In Translation: Nader Fergany on Sisinomics

Last week, the stodgy flagship of Egypt's state press, al-Ahram, published an op-ed by one of its regular contributors, Nader Fergany – a leftist intellectual who runs al-Mishkat Center, a think-tank, and is best known internationally as the editor of the original Arab Human Development Report. The op-ed contained a type of critique of then Minister of Defense Abdelfattah al-Sisi (this was a few days before he stepped and down and announced he would run for president) rarely seen in any part of the Egyptian media (at least those newspapers legally printing), never mind al-Ahram. It triggered speculation as to what it meant: how would the editors of al-Ahram allow this? Is it a feint of openness to distract from the fact that the presidential election is essentially being rigged – that we are returning to the late Mubarak-era model of opposition existing through the pen but never given a chance at the ballot box? Or a sign of genuine splits inside the establishment?

Our friends at Industry Arabic translated Fergany's piece below. Please give them consideration if you have any type of translation project, it helps them keep on helping us with this In Translation series. 

The Field Marshall… and the Direction of the Revolution

Dr. Nader Fergany, al-Ahram, 24 March 2014 

Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's logic regarding Egypt's economic crisis (which has been widely discussed in the media) seems like an echo of Hosni Mubarak's rhetoric, especially that of his later years. It is as if the ousted ruler has come back to address the people – or perhaps, this is simply the mentality of Egypt’s military leadership, even those in civilian attire. 

The first similarity between the two is their complaints about the increasing population, and the oft-repeated question: "How am I supposed to provide for you?" This points to a failing in his understanding of development, and that there are fundamental problems with his understanding of the relationship between the ruler and the people. 

First, there is the misperception of the people as consumers, or as empty mouths to be fed – and not as the nation's most important potential wealth. Building human capacity well and employing people effectively – particularly in knowledge production – are benchmarks of progress in this current stage of human progress. Population increase has always posed a problem for the leaders of states that are failing in development. These leaders suffer from a lack of knowledge, and furthermore, they lack the boldness and ingenuity necessary to create a national project that would effectively employ people so they can fulfill their potential. If countries like Japan, South Korea, China, or India had espoused a weak outlook like this, they would still be failing to develop, like Egypt is today.

Here, we might remember that during Mohamed Ali Pasha's reign, Japan sent a delegation to Egypt, to study our education system. That in 1950, Egypt was doing far better than China. That in 1960, development indicators in Egypt were better than those in South Korea. That the first plane to break the sound barrier over Cairo in January 1967 was a joint Egyptian-Indian production. The reader may indeed be surprised to learn that Egypt's contribution to the project at the time was the production of a jet engine – the most technically advanced component of the project. I don't want to reopen old wounds, asking what these countries have become in contrast to Egypt.

The second failing is that the ruler imagines himself to be the nation's cashier: standing atop a treasury he personally owns, spending its money on the people who overburden him with their demands. This reflects an inverted, paternalistic logic, wherein the man responsible for the nation spends money from his own pockets on the people. In reality, it is the people who pay the ruler with money from the treasury, which is owned and financed by the people. Furthermore, this is only after the people have chosen the leader, granting him a limited, fixed-term mandate to manage the country's affairs, under the supervision of the people and their representatives.

Al-Sisi also cautioned that two generations – i.e, nearly six decades – of sacrifice would be acceptable for the sake of the rest of the population. This rhetoric is reminiscent of Stalin, the cruelest tyrant despot in all of Russian history. But who has given el-Sisi a mandate to make decisions for Egypt and determine the country's future for the next 60 years? Even if elected president, his term would not last more than eight years, and so he shouldn't make decisions that determine the country's future in the long-term. That is, unless he intends to relive Mubarak's experience and that of his predecessor (both of whom came from military backgrounds) by removing the term limits set out in the constitution.

Al-Sisi called upon the weak and the poor to ‘tighten their belts’ and embrace austerity measures in order to help their country, warning that higher prices are around the corner. Earlier, he had promised to lift subsidies all at once, announcing in a prior speech that everyone receiving basic commodities should pay the full price. It was a direct reference to his intention to eliminate all subsidies on essential commodities, which Egypt's poor depend on. This, all while letting the wasteful government and wealthy Egyptians, including military leaders, strut about in blissful and sometimes ill-begotten luxury, never asking them to do something for their country.

Thus, al-Sisi's statements seem to indicate his opposition to social justice, even though it was foremost among the great popular revolution's demands. He has not asked anything of the rich, instead placing the burden entirely upon the downtrodden and vulnerable. Yet according to Forbes, some of the world’s richest are wealthy Egyptian families. Forbes revealed that just eight Egyptians possess 156 billion Egyptian pounds, 30 billion more than last year, when the economy was deteriorating and most Egyptians were harder hit than ever. Four-fifths of Egyptian families spend less than 2000 pounds per month.

Forbes published its annual list of the world's richest people, in which Egypt was represented more than any other Arab country. There were eight billionaires, seven of whom belong to just two families. One of them was a minister, combining his position and his personal funds, under the purview of the ministry. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia came in second, with seven billionaires on the list.

On the other hand, official statistics indicate that the poverty rate in Egypt has risen steadily, reaching 26.3% in the year 2012-3, 1.1% higher than in the previous year. Yet these estimates underestimate how widespread poverty is in Egypt. It is enough to know these figures are based on a poverty line of 327 pounds per person per month, an amount worth less and less every day. Who can live on ten pounds per day? If we used a reasonable poverty line like 2000 pounds per family, we would see that the vast majority of Egyptians would be counted among the poor.

It seems that Field Marshall al-Sisi only cares about pampering the rich and securing the loyalty of security service personnel, just like all the heads of state who preceded him before the popular revolution. After all, ruling Egypt has always depended on the dominance of the security services. The salaries of the military and the police have been raised four times in three years, making a policeman's salary is higher than a doctor's. This situation has pushed doctors in Egypt to begin the most recent wave of strikes, as several of their leaders have said. Among other suggestions, al-Sisi suggested that people walk instead of driving cars, a good idea to help solve the traffic crisis, the pollution crisis, and the fuel crisis, and would furthermore improve one’s health. So why doesn't al-Sisi start doing so himself, to start the year off right and set a good example for us all?

The above observations illustrate that el-Sisi, or whoever has designed his platform, does not possess a full vision for a real plan to revive Egypt's economy and achieve the goals of the popular revolution. Instead, he depends on the logic of “shocks,” taking advantage of the armed forces' potential. We must hope that these “shocks” are not a source of disappointment like the device [claimed] to diagnose and cure all chronic diseases in the world. While this device remains shrouded in mystery, it has been called everything from a scandalous fraud to overblown self-promotion.

Egyptians have suffered at the hands of deceptive illusions before, with the great Renaissance Project under the Islamist right, led by the errant Muslim Brotherhood. They have woken up to ever more misery and strife under the rule of the very regime the revolution arose to overthrow. Meanwhile these days, the drums ring out, and many dance to the raucous tunes of el-Sisi's presidential electoral campaign – before he has announced his platform, or even that he will run for office. The descriptions above outline the disappointment to come, which may unleash a third great wave of popular revolution.

At the very least, we can thank al-Sisi for not making things seem better than they really are.