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What Egypt Needs Now

As Egypt faces a deteriorating security situation and ongoing political turmoil, there are concrete steps the country can take to ensure an improved quality of life and a successful transition to democracy.
A soldier stands next to an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square in Cairo, September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY) - RTX13HEG

Many wonder at the contrast between Egypt's cultural and human capabilities — its prime location, wealth and history on the one hand, and its negative position among other nations on the other. At this historic time, Egypt may be ready to take a step toward a major breakthrough, if it can properly take advantage of the “moment.” Following two great revolutions, Egyptians should come together now around this new sense of awakened nationalism and capitalize on the widespread sentiment to preserve the Egyptian state, which suffered a severe existential threat under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some may ask how we can talk about a breakthrough when one sizeable faction — the Muslim Brotherhood — is outside of the political process. While it may take some time to reconcile the Muslim Brotherhood with the new direction Egypt is heading into, taking immediate actions to improve the life of Egyptians will help the Muslim Brotherhood — among others — to join the rest of the Egyptians in their march toward an Egyptian “project” with specific pillars.

Determining a clear vision to improve quality of life.

The first thing Egypt needs now is a consensus on a clear vision for progress. This should be built upon a realistic assessment of Egypt’s resources and constraints and based on deep knowledge of what works in Egypt. In the center of flashy banners and national ambitions, this vision must ultimately hold the promise of improving the quality of life for Egyptians. Having an elected civilian president at the earliest possible opportunity is needed to put this vision in place and create a broad national consensus, before implementing its components on the ground. At the same time, for a transitional period, the armed forces must continue to preserve Egypt's national security and protect its stability. It must serve as a guarantor for the democratic transition and the march toward progress, especially under the leadership of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has become a national figure earning widespread popular support at a rare historical moment. Developing a long-term vision for a real Egyptian awakening project — Egypt 2030, for instance — can only gain the confidence of the people if specific and measurable national goals are clearly spelled out. These must be primarily related to improving the quality of life and making the fruits of equitable development reach poorer segments of society. They must be translated to clear milestones, so that an ordinary citizen can sense progress and development month after month and year after year, to promote confidence that Egypt is moving in the right direction.

Obtaining consensus on an "Egyptian ideology."

Sustainable development requires stability, which can only be achieved through an inclusive political process involving all Egyptians with a consensus on an "Egyptian Ideology." This ideology must embody the foundations for the existence, survival and progress of a modern Egyptian state — including its people, its land, the Nile, its hard and soft power and the systems for the country's governance. It must transcend ideological differences, for we cannot stand to see yet another political party whose agenda involves demolishing the Egyptian state or dividing its land on the basis of religion. Nor should Egypt again tolerate an international, clandestine, criminal and militant group that imposes an alien agenda on Egypt. Every faction joining the political process must be first bound by ground rules, and most of all, by an allegiance to Egypt itself that comes before any other.

Restoring confidence, disseminating a positive attitude and a culture of success.

A lethal spirit is spreading in Egypt that prevents progress. It is a mixture of skepticism of any achievement and belittlement of any successful person or institution. Destructive criticism begins under the pretext of idealism and perfection, yet in its center is a secret wish for others to fail. The focus is on any shortcoming or simple fault that may occur, blowing it out of proportion and declaring the whole undertaking a miserable and utter failure. This negative spirit takes comfort in a sense of victimization and uses conspiracy theories to justify the resulting nationwide failure or underachievement, although the negative attitudes and behaviors mentioned here are sufficient to thwart any team, initiative or country. Curing this negative destructive culture is difficult, yet there is no alternative but to target this flaw. We must begin by spreading a culture of success and proactive habits of positive thinking and doing, through individuals, homes, schools, universities and all institutions. The media can play an important role in spreading awareness about this dangerous disease, which could disrupt Egypt’s progress for generations to come. Egyptians must learn to work together and promote a culture of recognizing and appreciating success, tolerating failure, mutual support and encouragement between all members of society, each in their circle of influence.

Integrating crowd democracy into the formal political process.

We have seen how empowered individuals have collectively used crowd democracy ousting two presidents and several governments, thus imposing popular will. The revolution was led by the collective mind of the people. Parties, politicians, parliamentarians and civil society organizations all marched behind the people, not in front of them. The remarkable Egyptian revolutions occurred as a result of a widening gap between what the people want on the one hand, and what is produced by the political process on the other. It is therefore important that we prevent the formation of this gap from recurring. This can only be achieved through improving representativeness of the political process, partially through a proportional electoral system, and allocating quotas for youth, women and Christians in all parliamentary and local councils. This also involves launching a societal dialogue before passing laws or launching new policies. Parliament and local councils should act as moderators and facilitators of such societal dialogue, not just as legislators and watchdogs.

Restoring urban balance and equitable development.

Progress cannot be sustained if development only benefits the elite, or is concentrated around the capital. In the past, this led to feelings of injustice and frustration, forcing people to migrate from other provinces to the capital. This results in overcrowding and slums, with all of their negative social and cultural consequences. Planned development must be fair and geographically balanced, extending opportunities for investment, employment and human development in all parts of Egypt. Centers of excellence, which are based on exploiting the comparative and traditional advantages of each region, must be erected. Egypt’s fertile agricultural land must be protected from the sweeping attack of illegal buildings on farm

land. Fragmented farmlands must be brought together through cooperatives or other means to improve their productivity. This also involves offering alternatives for reasonably priced housing to prevent the deadly assault on agro land, in communities with adequate infrastructure and services just outside the overcrowded Nile Valley and Nile Delta.

Investing in Egypt’s human capital.

Past governments have looked at Egypt’s population as a ticking time bomb, despite the fact that Egyptians themselves are the real wealth of Egypt, if the government, individuals and institutions take advantage of investing in and developing the people. It is necessary to empower Egyptians with proper education, training and care — while safeguarding their rights, liberties and dignity — for Egypt to achieve a major breakthrough. This requires giving priority to expanding basic, vocational, university and postgraduate education and training, both in capacity and quality. Overcoming the skill gap will decrease unemployment and boost productivity.

Investing in scientific research.

Egypt will not progress as long as there is no interest in scientific research. Focus on labor-intensive industries must be balanced with a quest on adding value, innovation, creativity, competitiveness and excellence. The industry must be linked to universities and research centers, so that every graduation project or doctorate thesis will help in solving a problem or developing a new technology or product. This is not only the government's job but also that of companies, foundations, universities and students themselves.

Taking advantage of Egypt's location.

Egypt's prime location places it at the crossroads of the world. This location gives it unique advantages as a transit hub for air and maritime transport. Regional fulfillment centers, assembly production, container rerouting and other logistical services can thrive with gigantic economic opportunities. Egypt must strike a balance between its national security and encouraging investment in the Suez Canal axis project, among others.

Cleaning up legislation.

It is necessary to clear the tangled jungle of conflicting legislations, which makes litigation a nightmare, blurring the lines between what is right and what is wrong under the law and ultimately depriving citizens of their rights. This includes abolishing unrealistic restrictions that force citizens to go around them, creating a parallel state and a huge informal economy destroying respect for the law. At the same time, we must work to reduce the frivolous judicial disputes, where, for instance, millions of cases related to bouncing checks of small value jam the legal system. This involves encouraging arbitration and focusing on enforcement and implementation of court verdicts.

Cultivating an awareness of the shared ownership of Egypt.

Egyptians are keen to take care of their personal domains, whether at home or work. Meanwhile, everyone neglects the shared public domain, starting from stairwell landings and elevator maintenance in a building, all the way to issues of traffic, taxes, the political sphere and abuse of power. Awareness campaigns must be launched, linking public interests with personal interests for each person. Progress can only be made through balancing personal interests with public interests.

Capitalizing on land, water and sun.

The foundations of Egypt are the black soil, the great river and the bright sunshine. Egypt is severely suffering in regards to the bases of its existence, from the erosion of agricultural land — a huge deficit between production and consumption of the strategic wheat crop — and the misuse of drinking and irrigation water, alongside threats to Egypt's share in the Nile waters. It is necessary to find long-term solutions to protect and increase agricultural land, and improve the sufficiency of wheat. Land must be allocated, along with facilities, so that people in every province can expand into the desert, at a modest price that is less than what it would cost them to build on agricultural land. Egypt must restore its strategic, multifaceted ties with other countries of the Nile basin, to preserve its share of the Nile waters. Meanwhile, it is vital to develop irrigation systems characterized by efficiency and rational water consumption. Factories, companies and housing projects must be encouraged to rely on clean solar energy and wind energy as an alternative to petroleum. The true cost of the latter goes unnoticed, since the government subsidizes up to 85% of the cost of oil and fuel providing a disincentive to converting to renewable energy.

Solidifying Egypt's "brand."

Egypt has the strongest and oldest international brand, which can be used to boost its competitive advantage in many fields including Egypt's renowned vegetables and fruits, cotton, linens, clothing, carpets, traditional and modern industry, information technology, content industries as well as cultural, technical, heritage-based production, tourism, medical services and Egyptian workers themselves. This extends to support Egypt's status among the international community. This requires managing Egypt's brand with care and panache in every political and economic decision or media message. This is to avoid harming Egypt’s brand as a result of recklessness or a lack of awareness of the importance of brands in the world in which we live today.

The options facing Egypt and Egyptians are simple: either work as a team to build a developed and strong Egypt or face the worst, in a country where the population has reached 85 million. The people are crowded into only 5% of the country's area, import the majority of what they eat and are prisoners of a vicious cycle of poverty and frivolous conflict, even though the country is full of huge potential. This potential cannot be attained through the government alone, but will require the participation of the government and citizens, companies, associations, political parties, trade union, universities, the media and religious organizations. Egyptians must develop a new social contract and a new culture that strives toward coexistence, dialogue, success and building bridges of confidence between all Egyptians of different spectra on the one hand, and state institutions on the other.

Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of  the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara

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