Guide: The Challenges Egypt and the Morsi Administration Must Face

Bassem Sabry was an Egyptian political analyst who passed away on 30 April 2014 at 31. He was a much-beloved and prolific writer on the politics of his country and the challenges it faces. In the long piece below, re-arranged here for clarity, he provides an overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, with an emphasis on the everyday problems facing average Egyptians. It remains relevant.

Bassem Sabry , Thursday 16 Aug 2012 — Originally published in al-Ahram English

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected and civilian president, and his divisive choice for prime minister, former irrigation minister Hisham Qandil, have recently settled on their long-awaited choices for the new cabinet, a sizeable 35-strong council of ministers. This new cabinet faces a list of increasingly daunting challenges that face a country still recovering from tumultuous upheaval.

This special guide presents an overview of some of the most critical of these challenges. The focus, however, is more on the everyday life for Egyptians. The guide will avoid discussion of topics such as foreign policy or the influence of the military over political decisions. Rather, the aim is to highlight issues that have received a relatively smaller share of attention in public discourse due to the predominant focus on the democratic transition process and its exceptional and unique difficulties.

Table of Contents:

The Economy

Egypt has an economy with a GDP of upward of $230 billion based on official exchange rates, coming in the early 40s in many 2011 GDP world rankings. While that is roughly the size of the GDP of Ireland (with 4.6 million residents) and Portugal (with 10.6 million), and is higher than that of Qatar, Egypt’s relatively large population and population growth rates have kept most Egyptians from experiencing the benefits of high growth of over five per cent in recent years.

Per capita nominal GDP is under $3000, according to many estimates (the IMF ranked Luxembourg first in the same year, with around $113,500 per capita), and Egypt is ranked in the 120s globally according to this method of calculation. For comparison, South Africa had a nominal GDP per capita figure of a little over $8000, while Turkey's stood at around $10,500.

Even if taken by purchasing power parity (PPP), whereby local costs and inflation rates are taken into account, Egypt’s per capita GDP jumps only to around $6500. This figure is put in check through comparisons to Qatar's at nearly $103,000, followed by Luxembourg at $80,119, while South Africa's stood at around $11,000 and Turkey's hovered a bit over $14,500. For reference, US per capita GDP stands at $48,387 in both nominal and PPP terms.

Furthermore, Egypt's exports and imports need a seismic shift in direction. In nominal terms, Egypt exported nearly $28 billion (ranking 64th globally) in 2011, down by 20 per cent from 2010 due to internal and external turbulence. Meanwhile, according to World Trade Organisation (WTO) figures, exports had grown 11 per cent in 2010. In the interest of regional contrast, the United Arab Emirates exported $265 billion (ranking 23rd, though oil exports do play a dominant role), while Germany — a country whose population is close to that of Egypt’s — exported nearly $1.41 trillion.

Two other interesting regional non-oil contrasts are Israel and Turkey which export $62.5 billion and $133 billion with populations of under eight million and under 80 million respectively. Conversely at a global rank of 50 according to another nominal estimate, Egypt imported more than $57.4 billion worth of goods — around double its exports — while both the UAE and Germany varyingly imported less than their exports. In addition, Israel imported around $70.62 billion while Turkey imported around $212.2 billion. Egypt’s exports substantially remain primary and basic products, including textiles, agriculture and foodstuffs, and fuels, significantly lacking in the multi-layeredness of modern economies.

Egypt was ranked 94th in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index, down from 81st a year earlier, which was in turn down from 70th the year before last. Also, largely as a result of the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, Egypt ranked 110th out of 183 in the World Bank’s “Ease Of Doing Business” Index (down from 96th a year earlier.) Further, growth is widely expected to be less than two per cent this year in comparison to prior optimistic government expectations. Egypt’s public debt at the end of 2011 stood at 85.7 per cent and is rising. Local debt has risen to its highest level ever at LE1.183 trillion at the end of March 2011. External debt at $33.4 billion in the same period. The balance of payments deficit reached some $8 billion at the end of 2011, and foreign currency reserves have dropped to nearly half of the $36 billion of January 2011 (the recent three-month stabilisation has largely been a result of T-bill sales and international support). The Fitch rating agency recently downgraded Egypt to B+ from BB- with a negative outlook, dealing another blow to the country’s economic profile.

In addition, official estimates put unemployment in the second quarter of 2012 at 12.6 per cent. The figures also put the number of women who are unemployed at 24.1 per cent, significantly higher than the male percentage at 9.2 per cent. The recent CAPMAS estimates also state that the ratio of unemployed between the ages of 20-24 stood at 41.4 per cent, while for those aged between 25-29 being at 25.3 per cent. Real unemployment and underemployment are higher according to other unofficial estimates, while the number of Egyptians working in the informal sector is estimated to be 40 per cent, more than all combined employees of legal establishments according to an earlier study by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

Official July 2012 inflation figures are around 6.4 per cent, the lowest since Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, while unofficial estimates put overall inflation figures at higher rates. However, given expected significant impending rises in international food prices, the inflation figure is expected to increase. Current food inflation rate was estimated at 8.1 per cent in July, down from 10.8 per cent in May.

Official estimates put the number of Egyptians living in poverty at around 20 per cent while external estimates have claimed the percentage to be varyingly higher. For example, a 2009 news report cites a study by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights claiming that 55 per cent of Egyptian live under the international poverty line, while a 2012 report cited a study by the Egyptian Food Bank claiming the figure was 42 per cent. The phrase “beware the revolution of the poor” is not uncommon in the media.

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Subsidies & the Budget

Subsidies remain one of the most unique national problems, one that harks back to the Sadat years and even before.

It has been widely known for some years that subsidies constitute a pressing burden that Egypt could not sustain indefinitely. But, equally, governments have been beset with trepidation with regards to seriously addressing the issue, for fear of popular reaction.

In 2011, Egypt’s post-revolution finance minister, Hazem El-Biblawy, described the subsidy system as a “major mistake” that eats up one third of Egypt’s state budget (and is equal to about 10 per cent of Egypt's GDP), especially with more than one fifth of the budget already being spent on debt service.

In fact, Egypt spends more than two-thirds of its entire subsidies budget (one estimate is 71 per cent) on fuel for transportation and industry and domestic usage (such as butane containers for cooking) while the poorest Egyptians get little benefit from these transfers, with the remainder to cover all other national subsidy expenditures.

One illuminating example: while butane cylinders have been priced since 1991 at LE 2.75, government estimates their actual cost at LE80. With projected slow growth and an expected considerable budget deficit, the pain of such subsidy expenditures will be felt even more. The government has already set plans to slash fuel subsidies by 27 per cent, but there are worries that current plans might be too rushed, and that previous attempts at subsidy reform often largely ended as limited trials or changes on paper only.

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Food Security

Double-digit inflation and less-guaranteed availability of foodstuff to Egyptians have been an increasing concern over the past several years in particular.

In 2010, Egypt’s agricultural minister announced that thr country was importing 40 per cent of its total food stock, and particularly 60 per cent of its total wheat consumption — a critical crop for many Egyptians, with Egypt being the world’s leading importer of the crop at more than 10 million tons of wheat annually, according to a recent report.

Large annual population growth adds more strain on Egypt to its feed citizens, many of whom are still significantly dependent on food subsidies and government coupons. In 2010 alone, Egypt increased bread subsidies from LE9 billion to LE21 billion while banning rice exports so as to feed a growing population.

2011 in particular was difficult on Egyptian homes as a result both of the aftermath of the revolution and international inflation in the price of food items that left many Egyptians — who spend a reported 38.1 per cent of their income on food — financially strained. The UN's Food And Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Food Price Index peaked at 238 points in February of 2011, compared to 213 in July 2012 - which, however, was up 6 per cent from June.

With most of Egypt desert land, significant areas of the country’s nearly three per cent of arable land is being used for construction, or suffering from the erosion of its soil for use for in making construction bricks. Furthermore, global production of food is not rising at the same speed as population increases, and oil prices are expected to ascend, all of which put even more pressure on food security in Egypt. Also, there are concerns regarding the potential effects of a current severe drought in the US on international prices of wheat and corn.

However, a recent statement by a government official claimed that the rise in this year’s domestic wheat harvests could shield Egypt from much of that impact, due to requiring 20 per cent less imports than usual.

Egypt, including its private sector, has been taking some steps to deal with food scarcity, including using land in Sudan to plant crops and raise cattle and livestock for commercial consumption. But with Sudan’s current political climate and Egypt being pushed into a potentially delicate diplomatic challenge, the fate of these strategic agricultural moves may not be as certain as once thought, and alternatives need to be ready.

The country's new Agricultural Minister, Salah Abdel-Momen, has also announced a large-scale land reclamation initiative, aiming at adding 1 million feddans (1 feddan= 1.038 acres) over five years. The project will be divided over five equal areas of 200,000 feddans each, with each area set to become home for around one million people. But while the initiative's funding of $10 billion would be entirely sourced from outside of the state budget, according to Abdel-Momen, some remain critical of the entire effort.

One major reason for criticism is that previous land reclamation projects in Egypt had proven to be largely disastrous. The Toshka project in particular, launched in 1997 to great state propaganda, was set to create 540,000 feddans within ten years of its inception, and eventually 3.4 million feddans by 2017. Thus far, and after billions in expenditure, less than 50,000 feddans have been reclaimed.

An alternative path is to work on boosting the productivity of the existing arable land, said to be 8.6 million feddans according to an official figure. One example: according to figures published by Ahram Online, average wheat production (which is Egypt's most critical crop) stands at 2700 kg per feddan, while the yield could reach 3600 kg if the agricultural process is improved.

Food inflation in July stood at around 8.1 per cent in July, down from 10.8 per cent in May, according to state figures.

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Fuel & Electricity Shortages

Power cuts in the summer have been slightly increasing in Egypt over the past few years, yet were most profoundly felt this year, affecting homes and businesses adversely. Areas around Cairo and major cities have rotating power outages lasting often 90 minutes on average, with outages reportedly longer in rural and non-urban areas.

Officials have been exchanging blame for the phenomenon, accusing the ministries of petroleum and electricity for fuel shortages, protests and strikes at power plants, and also the rise in the number of air conditioning units in homes. Alternatively, citizens and political groups put the blame on government officials and the pace of development and maintenance of the country’s energy supplies, production capacity and electricity grid.

Official figures show the number of AC units in Egypt were under 200,000 in 1999, rising to three million in 2009, and doubling to six million by 2012 due to the introduction of cheaper units to the market, accounting alone for 20 per cent of energy consumption according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Electricity.

According to the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company, households account for 42 per cent of electricity usage, while industry accounts for 32 per cent (down from 38 per cent in 2007). Also blamed are the street lamps which often are being left lit in the day time; these reportedly account for six per cent of energy consumption.

Current overall peak summer demand is said to be around 3000 megawatts more than can be easily provided by the national grid.

Another problem that has been felt over the past year has been intermittent shortages of transport fuel, with cars and trucks lining up for hours at gas stations in order to refuel, uncertain whether or not they would eventually get their tanks filled.

In addition, there has been also a shortage of butane gas canisters, which remain in heavy usage in both urban and rural households, used for cooking and other domestic purposes.

Blame has been variably assigned to theft and smuggling of subsidised fuel for resale in the black market and abroad, panic-buying and stocking, protests and strikes, distribution problems, and bad weather conditions affecting imports. The problem seems to regularly resurface in major cities every few weeks for a few days, while is reported to be more severe and regular outside urban areas.

According to Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, quoting government sources, the state is currently attempting to fight the shortages by pumping larger-than-normal daily amounts of fuel: 38,000 tons of diesel, 15,000 tons of fuel, and half a million butane gas canisters.

Also, as part fo a larger pan-Arab electricty-grid integration project that involves 8 Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have signed an agreement allowing for the two-way exchange of 3000 megawatts of electricity, designed to relieve either country during times of peak electricity demand.

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Over-population

It was recently reported that Egypt’s population has finally touched the long-anticipated 90 million landmark, with 82 million living within Egypt and eight million living abroad as expatriates, many of whom live in volatile conditions, putting Egypt in the top 15 most populous countries in the world. 2008 CAPMAS (Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics) figures, which remain pertinent, suggested Egypt was currently growing at an annual rate of nearly 1.9 million people, while aggressive 2010 estimates claimed Egypt could be home to 140-155 million people by 2050, on current growth patterns. Egypt’s fertility rate has significantly dropped from the 1960s when it was at a remarkable 7.2 children per woman, down to 3.2 in 1998 and where it is hoped to reach two children per woman by 2030, under National Democratic Party population policies that largely remain intact.

Alternatively, using World Bank figures for the purpose of contrast, estimates claim Egypt’s population grows at around 1.7 per cent, compared to other countries with similar populations such as Vietnam at one per cent, Ethiopia at 2.1 per cent, and Germany at (negative) -0.1 per cent.

As other points in this report demonstrate, such high growth rates have diluted or dissipated many of the positive effects of economic growth and public policies pursued in Egypt over the last few decades, and have lead to difficult and strained living conditions for a significant number of Egyptians on all fronts.

As a quick indication: Egypt ranked 85th from 137 in the Quality Of Life Index, and even dropped one spot to 117th out of 187 in the 2011 Human Development Index, garnering the status of “medium human development.” Another interesting fact: two thirds of Egypt’s population is under the age of 30, indicating a young and invigorated population. Most of the unemployment, however, is also within that same age bracket.

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Slums and random housing

Slums in Egypt have always been understood to be a ticking bomb. Initially, concerns were primarily over informal or random housing areas becoming or being hotbeds of crime. But as the construction of informal settlements increased exponentially, due to rapid population growth and migration from the countryside, the problem became broader and more visible.

But it was the 2008 Doweia disaster that truly brought the issue to the headlines. The collapse of a rock face on the edge of Moqattam led to the deaths of tens and the injury of scores living in slums below, reminding people of the urgency of addressing housing challenges.

According to a reported statement by high ranking official with the Local Development Authority, random housing and slums constitute around 40 per cent of urban areas around Egypt, a figure echoed by President Mohamed Morsi in a recent address. The same source states that Cairo alone has 1000 random housing settlements, with 300 in need of immediate removal due to lack of safety while the rest remain in dire need of facilities and proper development.

President Morsi recently stated that there have been around 600,000 cases of illegal construction on agricultural land since the beginning of the 2011 revolution alone.

While definitions, and thus the count, of “random housing” vary, all figures are troubling. In 2009, studies of random housing in Egypt estimated of the number of people living in them reportedly averaged between 7.17 to 15 million people, a massive number at either end. The numbers have since increased.

The larger estimates include not only people living in houses that were insecurely constructed, and thus subject to potential collapse, or those built without proper legal licenses, but also people living in graveyards, mosques, slums, incomplete buildings and other non-conventional and non-viable housing.

Officials and experts remain divided over how to address these challenges. An early preference focused on relocation into proper low-cost housing projects. But as the numbers of informal settlements continued to grow, the prospects of such mass relocation lowered.

The second approach focused on engaging the safer segments of such settlements, providing them with government aid for the purpose of developing them into viable living spaces, while only using relocation for the most dangerous and unviable of areas.

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Religious Freedoms, Minorities

In the aftermath of the January uprising and the progressive message many felt to be at its core, Egypt's religious minorities appeared hopeful about their place in society, becoming more visible and vocal in their demands. Following the political rise of Islamists, however, they seem to have made a cautious retreat.

Two broad sets of questions are involved here, other than the traditional concerns of limited freedom of religion and worship.

The first regard the future of groups outside the mainstreams of Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Independent minority faiths as well as intra-religious factions face various societal and state hurdles in gaining official recognition and openly practicing their beliefs. These include members of the Bahai faith, whose Egyptian adherents are estimated to be several thousand. and Shia. Conservative estimates put adherents of the latter at 50,000 to 80,000, while others claim a much higher figure.

In 2009, adherents of the Bahai faith won the right to simply have a dash of omission next to the entry for religion on their national ID cards. Previously they had to either officially profess to Islam, Christianity or Judaism, or live without such identification, as some have done for years.

The latter option meant they were unable to fulfill any undertaking that involves almost any official paperwork, including the mere act of opening a bank account or buying a cellphone contract.

Other immediate practical problems persist.

One prominent example is the lack of legal recognition by the state of marriages involving such officially-unrecognised faith groups.

In fact, married or widowed individuals of such faith groups actually face greater difficulty in obtaining national ID cards than their single counterparts. The problem relates to the fact that Egypt does not employ civil marriage contracts, and all marital arrangements are religion-based.

In mid-2010, the government -- encouraged primarily by the Bahai community -- began studying proposals on how recognition of these marriages could be integrated into the legal framework of the Egyptian state, but the subject’s order of priority was superseded by the uprising. The issue has not yet been revived.

The Constituent Assembly's potential move towards specifiying Christianity, Islam and Judaism as the only faiths free to worship -- in contrast to the previous non-specifying articles of the document -- some worry this will further complicate efforts.

The second, and better-known, question concerns the status of Christians, who are Egypt’s largest minority at an estimated 10 per cent of the population and have to attain interfaith harmony. Concerns by Egyptian Christians have sharply increased since both the 2011 New Year's Eve bombing of the Qideesien Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead and dozens injured, and the rise of political Islamist movements and political forces following the uprising.

Unrest facing Egypt's Christians as well as incidents involving clashes between Christians and Muslims also appeared to be relatively on the rise over the last few years. The subject has become an even more pressing part of the discourse shortly after the uprising, with the March 2011 burning down of the Sol Church in Helwan and the subsequent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Manshiyya area of Cairo (which claimed the lives of 13 people, 140 injured) raising immediate alarm bells.

The bloody events at Cairo's Maspero TV tower in October last year brought the nation to a petrified standstill, both due to the violence the evening witnessed, as well as the worries over potential long-term inter-religious unrest.

Some explain the perceived rise in sectarian incidents as the product of increased economic hardship. Others worry it reflects the appearance of a less tolerant form of religious discourse in a country that had generally been known for societal harmony and coexistence. The trivial nature of the events which triggered the most recent sectarian clashes further raises the urgency of the debate.

Clashes between Muslims and Christians last week in the village of Dahshour saw exchanges of molotov cocktails and gunfire, the destruction and burning of several Coptic-owned homes and shops, and an attempt to ignite a local church. They reportedly began, however, after a Coptic laundry worker accidentally burned the shirt of a Muslim customer while ironing it.

Coptic groups have complained that perpetrators of sectarian violence frequently escape proper punishment, and that Coptic families in areas of sectarian tension are often forced to move out to avoid escalation.

Following the revolution, Egypt passed a new anti-discrimination law that was widely welcomed.

There are also fresh efforts to draft and enact a law unifiying regulations for building and maintaining houses of worship, which would theoretically address long-held Copt concerns about a lack of full freedom to build churches.

Debate continues too on a new personal status law that would regulate marriage and divorce matters for Christians and non-Muslims in general. This remains the subject of controversy even within the Church, especially when it comes to rules governing divorce.

Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party have expressed their general commitment to the principle of equal citizenship.

An advisor to Morsi previously indicated that the president was planning to appoint a Coptic vice-president as well as a female one. Such moves would set a historic landmark in the history of Egypt.

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Judiciary & Education

Judiciary:

Keeping this one - for a change - short and simple. Egypt's judicial system is, to put it mildly, severely inefficient, slow and its estimated 15,000 judges are extremely overloaded -- legal cases can drag on for years. Reforming the entire system represents a massive challenge, while it's independence from the influence of the executive branch remains a prominent long-term demand.

The appointment of a pro-reform judge as Vice President was translated, in part, as a sign of the policy priority this sector might end up getting from the Morsi administration. In addition, observers largely welcomed recent moves by the new Justice Minister to separate judicial inspection from the influence of the executive branch, until such a separation is fully codified into the highly-anticipated new judicial overhaul bill.

Education:

There are three main sides to Egypt’s educational problems.

The first is overall literacy rates -- according to the UNDP, Egypt ranks 97th in the world in terms of illiteracy. Only 66.4 per cent of the population are able to read or write at any level. Most of Egypt's illiterate are women.

Despite efforts to increase the overall number of literate Egyptians, the country's population growth have largely kept stooped the percentage from rising. The second side is the actual number of people with any level of formal education.

School dropout rates are high, especially for females, despite free and subsidised tuition. Many choose to avoid the costs for transportation, private tutoring (which is becoming customary) and other study accessories.

Some families keep their children out of school to have them work and help support the household. Others keep their girls from attending for cultural reasons.

Eventually, an estimated 30 per cent of Egyptians in the normal student-age group make it to further education, with a smaller percentage -- one hard-to-verify source suggests around half -- actually graduating.

The third element is the quality of education Egyptian institutions offer.

As a whole they are in dire need of modernisation, with current curricula focusing on extensive robotic learning of information rather than modern analytical skills.

If an Egyptian student disagrees with the official views expressed in the curriculum for a subject like history, which elsewhere might accept various valid viewpoints, then the student may fail the subject.

Public expenditure on education is 3.8 per cent of Egypt's GDP according to the UNDP. Classes are crowded, schools are under-equipped, and teachers often lack real training.

And despite handling nearly 300,000 new students a year, none of Egypt’s universities have made it into the top international 500 universities ranking since 2007, when Cairo University was near the bottom of the list. This is a true national embarrassment.

A 2010 UNDP report also showed that 40 per cent of Egyptian employers found the professional skills of new graduates to be "poor". The same report said that at least 90 per cent of Egypt’s unemployed were under 30 years of age.

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The Interior Ministry

The strong-arm of the Mubarak regime has largely avoided public pressures for radical reform.

Despite a 22 May verdict that saw five policemen handed prison sentences and two officers given suspended sentences, not a single officer or soldier has been convicted on charges of killing protesters during the revolution. This remains a major source of political controversy.

Advocates point to the case of Georgia, the tiny country which after its own Rose Revolution saw widescale reforms that eventually led to an 81 per cent rate of trust in the police, according to a 2010 survery. This put the country's law enforcers closely behind the church and the army in terms of public trust.

There have been some changes, however. In July of 2011 and July 2012, the Ministry of Interior enacted the two largest reshuffles in its history. Nearly 4,000 officers (representing 10 per cent of the force) were moved and/or promoted in each reshuffle. The higher ranks of the leadership saw substantial changes, while around 900 generals were forced to retired or had their service ended.

In June 2012, the police force was granted significant pay-rises averaging around 30 per cent, according to rough calculations. The theoretical aim was to boost morale and combat corruption by improving the financial conditions of staff.

There are traditional questions over how to ensure greater civilian dominance and oversight of the Interior Ministry as well as how an entity previously tasked with containing Islamists will co-exist with an Islamist-led political environment and process.

But there are other public concerns.

The first is the reestablishment of police on the Egyptian streets. This has already started to happen to a limited extent, but the restoration of the feeling of genuine public security remains lacking.

The second demand -- one often repeated in discussions about reform --- has been the development of the police force itself. There are widespread calls to improve its technical and methodological capabilities and tactical training, as well as introduce more modern forensic and investigative techniques.

Next comes the need to improve the general tone of interactions between citizens and the ministry, from normal encounters with officers in the street to the processing of official paperwork at ministry-run institutions.

The eradication of corruption within the police force and the ministry remains a major talking point. So, too, is using whatever is left of Egypt's current momentum for reform to end the use of kind of torture or human rights violations by the police or prison services. The protection of human rights should also be enshrined in the code of conduct of these institutions.

Despite the gloom, some other statistics are worth mentioning here.

According to the International Centre For Prison Studies, Egypt has an estimated total prison population of around 66,000, including those in temporary custody or pending trial. This is almost the same as France and Germany, the latter of which has a similar population size to Egypt.

This puts Egypt in 26th place when it comes to its per capita prison population. The United States, by contrast, has more than 2 million inmates from a population of 311 million, putting it in first place.

Another interesting -- although controversial -- figure from a post-revolution Gallup poll held bwteen July and August 2011 showed that, while Egyptians felt less secure than before the revolution, the actual percentage who said they had been the victims of theft was 8 per cent -- down from 13 per cent in November 2010.

Those claiming to have experienced assault also dropped in the same period, from 7 per cent in 2010 to 3 per cent in summer 2011.

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Freedom of Speech, Media & the Arts

One of the key issues in post-revolutionary Egypt, this gained further urgency after the conviction of Adel Iman, one of the country's most famous film actors, on charges of insulting religion in his decades-long body of work.

The court's legal justification and its initial sentence of three months in prison sparked vociferous criticism by legal experts as well as political commentators and rights and artists' groups. All of Iman's films were approved by Egypt's censorship board, which considered the religious aspects of the productions.

The sentence is currently under second appeal with a verdict due 12 September. The outcome is likely to have a profound influence on the general debate.

Another controversy erupted after an Egyptian court, an Islamist MP and a parliamentary committee all made separate calls to block local access to pornographic websites.

Such proposals raised concerns in some quarters about the state's right to censor all materials available on the internet.

It was described by some political commentators as the thin end of the wedge, whereby the blocking of supposedly objectionable content would eventually spread to the political and creative spheres, stifling debate and dissent. The example of Iran is often touted.

Egypt's liberals, literary and artistic figures have said now is the time to break many traditional taboos, end the country's long-standing censorship board, and bring down the barriers to all freedom of expression .

Islamist groups, particularly the FJP -- who currently dominate the political scene and are generally socially conservative -- are faced with a conundrum. They appear to be searching for a delicate, and perhaps sui generis policy, to solve the dispute.

On one hand, they wish to avoid going down in history - locally and in world opinion -- as having cracked down on liberties and free expression, and paralleling too closely the example of Iran.

On the other, their stance has to address a significant portion of their political base as well as a general population that is mainly conservative.

Former presidential contender Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for instance, made the proposal of abolishing the censorship board then bringing together artists, politicians and legislators to create a new law and system to both encourage the creative process and somehow respect conservative conerns. The keyword in that proposal, however, is "somehow".

The recent temporary suspension of the Al-Faraeen TV channel, and the court-ordered confiscation of new issues of the daily Al-Dostour, the latter subject of investigation for inciting sectarian violence and insulting the head of state, have also created a storm of controversy.

While both media outlets were substantially criticised for their content, and accused of fabrication and propaganda against figures associated with the revolution and - most staunchly - the Muslim Brotherhood, some commentators worry that the moves were rather politically motivated, and that the manner with which the decisions were taken might pose a threat to the freedom of the media.

Resurfacing in the aftermath was a near-unanimous conviction on the need for a genuine overhaul of laws governing news media, especially with regards to what constitutes a violation and how these violations should be addressed; and how to safeguard freedom of speech while responding to unprofessional conduct by news outlets.

Most recently, censorship authorities banned a Middle East History textbook from entry the country. The book was already in use for nearly ten years by the American University in Cairo according to the University's Chair of History Khaled Fahmy, reported Ahram Online. As of yet, there has been no official explanation for the sudden ban of the book, nor have those in possession of the book been able to locate a particularly controversial section within it.

The inexplicable ban of the book also further raises questions on the future of the outdated practice of censorship of print media, especially in the age of open access to infinite controversial content online, with already a significant percentage of the country having one form of connection to the internet or another.

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Tourism

Egypt has to take solid steps, including reassurances on strong security and the longterm economic safety of all touristic investments, in order to bring back tourism and industry investments. In 2010, Egypt had joined for the first time the rank of the top 20 nations in the world in tourism, raking in 14.73 million tourists (17.5 per cent higher than the previous year), before dropping by one-third in 2011 (official reports put the range between 9.1 to 10.1 million) in the aftermath of the popular uprising.

Revenues from tourism dropped to $8.8 billion in 2011 from $12.5 billion in 2010. In the first quarter of 2012, however, 5.4 million tourists visited the country, representing a 34 per cent rise on the same period in 2011, after the revolution.

There is understandably much to do for the country to revitalise and grow an industry that bring it 11.5 per cent (according to official sources) of its national income, employs directly and indirectly at least a similar percentage of its workforce, and is the primary source of hard currency.

Further, some argue that Egypt makes relatively little use of its non-archaeological and non-Red Sea tourist sites, and suffers from a lack of contemporary attractions, such as internationally-attractive national festivals.

Most crucially, Egypt’s conservative political groups and current Islamist-led political leadership must unequivocally reaffirm their commitment to safe tourism in the country. And Most immediately, concerns regarding the security of Sinai - following the recent attack that took the lives of 16 border guards and the consequential intensive military operations there - must be addressed.

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Street Children, Women’s and Children’s Rights

Estimates on the number of Egyptian street children have ranged from the tens of thousands all the way up to 3 million. A 2005 UNICEF estimate put the number at around 1 million.

Many such children have no official records of their birth or existence. They are either forced to beg or work, either by their own needs or at the coercion of organised rings. They lack any shelter or safe access to basic needs, and are often driven to a life of crime.

According to a UNODCCP study in Cairo and Alexandria, 82 per cent of polled street children cited abuse (at home or work) as primary direct reason for living on the streets, followed by neglect at 62 per cent. Top indirect reasons were the family's poor economic condition, family breakdown, dropping out of education and family size. 70% of respondents said they had dropped out of school, while the remainder had never been to school.

Responses to reasons for significant substance abuse by street children (66 per cent admitted use, primarily consuming glue and tobacco, in addition to over-the-counter drugs and local cannabis "Bungo") included relief from street pressure (70 per cent), peer pressure (60 per cent), to sleep easily (50 per cent) and to endure pain, violence and hunger (30 per cent.) Respondents also mentioned they survived primarily through begging (78 per cent) or washing cars or shop windows (68 per cent.) An overwhelming 86 per cent claimed violence was the number one problem they faced on a daily level, followed by community disapproval (48 per cent.)

UNICEF's 2005 report stated that 20 per cent of children between the ages of 6 and 14 were involved in labour, mostly in agriculture -- described by UNICEF as "one of the worst forms of child labour".

Sexual abuse remains a prevalent threat for Egypt's street children, as well being forced to participate in commercial sex. But perhaps an even more critical threat, a number of street children are abducted and used by human organ traffickers as source for organs, according to various reports.

Egypt's first anti Female Genital Multilation (FGM) law was enacted in 2008 following the death of a 12 year-old girl; at that point around 74 per cent of girls aged 15-17 had experienced some form of "female circumcision". This was down 3 per cent on the year before.

Elsewhere a 2010 article by the BBC claimed that 9 out of ten women "have had the procedure."

The World Health Organization states that, out of 140 million women to have overgone FGM, 92 million were in Africa, making Egypt's numbers even more troubling.

There is also the rising question of sexual harassment on the street.

A 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre For Women’s Rights said 83 per cent of Egyptian women had experienced one degree or another of sexual harassment.

The problem of sexual harassment seems to have a strong psychological dimension, statistics shows.

The same study reported that 62 per cent of respondent men said they had engaged in one form of harassment or another, while 53 per cent felt women deserved the blame for "bringing it on." Given that respondents often give more favourable answers in surverys, it is possible the real numbers are much higher.

According to Al-Ahram Weekly, a 2008 survey by the Earth Centre For Human Rights (ECHR) stated that 39 per cent of respondent women claimed they were beaten by their husbands for reasons that included leaving the house without permission, talking back at them or burning the food.

Other reported surveys state that around one third of Egyptian women are victims of one form of domestic abuse or another, while the actual number is thought to be higher due to a perceived high number of women unwilling or incapable of speaking up or seeking help.

And while women have been making progress and even achieving parity in various fields in Egypt, there are there are still other alarming trends and inequalities.

For example, Egypt only saw its first female judge in 2003 when a presidential decree appointed Tahany El-Gebaly to the Supreme Constitutional Court. Egypt later instated 30 female judges to family courts, but the presence of women remains very limited in the Egyptian judiciary as well as in the state’s upper posts.

The women's quota of 12 per cent of seats in the parliament's lower house was abolished after the 2011 uprising. The post-Mubarak parliament has less than 2 per cent of its seats held by female members -- 9 women from 500 posts, with the number including two appointees.

This contrasts with Algeria, where women are around 53 per cent of the population but control 45 per cent of magistrate roles and 32 per cent of the national assembly, according to Al-Arabiya's news website. Libya's new assembly has 33 women in its total 200 members.

Recent national unemployment figures in the second quarter of 2012 suggested that 24.1 per cent of women were unemployed compared to 9.2 per cent of men.

There has also been limited rhetoric regarding the lowering of the minimum age for marriage to 14 from 18, and abolishing the woman's right to call for divorce, the latter only passed in 2000. Also discussed was the possibility of decriminalising FGM. Opponents of decriminilisation were most alarmed when current President Mohamed Morsy appeared to suggest during a Q&A session while still a candidate that he was in favour of leaving the choice on having the procedure for the family.

The Muslim Brotherhood responded through Twitter, acknowledging the ambiguity of their candidate's response. They stated that, however, they were firmly against FGM, that the current law banning it would not be repealed, and that additional awareness efforts needed to be aid the legal ban. Critics remain cautiously vigilant.

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The Public Sector & Privatisation

The years of Anwar Sadat's presidency marked a shift in Egypt’s economic policy, from a socialist structure to a more mixed economy.

By the early 1990s, Egypt was decidedly moving towards a more market-oriented economy and streamlining its public sector through privatisation and restructuring.

The official stated policy of the privatisation was to divest poorly performing companies to private investors who could inject their capital and expertise into turning the enterprises around.

The goal eventually became detailed as the privatisation of around 314 specific public-sector companies.

The process, however, slowed and grew more difficult after the government had finished selling off its most attractive industries, such as cement operations.

It was left with firms that held insufficient appeal for investors, whether due to specific company issues or the outdated nature of the enterprise itself. Egypt's state-owned textile plants were one example.

Eventually, the policies saw a de facto change, generally opening up to the private sector and Foreign Direct Investment.

In time, however, the privatisation program became the focus of public outrage.

Accusations arose that the government was selling well-performing companies and significantly undervaluing its privatised companies to favour well-connected their buyers. Despite promises that their jobs were secure, workers were also being laid off by the new owners.

But the government remained steadfast in its privatisation and liberalisation efforts. By the mid=2000s, corporate tax rates were slashed to 20 per cent and more flexible hiring and firing policies were implemented in the public sector. Symbolically, the reference in the constitution to socialism as the economic system of the state was removed.

And indeed, Egypt won accolades from international organisations for its economic reforms. In 2009 it was the world's top reformer for a third year in a row according to the World Bank and IMF. Private investment figures soared and FDI reached $14 billion in 2008, before the financial crisis. It was expected to reach around $20 billion by 2013/2014, though worries of rising economic inequality overshadowed the strong figures.

Privatisation remained mired in controversy, and by 2010 the programme came to an effective halt as the government could not readily sell the remaining 149 companies. This led to a temporary shift of focus towards restructuring.

The January revolution necessarily put the privatisation programme under a bright and not entirely flattering spotlight.

According to the Washington Post, Magda Kandil, the executive director of the ECES -- a local think tank that previously laid the intellectual groundwork for much of the privatisation and liberalisation efforts -- said the programme "became [one of] crony capitalism."

Kandil further stated that over the 20 years of the programme’s existence, the state only recouped one tenth of the value of the sold assets: $9.6 billion from a potential $104 billion.

By July 2011, in a largely political move following the revolution, the government officially announced the end of the privatisation programme.

In September of that year, a landmark ruling returned three companies to the public sector, citing egregious undervaluation. According to the case, one company was sold in 1994 at $17 million, a quarter of its alleged value. Another was sold in 2006 at LE84 million, despite being value at LE211 million a decade earlier. The third deal was cancelled after the investor failed to complete his scheduled payments.

In addition, around 6.5 million public sector workers and civil servants are employed by the state, taking a substantial toll on the state budget.

Some 150 troubled companies remain in the public sector from the original batch slated for privatisation. In 2010, the Investment Minister claimed in an interview they contributed about 5 per cent of GDP.

With a public that has grown somewhat distrustful of economic liberalisation, Egypt is faced with the challenge of deciding how to handle a public sector in dire need of reform.

The new government may have to choose between a problematic re-expansion of the public sector, maintenance of the status quo, or the continuation of its downsizing efforts.

With Islamist-majority political parties steadfastly liberal when it comes to economics, and many secular political forces closer to the centre, the commitment to market-oriented policies is likely to continue.

The question will remain: how to balance a commitment to free markets, the elusive principle of social justice at the forefront of the uprising, and public sector reform.

In addition, the streamlining of government’s bureaucracy and the hiring, dismissal and evaluation policies of civil servants are in an undeniable need of a thorough review.

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Corruption

A mid-2009 survey by the Ahram Centre revealed that 47 per cent of small and mid-sized companies in Egypt had to pay bribes to avoid closedowns, get licenses, and manage to work without problems (red tape itself remains a serious impediment to economic activity in Egypt, with a study by Hernando de Soto claiming it required 500 days to register a small bakery, though that is more likely to be the case outside urban areas).

In 2010, a government report also stated that Egypt sees more than 70,000 legal cases involving corruption annually.

Meanwhile, Transparency International’s Corruption Index ranked Egypt 112 out of 182, with a score of 2.9 down from 3.1 a year earlier (larger numbers are better), and scores overall remained in a downward direction for several years (for reference, New Zealand is in first place in transparency with 9.5/10, Qatar is 22nd globally and first in the Arab region with 7.2, while Israel is 36th globally with 5.8, and Turkey 61st globally with 4.2).

Setting aside statistics, it is a local tradition that one cannot get any real work done, or even finish official paperwork at a decent pace, without “greasing” someone's hand.

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Water

Egypt's reliance on the Nile river for 95 per cent of its water resources is another matter of serious concern.

The country has been involved in a well-publicised political spat with Nile Basin countries for some time over its share of the river's waters and the 1959 Egypt-Sudan agreement which divides control over the resources between Cairo and Khartoum.

Ethiopia announced over a year ago plans to build a $4.8 billion dam and hydroelectric power plant capable of storing 63 billion cubic metres of water. This could lead to a significant decrease in Egypt’s current annual share of 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile.

Egypt has demanded it be allowed to review the dam designs before giving Ethiopia the green-light for the project.

In terms of Egypt's water 'budget' and usage, there are some commonly used statistics.

According to Mostafa Tolba, President of the International Centre for Environment and Development and former secretary-general of the UN Environment Programme, Egypt's share of the Nile is complemented with water from deep aquifers, which add around 1.0 billion cubic metres per year, and rainfall which brings in an extra 1.2 billion cubic metres.

These account for a total fresh water budget of about 58 billion cubic metres per year. But there's a significant gap between this budget and actual usage.

In 2009, Egypt's total yearly water consumption was estimated at about 78 billion cubic metres. Agriculture accounting for 80 per cent of the consumption while drinking water and industry made up 10 per cent apiece.

The difference of about 20 billion cubic metres was covered, according to Tolba, by "recycling agricultural drainage, blending it with Nile fresh water, abstraction from shallow aquifers(...), and treatment of municipal sewage."

A June 2012 statement by former irrigation minister -- and now Prime Minister -- Hisham Qandil said that the annual per capita share of water for Egyptians had dropped below 700 cubic metres, substantially beneath the international water poverty line of 1000 cubic metres.

By comparison. Egypt’s per capita share was 2,000 cubic metres in 1960. Already many Egyptians have no access to either regular clean water or sanitation.

Population pressures are one factor, but there are other causes too. Evaporation of surface water is said to cost 2-3 billion cubic metres per year; a 2007 independent study also claimed another 3 billion cubic metres was lost due to its absorption by grasses which grow along the Nile, with an exta billion seeping away via pipe leakages.

Also blamed are traditional methods of flood irrigation which, by their very nature, make excessive use of water.

Rice-planting, which requires substantial amounts of water, has also been named a culprit. The state has enforced legal measures to limit the amount of rice planted in Egypt at 1.1 million acres this year. The government plans to import 700,000 tonnes of rice to cover the difference, according to news reports. Improper and wasteful household usage is also reported to cost around half a billion cubic metres, according to a 2010 report by the Arab Network For Human Rights Information.

Upscale new housing settlements on the fringes of Cairo, many with golf courses, are anotehr common target of criticism with regards to their water consumption.

The quality of potable water in Egypt is also under question.

In 2008, Al-Ahram newspaper cited a study by the National Toxicology Centre Of Cairo University’s Faculty Of Medicine which claimed that a half-million Egyptians suffer from various degrees of poisoning due to toxic levels in their drinking water. It said 5,000 had died as a direct result of the same. Kidney failure and diseases caused by the water are also a concern.

The study claimed that around 16 billion cubic metres of agricultural and industrial waste was being dumped annually into the Nile. While some dispute the figure -- in March, parliament asked for an investigation, citing figures from the report -- it gives a broad indication of the possible problem.

Blame has also been apportioned to over-chlorination, antiquated and polluted pipe systems, and the disposal of sewage disposal directly into the Nile.

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Saving Cairo!

Cairo, the heart of Egypt and one of the world’s largest metropolitan urban areas, as well as one of the world’s most historic cities, is beginning to show severe cracks in its visage. Egypt’s capital is one of the most population-dense cities in the world (variously ranking within the top 50 depending on methods of calculation). Unlike other populated cities, such as Tokyo, it is neither designed nor equipped to handle these sizable demographic pressures, with one estimate stating that 22 million people live in Cairo’s metropolitan area. The city was originally designed to host just five million citizens.

Begging and street children are growing phenomena, and street-based sexual harassment is an intense concern in many parts of Cairo. The city’s traffic is internationally recognised as one of the most congested and most challenging. Drivers show little adherence for pertinent laws, while efforts at traffic law enforcement always die off after a rousing start (drivers now regularly break through many of recently installed and briefly respected automated traffic lights). Packed roads move at bottleneck pace, and parking has become immensely difficult (over the past years, some people have begun seizing control over several meters in streets all over the city, regulating parking in exchange for a tip).

The city’s public transportation system, which carries more than 12 million passengers daily, is operating well beyond capacity and badly requires expansion and overwhelming renovation. Roads are crammed from the pressure of more than 14 million cars, according to a 2010 estimate. Cairo’s Metro, which still has to cover the remainder of the capital and feature shorter distances between its stations, is one of the 15 busiest in the world, with reportedly 2.5 to three million people using it every day.

The bus system, in particular, which moves daily more than seven million passengers according to a government official, is under severe pressure. The outdated and badly maintained buses have almost no dependable schedule; even the previously premium air-conditioned buses are a shadow of their former selves. Employees striking over poor working conditions and pay have led to intermittent episodes of paralysis over the past months. Officials stated early this year that the bus system is in need of around 1200 new vehicles over the next five years, whose costs range between LE800,000 to LE1 million per vehicle. Financing such renovations remains a challenge, with a strained national budget already in deficit territory, and the head of the National Transport Authority complaining of an interest rate of 13 per cent charged for loans by the National Investment Bank.

Waste collection and beautification remain serious concerns, with a 2006 estimate claiming the city produced 13,000 tons of garbage, a significant percentage of which is left without collection or proper treatment.

Air pollution at the heart of Cairo is a dramatic worry. At a reported 138 particulate matter per cubic metre of air, air pollution is way above the internationally recommended limit of 73 particulate matter per cubic metre of air (for reference, Paris is at 38, and New York is 21). Noise pollution in the centre of the capital is said to average 90 decibels (dB) rarely falling under 70 dB compared to an acceptable EPA range of 35-55 dB. The infamous annual phenomenon of the "black cloud" over Cairo remains a challenge, said to be largely due to the burning of garbage and rice straw after harvest, though it shows signs of abating.

There are also concerns about pollution of tap water from over-Chlorination, from antiquated pipe systems and water tanks, and worries about the increased pollution of the Nile’s waters a result of sewage disposal and industrial waste.

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Healthcare & hepatitis

In 2011, Egyptians had a life expectancy at birth of 72.93 years, ranking 121st globally, compared to world leader Monaco at 89.68 years, and Chad at the bottom of the list at 48.69, though surprisingly a bit ahead of Turkey at 72.77 and even Russia at 66.46.

Estimates of both public spending and state allocation on healthcare are currently around five per cent of GDP and the budget respectively (public demands have been made to raise health spending to 15 per cent of the budget).

Public hospitals are limited compared to patient load, often poorly equipped, overcrowded, and buildings and facilities are in dire need of renovation and expansion, doctors are underpaid and often resort to debatable external means to supplement their income.

Patients complain of the limited availability of medical specialists in state hospitals and clinics, and modern standards are still a distance away in several fields, such as overall patient care and infection control.

At the moment, around 57 per cent of the population — according to one somewhat questionable 2008 official estimate — receives some form of health insurance or another, which primarily covers public sector employees and students (in 2010, the National Democratic Party tried to bring farmers under the national health insurance service, while farmer-representing groups have addressed the Constituent Assembly this year for the same purpose).

But the overall national health insurance system itself is financially strained, and many reform bills attempt to politically expand coverage without sufficient consideration to the allocation of resources.

More important, the entire philosophy and structure of the national health insurance system needs a genuine overhaul, including on the selection of diseases that fall under its overall blanket, the lack of conceptual uniformity over who is covered or not, the fate of the Nasser-instated “free treatment” state hospitals and clinics, and the lack of a continuous secure supply of basic and critical medication (many complain of the quality of the Egyptian variants of common medications).

According to a news report in February 2012, the (then) head of Parliament's Health Committee stated that a recent poll suggested that 65 per cent were unhappy with the country's national health insurance scheme.

In particular, special attention has to be given to deciding the future of the problematic “state-funded treatment” scheme to which uninsured citizens can apply.

The scheme has been subject to abuse by medical professionals, institutions, MPs aiming to gain favour with their constituencies, and government officials, and was in debt by more then LE2 billion by 2010.

As current national insurance does not cover all citizens, the need for the state-funded treatment system only kept growing, though it is poorly planned and reforming the entire system became more complex.

The most recent reform effort aims at bringing an estimated 13 million children below the age of 6 properly under the current national Health Insurance service, setting detailed regulations for finance.

According to a Dr. Mohsen George, a state health official, the disorganised treatment of this segment under current laws caused the state a deficit of more than LE150 million annually over the past 15 years, for a total of LE1.3 billion. Critics argue that while the effort is positive, it might lead to delaying a much-needed overall reform of the entire healthcare system.

Egypt also has an estimated nine million citizens suffering from diabetes, one of the leading national diseases. Most disastrously, Egypt has undisputedly the worst international epidemic of Hepatitis C, with an estimated 15-20 per cent (if not more) of the population testing positive for the disease, and with 165,000 new people getting infected with it annually.

Other than the tragic human impact, treating the epidemic costs the health ministry a reported LE2 million a day, and costs national health insurance LE250 million annually, according to news reports. Some have controversially linked the Hepatitis outbreak to the country’s otherwise laudable Bilharzia treatment campaign.

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National reconciliation

The March 2011 referendum on the constitutional amendments, the parliamentary and presidential elections, the rising conservative-liberal confrontation, the politicisation of the Coptic vote, sectarian incidents, controversy over role of the military in national politics, the two constituent assemblies (one dissolved, the other threatened with the same fate) as well as discord on the constitution and the revolution as a whole have left Egypt and its political forces more divided than at any time in Egypt's history. The controversial and underwhelming choice of Hisham Qandil as prime minister and reaction to the formation of the new Cabinet only exacerbated the divide.

The new president and prime minister will be expected to serve as national mediators and fulcra tasked with a difficult national political balancing act, bringing everyone sufficiently together across the remainder of this volatile transitional phase, hopefully building an adequately strong national consensus and cohesion in moving forward.

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