Amid calls for nationwide protests on 11/11, Watani asks people on the street: Will you go down?
No question, Egyptians are feeling the brunt of the economic crisis the country has been suffering from since the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 and the consequent rise to power of the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) in 2012. When Egyptians, some 30 million of them, waged a revolution on 30 June 2013 that succeeded in ridding the country of the MB, it was not the end of the story but the beginning of a new phase. A vicious battle arose between Egypt and the Islamists who had explicitly vowed to take their vengeance on Egypt in the form of “terrorism you never imagined existed”. [https://en.wataninet.com/egypt-arab-spring/egypt-post-30-june/avalanche-of-hate/1292/] It was not only a matter of Islamist terrorist attacks from inside and outside Egypt’s borders, but also ferocious attempts by the Islamists and international forces that support them to bring the country down on the economic level. So Egypt has been fighting an uphill battle to maintain security and stability, and to work on economic reform.
“This is not about reform”
As any political or economic analyst can confirm, economic reform is the bitter medicine for a country’s economy to be up and running. In case of Egypt, reform is long overdue; economic policies that were adopted to artificially prop up the economy, through subsidies and socialist laws since the second half of the 20th century, today constitute a legacy extremely painful and difficult to shirk off. It does not help that the post-Arab Spring political and economic turmoil has served to compound the economic crisis. Now matters have reached a dead end, and the only possible way out is for the country to adopt serious economic reform.
Today, Egyptians suffer on account of a grinding battle in Sinai where young men lose their lives to Islamist terrorism, as well as a severe dollar shortage which has sent prices spiralling out of control. Not surprisingly, the level of collective pain and discontent in Egypt is rising. A call has been launched on several independent Facebook pages for nationwide demonstrations on 11 November 2016 to protest the intolerable economic conditions. Watani decided to go down to the streets to sound Egyptians on the matter, pledging to keep names anonymous for those who wished.
Ahmed Antar, owner of an apparel shop in the central Cairo market area of Attaba, started by complaining of the “crazy-high” prices that have led to a slowdown in sales. “Sales are grinding almost to a halt,” he grumbled. “No one appears able to keep up with the rising prices.” “So will you go down on 11/11?” Watani asked. “Such demonstrations would ruin everything,” Mr Antar said. “It’s all about plundering, looting and ruin, not about reform. Calls for the protest have offered no viable alternative for the painful measures of economic reform, so what is there to demand?”
“Yes, I’ll go down”
K.E., a young public relations executive at a pharmaceutical company, said his monthly salary of EGP1450 was barely sufficient to buy food, and that had it not been for other sources of income he would never have been able to make ends meet. “But going down on 11/11 is a no-no,” he said. “I am not against protesting the high prices, but I’m no economist so can propose no solution. I’m sure any demonstration would be a golden opportunity for the MB to sow sedition, and this is something we cannot afford.” As to how young people may deal with the economic hardship, Mr K.E. replied that emigration—legal emigration, he stressed—might offer opportunity.
High prices are the scourge of all Egyptians, not any one person in specific, said E.E., a sales executive at Vodafone. “Everyone suffers from the difficulty of providing the most basic needs of living,” he said. “Not so long ago a EGP100 note could buy you a lot; not any more. I can’t even think of getting married; how am I supposed to provide for a family on my salary? And yes, I’ll go down on 11/11. It’s not a revolution; it’s an opportunity to express how we feel.”
“Yes, I’ll definitely go down on 11/11,” said M.G., a trader on markets in the overcrowded districts of Cairo. “I can’t take it any more, so can’t many people. Sales have come to a standstill, and our livelihoods are almost lost.”
“We’ve been there before”
“No question about the rise in prices, and no question on how painful it is,” the middle aged homemaker R.N. told Watani. “But this is not the first time Egyptians have endured hardship. We’ve been there before and exercised economy and patience till we rode out the storm.” Ms R.N. strongly rejected all calls to go down in protest on 11/11. “It will only serve to spread anarchy, which would raise prices even further,” she insisted.
A.G., a government employee in Alexandria, said he saw that the government is responsible for the spiralling prices, “not by failing to control the markets as some would have it, but by falling short of proper planning and execution.” The role of the government, Mr A.G. elaborated, was to make sure commodities are in good supply, strategic reserves are safe, how much local agriculture can cover the country’s needs and how much needs to be imported and to make sure there would be sufficient hard currency for that…and suchlike. He complained that the government was intent on executing new long-term projects even as it ignored urgent needs. “What’s so urgent about building a new state-of-the-art USD45 billion administrative capital?” he said. “Wouldn’t it have been better to spend the money on more urgent needs that keep on haemorrhaging our foreign currency reserves? As a State, we need to purchase monthly supplies of basic commodities, service our debts, and import essential production inputs.” Yet foreign currency is in short supply, he said; there is no tourism, no production, and no investment since an adequate investment law has yet to be finalised. “So you’ll go down on 11/11?” Watani said. “Oh no! That’s exactly the opportunity the MB are waiting for to spread anarchy,” was his reply.
Security comes at a price
“They just want to ruin the country,” 50-year-old Amal Adly, a homemaker, said. “Yes, young men die every day at the hands of Islamist terrorists, prices are out of control, and we keep on facing some new shortage after another. But demonstrations are not the answer. They can only lead to chaos.
“Egyptians should maintain and preserve something very precious they have now,” Ms Adly said. “This is the security we enjoy after the disastrous unrest we went through during the Arab Spring years. Egypt is almost the only Arab Spring country that can now boast security. Just look at Syria, Iraq, and Libya and you’ll grasp what a haven we’re living in. Let’s by all means preserve that.”
For 30-year-old Ihab Eid, demonstrations will solve none of the hardship Egypt suffers from. He warned against responding to the call for protest on 11/11, insisting that Egypt cannot sustain more crises; “it’s time we all stop complaining and go to work,” he said. “Those who can’t do that may at least hold their tongues and let those who work do so in peace.”
From the coastal town of Port Said, government employee Suad al-Naggar, 44, totally agrees that Egypt cannot at this point in time afford demonstrations or unrest. “Many others go through difficult times,” she said. “Only through solidarity among its people can any country overcome crises.”
And just as Facebook and twitter have been the platforms for the calls for protest on 11/11, they have also become venues for very strong calls that there should be no demonstrations on that date. One young man summed up the general mood when he posted: “Let us look for ways to get out of the crisis instead of protesting while offering no way out.”
Reporting by Theresa Shenouda, Rehab Gamal, George Edward
26 October 2016