At the end of October, Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of British company Virgin Group, addressed audiences in Cairo on the subject of “succeeding in business during challenging times”, in which he supported the move to a democratic society, and focused on Egypt’s youth as agents for social and economic change.
Attendees were required to make a donation to the ‘Lift Off’ initiative, which has been implemented by the regional office of the International Institute of Education, in partnership with Endeavour Egypt, a global non-profit initiative promoting "high-impact entrepreneurship", targeting younger generations within Middle Eastern and North African regions, and endorsing and supporting entrepreneurship as "a viable career-choice."
Branson has been outspoken in his views about Egypt’s economic development since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
In early February, Branson published an article on his blog explaining his position, indicating that the establishment of a democratically elected government that stands by the key principle of free speech would ensure Egypt’s economic recovery: "All of the entrepreneurs I have spoken to want the same thing – a properly elected democracy in Egypt as soon as possible, with a fair rule of law and freedom of speech for its citizens."
Following Egypt’s first democratic election, Branson posted an update in June of this year, advocating and supporting Egypt’s new democracy, and calling on the newly-elected government to look to the future in order to effectively stabilise the country and achieve the economic development so urgently needed. "They need to draw a line under the past and move forward," he said.
During his visit to Egypt, Branson also clearly indicated, as featured on the front page of the Egyptian national newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, that he would not invest in the country unless he found evidence that the Egyptian people across the country were being treated fairly and equally under the new government (the "fair rule of law" that he called for earlier this year) and that the people are confident enough in their country to invest their own money to help to rebuild the faltering economy.
Branson heads up 200 companies operating in over 30 countries around the world, established in a range of markets covering everything from leisure, travel and tourism to mobile networks, broadband television, radio, and more recently finance and health.
With his extensive experience in these key market sectors, providing pivotal services that represent a stable infrastructure, it is the experience of entrepreneurs such as Branson, and his support in stimulating Egypt’s growth, which will help to revive the country’s market economy.
Following the recent developments within President Morsi’s government, however, it appears the assurances that entrepreneurs such as Mr. Branson require, that Egypt is a truly democratic country that is looking to the future and encouraging investment among its people, have as yet not come to fruition.
With members of President Morsi’s cabinet threatening some Egyptian businesses which have flourished over the last thirty years, it seems that there is little hope for the stabilising effect that is needed to cultivate an environment that will attract investment from abroad.
The current position is certainly not conducive to encouraging economic stimulus from outside of Egypt. Following President Morsi’s recent speech in which he gave out the details of account number 333-333 held at the central bank of Egypt, and called on 32 Egyptian families, who he believed had monopolised Egypt’s capital and assets under the old regime, to return the wealth that they had accumulated under Mubarak’s rule, it seems to the eyes of all the world to be a step back from the progress that had been made with the establishment of a democratically elected government.
Moreover, the mere fact that the President himself in a public speech gave out an account number and called on such a specific number of families to return the wealth they have earned makes it seem in the eyes of the Egyptian people that the government is compiling lists of families and of individuals that they intend to target and pursue. This is tantamount to McCarthyism; making accusations, without first presenting evidence.
This is particularly disturbing for many Egyptians, as these steps have been taken publicly, without any court order, or information to explain who the 32 families are, or how he came to identify them.
President Morsi’s justification had a religious tone to it, when he said that "this will cleanse those who return the money from their corruption, but not absolve them of liability." That is not the transparency, or the rule of law that we had hoped democracy in Egypt would achieve.
President Morsi’s declaration has simply served to undermine the reconciliation that had previously been extended. It is important for the new government to remember they are no longer the opposition; they are now responsible for a nation, for rebuilding its wealth, for establishing an infrastructure that will enable the country to move forward with the rest of the world’s economies. Living in the past will not restore Egypt’s wealth, nor will it inspire confidence among the Egyptian people, or other nations.
As Mr. Branson said after the election of President Morsi, it is of crucial importance that the new government "draw a line under the past and move forward." Right now it seems that the line has indeed been drawn, but instead of looking beyond the line to the future, this government is looking behind the line to the past, for the answers and solutions to the country’s economic problems.
No progress has been made; and if the past is still the primary focus then this will not create wealth, jobs, or promote economic growth, it will not improve Egypt’s position, and it will certainly not improve Egypt’s social equality.
The priority must be to create a better life for the people of Egypt, rather than destroying all hopes that the revolution created.
President Morsi must show that he is a president for all Egyptians by inspiring the confidence of an entire nation that they can trust in their government to lead them towards a better future; but this must start with the economy. Stimulating growth, encouraging investment and creating jobs is the only way forward, and to achieve this, the future must be the focus for the new government and the possibilities it contains, not that which has passed.