How am I Supposed to Provide for You?
By Bassem Youssef
No sooner did I finish watching Field Marshal al-Sisi's speech to young people than I jumped out of my chair with a determination to go to the nearest gathering of doctors and dissuade them from their partial strike. Al-Sisi has managed to completely change my ideas about Egypt and its ungrateful people who just want to take and not give anything to their dear mother, Egypt.
Al-Sisi tells us in a voice replete with tenderness and affection that only a traitor or foreign agent would quibble with: "You have to give more than you take." He said that this is what he told his officers to encourage them in discharging their duties towards the people. Then he cited the lovely example of poor parents whose son graduates from university and goes on to pay them back. Al-Sisi wished that such behavior would become common.
In fact, I could use this lovely example to convince the ungrateful doctors who just ask, "What will I get from Egypt?" while not one of them stops to consider, "What will I give to Egypt?"
The ungrateful doctor studied and crammed, then went to spend his residency in remote areas, then was appointed as a physician in the Ministry of Health, spending long hours in the hospital. He is forced to chase after dispensaries and decrepit hospitals just to get enough to pay his telephone bill. The state bestows upon him an exorbitant salary, as you know. So to hell with those doctors who dare to ask for anything from Egypt.
I remember how about a year and a half ago, the Muslim Brotherhood doctors occupied the general assembly of the Doctors' Syndicate to thwart calls for a strike. At that time, both men and women occupied the seats and performed Friday prayer in their chairs – without facing the correct direction or segregating the sexes – just to guarantee that the motion to strike would be defeated. At the time, the Brotherhood's line was, "The doctors have to put up with it for the sake of Egypt" and fatwas came down declaring it impermissible to go on strike. This was back when the Brotherhood was buddy-buddy with the regime in power.
Remember this scene today because in the upcoming days the same doctors who stood against the Muslim Brotherhood are going to be accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and terrorists to boot.
Three years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood organized the "Put me to work in his place" campaign to support the Military Council against strikes and the workers' revolution.
Remember this as well, when strikes break out in the country and the media says that they're all Muslim Brotherhood members.
I changed my mind about going to the site of the strike, since it seems that the argument "What have you given to Egypt?" is not going to work with those ungrateful people.
I went back to finish al-Sisi's speech, in which he asked young people, "Before you have breakfast, did you ask yourself, 'What have I done for Egypt?'"
Hmm, ok that's a powerful question. I could go to workers' strikes in factories and drivers’ strikes in the Public Transportation Authority, and no doubt, no doubt I would find them stuffed on breakfast and the whole thing just some crybaby act to enable them to take from Egypt without giving anything.
The same person who said that Egypt will be as big as the world, in this speech tells young people – with the same tenderness – that young people should think about Egypt before they think about "when I'll get married and when I'll live."
It's as if Egypt were some virtual, mythical being that can only live on the remains of young people who have no livelihood, who don't think about marriage, and who don't have breakfast until they have thought about how to offer themselves up as a sacrifice to this mythological being.
I understand al-Sisi's speech very well. He is encouraging young people not to be selfish, to respect the value of altruism, and to consider that their actions reflect on the country. All this is very nice. However, I wonder: Who is al-Sisi directing his words at? Is he directing them at young people who can't get married or is he directing them at beaten-down workers and unemployed people who don't have the luxury of having breakfast before thinking about Egypt?
Al-Sisi poses the question: "Have any of us considered walking to our university or place of work in order to do help the country save?"
Actually, that's a genius solution to reduce pollution in Cairo. However, practically speaking, does al-Sisi realize that there are people living in Badrashin, Qalyoub and Bashteel who work or study in central Cairo? If the Egyptian people go along with this noble logic, will Cabinet ministers and army officers and generals follow suit, and we'll all do without cars and public transport? Or are we going to count on the poor embarking on this daily exercise on our behalf? This is of course after they go without breakfast because they have a guilt complex that they haven't done anything for Egypt.
This austerity discourse is not new for us. Before al-Sisi it was Mubarak who was makin us sick with his famous sayings, such as: "How am I supposed to provide for you?" Now it's al-Sisi telling us: "Health insurance? Ok but from where?" "Work? Ok but how?" Must we really do wrong by a whole generation or two (or so he says) so that the others survive? We don't even know who these others are! Are they what's left of the people after the next thirty years of injustice (two generations, that is) or are they the ones in the circles of power who wreck the state budget with exorbitant salaries, commissions and allowances – and then we go to the workers and doctors and tell them there's "nothing left"?
Does al-Sisi's economic program revolve around "Put up with it," "Tighten your belts" and "Practice austerity"?
If that's his program, he should direct it at state institutions and not young people and citizens. If ordinary citizens practiced austerity, then you would destroy purchasing power in the country and cause an economic depression.
During the Great Depression, instead of America tightening its belt and calling on citizens to go even hungrier than they were already, Rockefeller and the other captains of American industry pumped large amounts of money into the economy using state facilities, in order to undertake the largest rebuilding effort in North America.
Recessions and inflation are not fixed by belt-tightening but by encouraging citizens and investors to circulate their money in the market. Austerity is something applied to state spending – and it goes much further than a resolution banning mineral water at Cabinet meetings.
Before al-Sisi went and asked us "What have you given Egypt?" maybe it would have been better to ask this question of the army's economic establishments, which control a vast portion of the country's economy without any real accountability or tax liability – through which Egypt could collect its due from those who really did take what they wanted.
Austerity "and that's it" isn't a solution. "Belt-tightening" policies do not build the economies of nations. Nations are built by a healthy climate for investment and job creation, fair taxes for everyone (I repeat, everyone) and an environment that is suitable for attracting capital, by guaranteeing disclosure and transparency – even on the part of the army's economic institutions. But labels like "reducing spending" and "saving" only apply to publicly-funded institutions. If you want to abolish subsidies, then disqualify the rich, the affluent and the factories – all of whom are charged the same rates for electricity as the poor. We need to try that before we consider asking Egyptians working abroad to donate a month's salary or before we try to impose a levy on them in the form of a tax or through sentimental words.
Mr. Field Marshal, Egypt's sons abroad have previously tried to contribute to the country through educational or development project, but many of them went back abroad, either because of corruption, bureaucracy or political inflexibility. And Mr. Field Marshal, the media has treated anyone with a second nationality or even any Egyptian who has lived abroad as a traitor or foreign agent until proven otherwise.
What's strange is that the media that gobbled up the expression "As big as the world" nods its head in approval when listening to claims about belt-tightening, "We'll put up with it" and Egypt's dire conditions. And yet this is the same media that mocked Morsi and Hisham Qandil and their ilk when they spoke about wearing cotton clothing to cope better with the heat and closing shops at night to save electricity. Now, however, the media is the one calling on the people to wake up at five in the morning to go to work. But it seems they didn't catch what al-Sisi said: "People want work, ok but from where?"
The people are not a burden on the nation; they're human potential that needs to be put to use.
Egypt is not some entity that is separate from us and that needs to feed off of us, whereby we die that this entity may live. Egypt is the young people who want to get married and live; Egypt is the worker who wants a humane salary; Egypt is the doctor who wants a dignified existence in order to serve Egypt's ill – who themselves deserve decent health care.
Egypt is "us." Egypt isn't state institutions that are shielded from disclosure, accountability and tax audits under the pretext of national security, while the simple people austerely walk to university or their job (if they have one) and don't think about when they'll get married or how they'll live.
Is this the economic program that the country can expect? More of "Have patience," "How am I supposed to provide for you?" and "Well you see, it's because there's so many of you and you just keep increasing."
It might succeed, who knows. Let's ask the average citizen about the effects of such a program after several years, and I'm sure that he will answer you very cheerily as he thinks about the country before partaking of a non-existent breakfast, and he'll smile at you in satisfaction as he tightens his belt on what remains of his skeleton.