“Bread, freedom and social justice” were the spontaneous slogans chanted by Egyptians who revolted in Jan. 2011. Five and a half years later, the significant deterioration in all three areas of grievance has led Egyptians to accept trading freedom and social justice for bread. However, due to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s inadequate economic policies, acquiring bread – a symbol for improved economic conditions – is itself a challenge.
Egyptians have rarely, over many centuries, experienced either freedom or justice. Freedom of expression in Egypt is a risky business; every writer knows that his or her work could cause them to be questioned at any time. The state does not officially accuse its citizens of criticism; it looks for other mistakes they may have committed to bring legal charges against them.
The true essence of justice is not applied in Egypt; not just in politics, but also in business and even in social disputes. The absence of justice means that thousands of innocent Egyptians are imprisoned at any given moment, and millions of others are forced to make unfair concessions.
The economic slowdown that the country has been experiencing for almost five years now has prompted many Egyptians to accept a return to the unpleasant era of former President Hosni Mubarak, in the hope of bringing the economy back on track. The economic challenges constitute a completely new mission for Sisi, whose entire career has been in the military.
The president, who lacks economic vision, is implementing a number of policies that are undermining the economy. After spending $13 billion on the Suez Canal waterway (which witnessed a drop in revenue in the following months due to global trade conditions), Sisi – who is fond of mega projects – is now preparing to build Cairo Capital City, a project strongly condemned by economic experts.
During my regular trips abroad, when appropriate I often encourage my foreign acquaintances to visit and invest in Egypt. It offers many fabulous tourist sites, and as a developing country it offers a relatively high return on investment (ROI).
Over time, I learnt that tourists not only seek sightseeing tours. They want a pleasurable experience overall, from the moment they arrive to the moment of departure. Any minor misbehavior can spoil the entire trip and eventually reduce the number of tourists visiting Egypt.
Listening to the experiences of many tourists, I noticed that some of the issues that bother them result from the actions of people who work in the industry – “human errors” that could be easily corrected by a firm-handed government determined to attract tourists.
Not addressing such issues has resulted in a substantial reduction in tourism revenue; we receive tourists who are willing to compromise the quality of their experience, and who thus spend substantially less during their stay.
Decent ROI is certainly not the only factor that investors are after. An investor from the Arab Gulf, about to acquire a factory in Upper Egypt, once shared a story with me. He was meeting with the company board during the final acquisition phase, when one of the company workers suddenly entered the meeting room and proceeded, for almost 15 minutes, to deliver a sermon on religion to the entire board.
The potential investor told me he had expected a board member to immediately instruct the worker that this was not the right time or place for his lecture, but no one did anything. The man finished his lecture and left the room. As a result, the investor decided against placing his money in this type of environment.
Sisi needs to comprehend that Egypt’s economic crisis is correlated to his policies. The debt increase is directly associated with the unwise spending of resources, and with the fact that we are not truly combating corruption.
Likewise, the drop in tourism is directly linked to government inaction regarding matters that annoy tourists. The adoption of a poor monetary policy has led to the slowdown of businesses. Not addressing the challenges faced by investors has discouraged new ones from investing in Egypt, and deterred existing ones from expanding their investments.
Sisi needs to realize that there is a strong connection between democracy and economics. Entrepreneurship will not flourish unless there is room for freedom of expression. Egypt’s challenges are solvable, but they need to be tackled by our most qualified citizens, not by those who simply praise the ruler. If the economy does not recover soon, Sisi could follow his predecessors.