Four years after January 25, after two revolutions and two constitutions, after the election and dissolution of parliament and now the approach of new elections, after the death and injury of thousands of civilians, policemen, and army personnel, after investigations and fact-finding commissions that have shed little light on the facts, after several governments and dozens of ministers, after an economic recession and declining tourism and investment—after all of this, no one can dispute that Egyptians are exhausted and that they fervently wish for stability, security, and economic development. There is no one in Egypt who has not paid a price over the last four years, though some have paid more dearly than others. But we now have two paths ahead of us.
The first is a continuation of the current course, based on an economic policy focused on spurring growth through public spending on megaprojects and foreign investment, a political plank centered on parliamentary elections before mid-May, and a security plank that seeks to end terrorism and violence while restricting liberties for youth and civil society and curbing the right of expression and peaceful assembly. At best, this course may improve the economic situation, carry the constitutional roadmap to completion, and restore security to some areas, but it is ultimately not enough to see Egypt through the current crisis, achieve a qualitative leap forward in citizens’ lives, or meet the demands raised in two revolutions. Why? Because there are limits to what can be achieved in a society as divided as Egypt is now. These limits are impeding economic progress and preventing genuine political stability, making full, lasting security impossible.
Society is divided, and despite the instances of social mobilisation and consensus hyped by the media, these divisions run deep. There is a yawning, ever growing gap between a class which is capable of dealing with, and even benefiting from, the current economic situation and a huge world of the downtrodden who are paying in soaring prices, the ongoing deterioration of public services, and job scarcity. Government efforts to shore up bread supplies and pensions are good, but it’s not enough to address such profound social imbalances. A great many youth are also disconnected from society, seeing themselves the perennial object of discussion, sloganeering, and celebration but finding no real channels for participation or influence, only growing restrictions on their right to expression and peaceful assembly. Finally, there are divisions between political currents of all kinds, and these are not simply intellectual differences due to the absence of mechanisms to foster dialogue, the exchange of ideas, and coexistence.
The second of the two paths is to work on building a new national consensus. This begins by realizing that the January revolution, with all its high-minded, legitimate objectives and demands and its desire for positive change, has diverged from its course in its inability to find a way to national consensus. The result has been the fragmentation and polarisation we now experience, which brings out the worst social conduct, promotes conflict over narrow interests, and gives those who seek a return to theocratic rule or corruption and tyranny a chance to succeed. We must therefore understand that continuing on the current path will not realize the country’s interest in the long term. The perpetuation of social divisions will only sap more of the state and people’s resources and energies in secondary battles to juggle contradictory demands, plug recurring gaps, and fight a media war that seeks to smear everyone who deviates from the official line or proposes a non-officially sanctioned alternative.
This new national consensus should include every party seeking state stability and rejecting violence and terrorism as a means of change, believing instead in the rule of law and constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties. In this framework, the dialogue should comprise everyone—partisans of both revolutionary change and reform, right and left, Islamist and civil currents, young and old, government and opposition. Consensus cannot be reached among members of one camp, but must bring in all factions—otherwise, there would be no need for it.
Most importantly, this consensus cannot be simply an official occasion for media coverage and celebration, but must sincerely seek to build an inclusive national vision with a minimum threshold of agreement on the following issues: first, economic policy and how to achieve economic growth and encourage investment without disregarding social justice and the fair distribution of jobs, services, and resources; second, opening up the public sphere to youth and civil society; third, how to mobilize society in the fight against violence and terrorism within the framework of laws and constitutionally guaranteed liberties; and fourth, establishing channels to realize citizenship, equality, and the end of all forms of discrimination in society.
Egypt needs a new national consensus that puts an end to the divisions impeding society’s progress and precluding the resolution of its problems. Can the fourth anniversary of the January revolution offer a new beginning? Or will we keep treading the same old path?
- Ziad Bahaa-Eldin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 27 January.