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Egypt’s Revolution/Evolution
CAIRO, Egypt -- While America’s weary eyes are focused on the war in Iraq, this potentially rich country at the center of the Arab world may be taking a completely different path to development and democracy. I’ve spent 10 days here looking intensively into the "new Egypt" after last fall’s upheaval elections, and it seems to me that the country is going through a slow-motion, evolu
Friday, February 24,2006 00:00
by Georgie Anne Geyer, Yahoo news


CAIRO, Egypt -- While America’s weary eyes are focused on the war in Iraq, this potentially rich country at the center of the Arab world may be taking a completely different path to development and democracy.

I’ve spent 10 days here looking intensively into the "new Egypt" after last fall’s upheaval elections, and it seems to me that the country is going through a slow-motion, evolutionary, almost stylistic kind of revolution. Let us call it, for want of a better term, a revolution of processes.

Take, first, free expression, almost always the base and core of democratic liberties.

I went one late winter’s afternoon to see Sanaa Seleiha, chairman of the cultural pages at Al-Ahram, the major newspaper. She told me with some pleased wonder: "When you look at Al-Ahram today, you see a different tone. You can see how they criticize the government for dealing with an issue. They even criticize Hosni Mubarak himself! This is new. Our problems are being dealt with openly -- you don’t think you criticize and you’ll be in jail the next morning."

Another day, I stopped by to see Emad Gad of Arabs Against Discrimination, one of the congeries of NGOs that are effectively filling the vacuum between the people and an, until now, largely unresponsive, autocratic, one-party government.

It was the NGOs, he said, who bitterly criticized the government for its inept handling of the Egyptian ship that sank recently in the Red Sea, the NGOs who took up the side of the victims’ families, the NGOs who are speaking out plainly for human rights.

"We have here a semi-open regime now," he said. "I can’t say we have a democratic regime, but I can say it’s getting better. You can speak, write, refuse Mubarak as a candidate. You couldn’t do that 10 years ago."

Then take the political situation, also dramatically, but carefully, in the process of change. Most Egyptians are showing a noticeable restraint in this country that has seen violent outbursts of the masses over the last 50-some years of its Arab nationalist history.

When I arranged an interview with Dr. Essam El-Erian, the spokesman for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which won an amazing 88 seats in the parliament in the elections, he warned against change occurring too rapidly and upsetting the fragile process.

"We are pro-change and reform in the country," he told me in the controversial Brotherhood’s offices, "but to have abrupt change is very dangerous. Therefore we did not rush to have candidates put forward for all the seats. We only ran for a third."

I had tea with Nabil Osman, the experienced former head of the National Information Office and a stalwart in the official party, the National Democratic Party or NDP. He was both ebullient about what is happening -- for the first time since 1952, multi-party elections are returning -- and cautious.

"It’s a rebirth," he said, "and it has led to a new electoral culture after more than five decades. But I tell them within the party, ’You’re the leading party, but it’s in your interest to strengthen other liberal parties. The majority party needs competition -- that brings out the best in you.’"

It is perhaps in the economic area alone where there is less holding back. Starting with major cabinet changes in 2004, when old-style NDP politicos were systematically replaced with one after another of Egypt’s most internationally successful businessmen, the message could not be clearer.

Still another afternoon, I stopped by the elegant Four Seasons Hotel to hear Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali speak to the American Chamber of Commerce (both leading Egyptian and American businessmen).

"We are at a turning point in the history of this country," he told the Fortune 500 group, "and for the first time we are in a true partnership in the future. A few months ago, we passed the point of no return. We broke eggs and made an omelet. Let no one try to fish the eggs out now.

"Deep in my heart, I believe the future of this country must be driven by the private sector -- or it will never make the transformation. The country is moving. We have turned a corner. You have turned a corner."

Even this brief interlude -- particularly since January 2005, when the new businessmen cabinet members took over critical portfolios like housing, transportation and health -- has shown a remarkably rapid result. The growth rate last year was 8 percent, astonishing in comparison to Egypt’s old bureaucratic lethargy.

We have here a revolution/evolution, in which a society is trying to transform gradually, but persistently, through step-by-step political change, through the cleansing effect of a free press, and through the application of a free market economy open to the world.

An odd footnote: The Bush administration thought it was going to shock Iraq into becoming the Middle East’s democracy through war. Instead, Iraq heads more each day toward total breakdown, while the Egyptian "process democracy" begins to take hold.

 


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