rudderless, the top echelons being in jail or having fled. There is still sporadic unrest and demonstrations, but in ever smaller numbers.
There are rumors about talks between Muslim Brothers and the regime, though for the moment Sisi steadfastly refuses to give them a role. At some point the Brotherhood will have to admit its defeat and seek ways to reorganize.
Is this the end for political Islam? It remains to be seen how Islamic parties – the Brotherhood, the Salafists and the Gamaa al-Islamiyya – will fare against the non-Islamic parties, which do not deny that Egypt is an Islamic country and that Shari’a is the principal source of the law, but want all citizens of the country to enjoy civil rights and freedom.
Representatives of the al- Nour Salafist party are demanding to have their say in the drafting of the constitution, and the Brotherhood – still reeling from its defeat – will eventually find its voice.
The liberal and democratic forces have yet to coalesce into a viable party and get the 30% to 40% of the vote they need.
The national salvation front, which united the opposition to Morsi, is disintegrating since the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei, one of its main leaders, who had been appointed vice-president and resigned abruptly to protest the repression carried out by Sisi, leaving his Dostour party in disarray.
There is talk of a new force, the “Free Current,” founded last December but still struggling for national recognition.
No potential presidential candidates have emerged, and so the crisis is not yet over.
What happens next will depend in large part on the economy. Egypt used to rely on tourism, traffic in the Suez canal and gas and oil exports, with some chemical products and agricultural produce including cotton and its industry.
Tourism is floundering, oil reserves are almost exhausted and the country has not been able to develop its enormous gas reserves.
Mubarak’s efforts to modernize the country’s industries have had only moderate success, due to bureaucracy and corruption.
Today, the interim government is working hard at restoring order after the revolution.
Shops are open; there are no more endless queues in front of petrol stations and no power failures.
Last week an ambitious program was launched to revitalize the economy.
No new taxes will be introduced and subsidies will not be cut. Thanks to the generous help of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates, which have pledged $12b., the government will make $1.4b. available to the banks so they can help businesses hurt by recent events and encourage new ventures.
Gas production and infrastructure will be addressed and efforts will be made to bring back tourists.
This is an emergency program aiming to put the country back on track and give the people confidence in their leaders.
The fundamental reforms needed – such as canceling subsidies and introducing more privatization and modern technology – will require such enormous investments that it is difficult to see how the country can manage on its own. Yet political and economic stability will not be achieved otherwise.
Egypt needs the help of the West. It needs its own Marshall Plan to resume its place as a regional leader.
The question, of course, is will it get it?
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.