By Stephen Tio Kauma
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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