The Powder Keg that Egypt Became (But yes, i am okay and thanks for all your concern!)

06 Feb

By Stephen Tio Kauma

Stephen Tio Kawuma: Perspective from Egypt

Having left the office on Thursday 28 January 2011 after penning a memo to staff about closure of the office on Friday due to planned demonstrations, i honestly thought it would be over quickly and that i would be back to the office on Monday to business as usual. (How wrong i was!) I proceeded to my local for a drink and at 10.00pm realised that my BB was off. Next morning, i realised the mobile phone service was off too, thanks to the “magnanimity” of a government which believes its their right to curtail my freedom to communicate as they see fit.

Having lived in Egypt for two years and counting, i have developed a sort of love-hate relationship with the country. Its a country of 85 million people, 20 million of whom live in Cairo, a GDP of over 200 billion dollars (Uganda is approx. USD 10 billion) and an annual budget of almost 60 billion US Dollars (Uganda is approx. USD 5 billion dollars). The country has fairly well developed infrastructure (including 95% electricity coverage compared to slightly over 5% for Uganda), good private education and health facilities, lovely restaurants, cafes and clubs and some of the most amazing and pristine holiday destinations you can find in the world.

The economy has been largely transformed in the last 10-15 years with economic liberalisation which opened up the country to investment,efforts credited to a “super” economic team unofficially headed by Gamal Mubarak who on top of being the President’s son, also holds a top job in the main political party (NDP), which has been in power since 1978. This liberalisation has created a large group of wealthy people (including 3 billionaires(USD) on the Forbes list), and a construction boom that that has spawned numerous international hotel chains, American style mega-cities with the attendant mega-malls, in Cairo’s outer suburbs that were bare desert only a few years ago.

However, most of the goodies created by the economic boom are inaccessible to a majority of the Egyptian people, 20% of whom live under the poverty line and an estimated 40% to 50% hovering just above it. A poor quality public education system has spawned a large number of half baked graduates,many of whom can barely speak a word of English. The public health system is atrociously inefficient while the civil service is bloated, generally corrupt and is known for its legenadary red tape.

So why my love and hate relationship with Egypt? I love Egypt because aside from its rich history, economic transformation has created a “first world” which i, being an expatriate, along with a very tiny Egyptian minority enjoy and relish in most respects. But i hate that Egypt which has large parts of its population that can only look into this “first world” from the outside as dirt poor farmers, poorly paid factory workers, housekeepers, door keepers, taxi drivers, deliverymen, civil servants (teachers, policemen), many of whom are underemployed and frustrated university graduates.

That such a large part of the population is locked out of this “first world”  is aggravated by the fact that they are also locked out of a political process that is seen as largely autocratic, corrupt and non-representative, so much that in the last parliamentary election, only 20% of the voting population bothered to vote. To this mix, add a repressive 30 odd years’ emergency law  that gives the police enormous powers that are often brutally exercised against rogue elements, but also against people who are seen to be anti-establishment, and you have a powder keg.

That powder keg exploded in Egypt last week, putting to rest my misguided belief that it will all be over quickly and that i will be in the office on Monday; an attitude, i have come to realise, is a dangerously delusional one held by many of us who form a tiny privileged section of any society and often inevtably, also form its leadership.

The Egyptian powder keg may have been avoided if the government had reminded themselves of the reason why they are in power in the first place. I am particularly intrigued by the concept of social justice(see John Rawl’s book” Theory of Justice” –NB I am yet to read the whole book). He argues that every society has social, political and economic relationships between its people which inevitably evolve into a trusteeship arrangement with some people becoming trustees (the leaders) for others (the led). Trustees, by the nature of their status, have the duty to ensure basic liberties and freedoms and apply them to ensuring that all the people they lead have  equal opportunities to personal, economic and social development.

A political system that relies on the concept of social justice will not create a society that splits society into the haves and have nots because government will provide adequate social services such as quality education, health and infrastructure that will ensure an optimum level of equality of treatmentand opportunity.

Indeed most political organisations i know have every intention to apply the tenets of social justice, including the Egyptian government, who i know have many schemes in place meant to address social inequality.  In practice, however, many fail in their public duty to do so because the road to social justice is riddled with many obstacles which they fail to overcome with disastrous poltical consequences. These obstacles as espoused by the Egyptian protesters include among others corruption and self aggrandisement,subverting the public good to the individual good, political expediency at the expense of the long term good, delusions of invincibility,nepotism, political competition that is coloured by repression and authoritarianism, all practiced by the very trustees supposed to fight these obstacles to social justice.

The Egyptian keg has been preceeded by others such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast and Tunisia. It is no coincidence that all of the above countries were once lauded as success stories in Africa before they exploded,  in the misguided belief that economic growth(unequal) and fancy “first world” developments, irrespective of high levels of inequality and political repression, represented success in its entirety.

In fact, we now know that economic growth without attendant social justice is as empty as Cairo’s many lovely hotel rooms today, as hollow as the burnt out shells of the magnnificent seaside villlas belonging to ex-Tunisian President Ben-Ali’s relatives and as bizarre as the two Presidents in Ivory Coast today.

It is our duty as the elite who form the bulk of the people’s trustees to let history become our teacher rather than our jail keeper.


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Posted by on February 6, 2011 in Stephen Twinoburyo's blogs


6 responses to “The Powder Keg that Egypt Became (But yes, i am okay and thanks for all your concern!)

  1. Twino Speaks

    February 6, 2011 at 12:53

    This is a very enlightening article and a well written piece, thanks Tio for it. You’ve described the Egyptian situation very well.

    In many respects the situation described has similarities with Uganda. For instance economic development that does not reach the majority of the people. The others are those “obstacles” on the road to social delivery. I guess on the other hand what may make Museveni different from Mubbarak is his interactions with the people such that even if many are not part of this economic growth or new privileged group, they nevertheless feel that the president is part of them and believe that he cares for them. That’s a crucial difference and I think this is also helped by our largely rural population – 82% – unlike Egypt where Cairo and Alexandria alone make up almost half of the population.

    Interestingly, the situation is also similar to S Africa. The difference with S Africa is that the people have a great say in leadership more than happens in all other African countries. People demand what is due to them and the government listens. A friend of mine took his S African office mates to Uganda for a wedding. The first thing they asked after getting to Kampala is “Do you people have a government?” The Ugandan replied “yes” and the S Africans then asked “Why don’t you kick them out? They are doing nothing.” So that’s the S African mentality and they do it. The government listens to the people but those social problems and economic extremities exist here as well. There is also a fear that the country is sitting on a powder keg of disatisfaction. With a GDP of US $284, a GDP per capita of $3764 and more crucially a jobless rate of 25% on a population of almost 50 million, people expect the government to do more. The current national budget of approx $130 billion is an effort by the SA government to deliver more to its people. S Africa however won’t reach the level of demonstrations as seen in Egypt because the president will have resigned long before. Trade unions and the business community are in themselves powerful enough to force change.

    These are interesting dynamics taking place in our countries. 2011 is going to be a year for governments in the developing world to rethink themselves.

  2. Maureen Nakate

    February 6, 2011 at 16:42

    Very enlightening articles. Wonder where Uganda is heading the Egypt way or south African,come 18th February.

  3. Tolu

    February 6, 2011 at 17:24

    John Rawl was, and is spot on. That is the Uganda we needed, we need and we should be needing. The time has come for social servises (servise delivery) to be effected in Uganda based on Core Values of Human Dignity, Equality and Freedom as expressed in John Rawl’s book.

  4. Twino Speaks

    February 6, 2011 at 20:02

    Maureen, I hope it goes the SA route.

    That’s true Tolu.

  5. henry

    February 7, 2011 at 10:30

    There is no way Uganda will go the South African way.
    We are for the Egypt and Tunisia ways.

  6. Aaron Magezi

    March 22, 2011 at 18:56

    International security and the changing paradigm from the traditional posture of “non¬interference / and sovereignty” with regard to states and their internal security mechanism’s was changed forever after 9/11 and the military intervention that followed into Afghanistan and Iraq (not necessarily in that order) The genocide in Rwanda and Kosovo crisis have all brought to light the weakness of this “arrangement”. There is allot I can articulate on this subject but I will just push out what I think are driving points,

    1. Military intervention is legitimate “if” sanctioned by the UN. And this is via a resolution (like 1973) in Libya’s case or “illegitimate” because the UN. Didn’t sanction the use of force, as was the case for the “cowboy” President G.W Bush in the action against the late President Saddam Hussein (who was eventually hanged or was he beheaded?) let’s wait to see what fate is in store for the Col.Gadaffi once the dust settles anyway. (Before I lose my trail of thought I was taught that the West “Europeans” are civilized but events show they can commit acts as atrocious and macabre as any seasoned savage” I mean “humanitarian bombing” what’s really going on here? Doesn’t that sound like an Oxymoron? How can bombing people be a humanitarian act? Did the Libyan’s request 120 Tomahawk missiles to ease their suffering? (Each one costs approximately USD$ 1.6M) why not just give them the cash instead. By the time this operation is over if not already billions will have been committed and guess whose going to pay for it and how? (Libyan Oil) is my guess.

    Only 3 conditions warrant the UN Security Council to sit for a resolution vote and generally they must all present an existential threat to international security
    i) Genocide or a regime going crazy and losing the plot mass killing of its own people.
    ii) Complete failing and system breakdown necessitating intervention * usually at the request of the Government under meltdown.
    iii) Humanitarian crisis of an “Oh my God this cant be happening proportion” as in Haiti and Famine crisis see Ethiopia…and Japan (though this is still unfolding and nuclear crisis requires highly specialized intervention) and “ultra secret” can you see them letting the Iranian’s in to help? I’m sure they would even offer to take the fuel rods to Iran and help “decontaminate‐irradiated” Japan.

    05 permanent members sit (U.K, U.S, France, *Russia,*China)
    *Didn’t veto / or vote they abstained so the operation odyssey was approved there are 10 non-permanent members and Uganda has just relinquished seat yet it’s now a very interesting time we missed the crisis talk of timing issues.
    That would have been a very vocal platform for President Museveni to oppose the Military Intervention (Although I am not naïve enough as to imagine he couldn’t be lobbied into silence or even supporting the operation “there are only interests after all”.
    The moral debate is too complicated to engage in and I wont even attempt allot of injustice exists in the world (I wish I was taller, smarter and a billionaire) but such is life.

    I think it’s critical to our national interest that we should know our place in the international society and it’s directly proportional to our relevance economically and strategically. When all is said and done we get what we can fight for and can keep NOT what we deserve, request or even have. There are rules and currently the rules have changed. We must learn and adopt.
    A critical look at the world powers will reveal that and even the current international theater with its actors holds this to be true. The best example is the unipolar reign of the U.S.A, but that is a subject in itself.

    On to next point which is “scaring the military fatigues off” many traditional security regimes in North African and Middle Eastern complexes and I believe has been the reason behind recent top level meetings all aimed at trying to understand the implication of these developing actions, in our local context and internationally:

    2. Human Security is taking on a more central role and is overturning the traditional doctrine of non‐intervention (This as the name suggests is human ‐centric its for the people) and focuses on setting them free from all threats (Even their own Governments) see Egypt, and now Libya who knows what tomorrows threat will be one thing for sure this changes the dynamics and status quo for those that would oppress or bomb their own people. (My comment here is who will keep watch over the watchers … or cant the U.S.A and
    U.K or France oppress their own people in a manner warranting intervention)

    3. Securitization (closely linked to Human security) is becoming a reality in everyday affairs and this is going to further impact the politics and security threats that make it to national and international agendas. Securitization (elevating an issue to national threat level sort of like when Aids was securitized by H.E Gen. Museveni earlier on in his regime (I think more as a consequence of the fight against AIDS as opposed to intentionally) as quoted in the late 1980’s “The biggest killer that my top officers and NRA is facing after the bush war is Silimu not bullets” – and as such was treated with emergency and extra ordinary measures with very good outcomes and set the stage for similar strategies the world over) the results speak for themselves however a decade or so down the road I noticed now its been de‐securitized and has slipped of the radar BUT…. Issues that I want to see securitized in Uganda:

    a) Food (This may sound silly and alarmist however based on the reports I’ve been reading over the past years things are not looking good) there isn’t enough and it’s only going to get worse unless we act decisively.
    b)Population (5‐6 Kids per person) is impossible to sustain especially 18‐26 year olds with no jobs even above replacement levels say 3 kids is still going to break our country. Birth control and sex education geared toward this must be pursued aggressively
    c) Employment must be addressed, no more lip service the brown envelope (not the money ones… I mean the ones with CV’s they need to really be reviewed) If this 15 ‐20M youth strong *I’m talking projected 2015 ‐2020 numbers don’t get something realistic to do – Then I fear that what’s happened in Egypt and is unfolding in Yemen’s is going to be a mild demonstration compared to the upheaval that we will face in Uganda. It’s not politically motivated its survival at play here. Their security is threatened and the threat isn’t armed or shooting bullets it’s their future and life “Obulamu”

    Now I think if those three issues can get securitized, and not just used as political campaign promises we may have a workable solution in the not too distant future. Even a serious attempt at addressing this is a success in the making.

    Securitization is achieved by speech and action if you’re reading this and I can get you thinking about it. Then maybe even discussing it over beer, tea coffee and asking and engaging your MP’s and Minister’s (some even your family) over those three issues ‐‐Eventually they will get to a platform high enough to stimulate a national debate and once the right questions get asked by opinion leaders .. We are on the path to solutions.

    It’s a very wide subject and allot of our issues poverty, health care, corruption all “criss¬cross” and intertwine however at the crux of it and transcending regional, or locale, where local, meets‐regional meets ‐national and at the very center is you, me and everyone else. It affects US ALL it is our security.

    Let the questions in 2016 onwards (God forbid any earlier than that) not be “How did this happen how could we not have seen it coming” In any case we can be best prepared.

     Comments criticism and differing opinions are welcomed lets open the dialog.

    Aaron R. Magezi is a student of politics and international relations with the University of London. His area of interest for research / study is security focusing on Africa its complex emergencies and humanitarian responses.


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