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Egypt sees bias in U.S., not unrest at home

President Hosni Mubarak will criticize America's full support for Israel during his visit here as his country's progress toward economic and political freedom seems to be stagnating.

March 03, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

But some warn of an inevitable upheaval.

"Poverty in Egypt is double the poverty in 1952," says Anwar Howari, editor of a monthly foreign affairs magazine published by the government-owned Al Ahram group. "The amount of misery has doubled. There are people who earn less than a dollar a week.

"The poor are educated. They have their own ambitions and will not be patient for a long time."

The change in Cairo's skyline over the last 25 years is stunning; modern high-rises soar up against a backdrop of older, romantic Cairo.

Alongside the economic development, officials in the government claim great progress in the last quarter-century toward bringing Egypt to fuller democracy. They maintain that political participation is more open, that the press is freer, that the economy is being liberated from state ownership. It's difficult to disagree with the contention that, compared to other Arab countries - and many other African countries for that matter - Egypt is ahead. But consider that the comparison includes Iraq, Syria and the regimes of neighboring Sudan and Libya.

"I don't claim that we are a full democracy," says Osman, "but we are in a state of democratization."

It's been almost 50 years since a group of Egyptian military officers that included Nasser and Sadat overthrew the British-supported monarchy of King Farouk.

Since then, Egypt has gone through three economic revolutions: Nasserism and its socialist ideals; Sadatism, which rejected Nasserism and earned estrangement from the rest of the Arab world for making peace with Israel after three major wars; now Mubarakism, attempting to expand Sadat's open-door economics while restoring Egypt's place as a political, cultural, economic and religious leader in the Arab world.

Hosni Mubarak, who came to power by the accident of Sadat's assassination 21 years ago, has ruled longer than any of his modern predecessors. That's too long, say some of his political critics who sense dangerous stagnation, in addition to the suppression of ideas and controversy.

Heads roll when a crisis arises. The minister of finance may be fired over some economic flap. The minister of transportation and the railway head were forced to resign after the train fire that killed more than 360 people last month. Someone's head will roll over the building collapse that killed 22 people, including six brides-to-be and their attendants in Damietta last week - a building that was supposed to have been demolished more than two years ago.

But the presidency and the essential bureaucracy seem solidly entrenched. Mubarak appoints the editors of the major newspapers, the religious leaders, the governors of the provinces. Most genuine political opposition is stymied.

Government of government

"The government is the government of the government," says Howari, always smiling. "The idea of the people is lost. They are preoccupied with staying in power until death."

Another intellectual, unwilling to speak for attribution for fear of being sent to jail, finds the same stagnation.

"There's no serious debate, no fresh ideas," he says. "You have bureaucrats in charge. A bureaucrat cannot take initiatives. He can only carry out orders.

"Sadat took bold initiatives in both war and peace and in the economy. His successor would not dare do half of this."

To be sure, part of the evident stagnation in Egypt comes from government's torment over the social consequences of pushing ahead with more privatization, as Egypt's lenders have been demanding. The program has run into a number of obstacles, including a diminished interest among buyers in the current economy. But the great fear is more joblessness - hundreds of thousands, potentially - as result of fast privatization.

Change and risk

"Change comes with risk," says a prominent Egyptian official who would not allow his name to be used either. "And I sense that the crowd in charge now is risk-averse. They say `Oh my God, we can't do this. The street will be on fire.' When you have an entire system that says, `No, no, no,' then for sure you can't do it."

Howari, the journalist, finds the same in politics. "You need exceptional inspiration to mobilize the people from unprecedented political stagnation.

"All Egypt now lives day to day, hour to hour," Howari says, happy to be quoted by name. "Political stagnation will bury this country alive."

As for the central complaint of the Mubarak government against the United States, Howari says: "The Palestinian problem has consumed too much Egyptian energy. This generation believes that internal problems need attention. After 200 years of modernizing, we still don't have a modern problem to deal with."

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