The strength of Egyptian resilience
The knowledge that a light exists at the end of a tunnel encourages many to go through it, no matter how dark or long it is. The risk currently confronted by the Egyptian government is that of citizens forced to reside inside a challenging tunnel for many years, without knowing when it will end or what the exact outcome will be.
The government has been relying on the resilience of Egyptian society, which has proven to be quite solid to date. Nevertheless, if this resilience is fractured it will be difficult to put back together.
The saying “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” describes Egypt’s ruling philosophy. We are a nation in need of complete economic reform, yet we prefer to take a few corrective actions that are often diluted with many unintended deceitful ones, taking us back to square one.
Although our government said 2018 would be Egypt’s year of economic prosperity, the present economic policy has lowered our standard of living. Egypt’s challenge today lies in our resilience in the face of this economic liability, and our ability to accommodate it.
The government needs to better observe the line of demarcation between society’s tolerance for economic reform and the inability to survive.
The government often wagers on the springiness of citizens and its own iron grip, which together prevent society from collapsing or revolting. Notwithstanding, the risk Egypt faces today can be likened to the domino effect: The collapse of one dilapidated building could easily trigger that of those neighboring it, especially since the walls and foundations of many of our properties are already in bad shape. This metaphor applies well to our society, and shows how vulnerable it is.
For the past few years, the government has been working on substantially reducing subsidies. In next year’s fiscal budget, it intends to reduce fuel subsidy expenses further, from an estimated 110 billion Egyptian pounds ($6.2 billion) this year to 89 billion pounds. And electricity subsidies are scheduled for further cuts, from 30 billion pounds this year to 16 billion pounds. Even if it is economically correct, this policy will place an additional financial burden on citizens.
Furthermore, the devaluation of the pound in November 2016 has substantially lowered the living standard of all Egyptians, including those who are well off. The economy of a nation such as Egypt — which suffers from low productivity, is dependent on external factors such as tourism and overseas remittances, and where the level of imports is roughly triple that of exports — tends to be more fragile than that of many other nations. Furthermore, Egyptians for the most part are not equipped to think creatively when it comes to creating wealth.
Culturally, we are a static society that long ago accepted to be economically framed by the government, which offers citizens secure jobs with average pay in return for exerting limited energy at the workplace. The government wants to exploit the energy of its citizens in activities that barely enable them to feed their children. We need to capitalize on people’s energy by channelling it in a direction that boosts their living standards.
For years, Egyptian drama has portrayed our state employees suffering to feed their children and often deriving pleasure from modest outings, such as a walk along the banks of the Nile. But for most citizens, even small pleasures are difficult to afford nowadays.
The government is working to reduce its growing subsidy bill (estimated at 385 billion pounds for the present fiscal year), which is a good move. But it does not give citizens alternative means to advance their incomes.
Egyptians — who live in decrepit buildings, putting the lives of their entire family at risk — do so because they have no alternative residences. The government needs to better observe the line of demarcation between society’s tolerance for economic reform and the inability to survive.
A combination of political and economic factors determines the extent of Egyptians’ tolerance for economic reform. Our government needs to learn more about its citizens’ resilience before it is too late.
• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom.