A video clip of a young Egyptian man standing his ground during an interview with a journalist went viral recently in Egypt. The arrested man sold clothes that had been smuggled through the customs facilities of Port Said on the Mediterranean coast.
When the journalist chided him about his occupation, the man accused her of being ignorant of and indifferent about the living conditions of the poor. He accused authorities of closing their eyes to activities of millionaire smugglers in the country and shamelessly pursuing the little guy who is trying to eke out a living for himself and his family.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instructed the prime minister to order an official investigation about the clip. Port Said Governor Adel Mohamed Ibrahim apologised to young men arrested on smuggling charges and a well-known businessman opened employment opportunities in his companies.
The incident has started a debate about how serious and effective economic reforms in Egypt are and about daily living conditions of average Egyptians.
The main economic reforms centred on withdrawing state subsidies for electricity and fuel, deregulating the prices of the US dollar in local markets and raising the price of state-built housing units. Those reforms had a tremendously negative effect on the buying power of most Egyptians and changed their lives for the worse.
Marriage is no longer affordable and many Egyptian families had to give up basic perks, such as family outings and vacationing, and necessities, such as dental, eye care and certain regular health checkups.
The debate touched on the absence of political reforms and the staggering inequity in the salaries of public officials. People have criticised the official discriminatory policies in favour of administrators in justice, the army, the police and top state officials.
They raged against rampant corruption, especially at the higher echelons of the administration and decried the widespread mediocrity of appointed heads of state institutions and agencies. Even carelessness in the management of archaeological sites and museums was discussed.
It was interesting to notice the existence of voices who accept the current political management of the country as the best possible under the circumstances. They argue that it was the previous political polarisation of Egypt that brought the current administration to power. They argue that the current administration cannot really undertake profound political and bureaucratic reforms because it risks losing the support of its traditional backers and will be facing insurmountable public demands and unrest.
It is possible for political authorities to surmount polarised debates and initiate policies for achieving a minimal degree of social justice and social concord. Egyptian society has reached alarming levels of social tension.
As to why things have come to this sad result, the obvious answer is bad advisers and opportunists at the top echelons of public affairs. Polarisation and social tensions work to their advantage because they can further serve their interests by consolidating power in their hands.
There are urgent files in need of fundamental reform. The health sector is at the top of those priorities. Egyptians are silently witnessing the painful shrinking of public health-care coverage and services. People are literally dying because they can’t find public care or afford private care. Food and water must also be dealt with urgently. Pollution levels and cancer and kidney failure rates are at all-time highs.
Social housing programmes have come to a halt and prices of decent housing have risen to phenomenal levels, very much beyond the reach of most Egyptians.
Finally, it is urgent to rethink the question of subsidising salaries and energy.
The urgencies listed above touch the daily lives of Egyptian citizens. There are even more important issues to be tackled. It is of top importance for example to open social debate about a consensual vision of the country’s future, its fundamental values and the mechanisms for managing social polarisation.
In the current context, pushing forward with economic reforms from the angle of relieving the state from its responsibilities towards the citizens and without providing alternatives for them is probably suicidal. People still harbour great expectations from the revolution and we must be careful not to destroy them. Egypt cannot afford another power struggle of the type that took place between the politically naive Muslim Brothers and the deep structures of the political institution in Egypt with their typical advisers who are more Catholic than the pope.
In the end, it is always the average citizen with his revolutionary dreams who will be footing the bill for that struggle.
It is during these critical moments that voices of wisdom from the administration should dare speak out in favour of more humane policies and decisions. There is no point in denying the existence of social inequity, incompetence and opportunism in the society at large and in the structures of the state itself. Ignoring all of this and preferring to further deepen the polarisation in the country can only serve the narrow and selfish interests of a minority at the expense of the country’s future.
We hope that the video clip that started the debate will trigger real reforms in the political management of the country. The administration needs fundamental reforms and must appeal to talented people with real expertise and wisdom in all domains.
Hatem al-Jawhari is an Egyptian writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.