Egypt still waiting for someone to lead

BE IT by accident or design, the massive new billboard framed by Cairo’s October 6 bridge across the Nile speaks to a telling transition in these revolutionary times.

The bridge marks an Egypt whose time has passed, the 1973 war when Cairo’s military regime led an Arab coalition across the Suez Canal, as Israel was distracted by Yom Kippur, to start a war that was claimed by all sides as a national triumph.

But this billboard parades a more modern accomplishment, depicting a young Egyptian who wouldn’t have been alive in 1973, who only knew the sclerotic Mubarak dictatorship that his net-savvy generation toppled last month. A sleek and modern contrast to the grinding poverty about us, the placard depicts a young man peering over a computer that declares ”Egypt 2011”, the bilingual message reinforced by a mock desktop mimicking a Windows taskbar. ”STOP. PAUSE. RESTART,” say the icons, with a finger poised over RESTART.

At the malls of Sphinx Square, Cairo’s closest approximation to Silicon Valley, 20-something Ahmed Hamed is very anxious to restart his country. He could be that young man on the billboard; bright and English-speaking, a self-taught technician making a decent living fixing computers.

Ahmed is still startled by what happened in Tahrir Square but says it’s time to get Egypt back to work and consolidate its revolutionary gains. He believes the interim military junta will make good its promise to steward democracy, and understands that means more than simply voting. Pressing a hand above his heart to imply trust, Ahmed wants sturdy national institutions he can depend on. He wants an end to corruption and cronyism. But he doesn’t so much favour an elongated, distracting purge of the former regime and its ill-gotten gains. Little will be achieved by vengeance and legal pursuit of old men, he says. He’d rather the country’s young minds be deployed purging and fixing it. And he says it won’t happen overnight. Religion, for what its worth, isn’t part of his vision, which has it that lop-sided Egypt will develop a solid, moderate middle class and be the engine of a Middle Eastern powerhouse that isn’t fuelled by petrodollars, as is the case with its neighbours. He’s heard about BRIC, that developing economic engine grouping booming Brazil, Russia, India and China, and thinks Egypt should aspire to be its Arab member.

That all may take some doing. Amid talk in Cairo of foreign debt relief and a $500-billion-plus economic program for the region on the lines of the Marshall Plan, a week spent trawling the corridors of power here reveals a creeping sclerosis among decision-makers, a national we-shall-see approach where little gets done. People such as new Finance Minister Samir Radwan are trying to formulate a budget, emphasising job creation and stability. But it’s also quite possible he won’t be around long enough to present it, let alone implement it. Taking their cue from nearby Tunisia, which has bounced three governments in six weeks, baying crowds are again gathering in Tahrir Square to demand that ministers appointed in Hosni Mubarak’s last hours as leader – like Radwan – be removed. With these revolutions led largely by economic demands, a big rally is expected again today in central Cairo to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafique, Mubarak’s old air force chum he installed a month ago. So fluid are the politics that Radwan realises he may not need to come to work on Monday.

Distracted by events in Libya, where Egyptian migrant workers are stranded and imperilled, many fear that’s leading to a sclerosis in decision-making, most strikingly illustrated in Cairo’s choking traffic that’s more chaotic and gridlocked than ever.

Nearly a month after the turmoil, this is the time when enlightened bureaucrats should be globally reselling Egypt, with its pyramids and antiquities as a great tourist destination now open for business. The stock exchange has now been closed for a month, having fallen 17 per cent over its last two trading days in January. Tourism is a mainstay of the economy, particularly for the lower and middle classes gathering the trickle-down from visitor spending. But Cairo’s hotels are operating, at best, with occupancies of 20 per cent. Managers at the Grand Hyatt says it’s just 6 per cent full, its tariffs halved, its once-buzzing lobby now a rather sad and desperate place. The majestic Nile, usually crammed with pleasure-seekers, is lined by moored tourist launches, its riverfront restaurants shuttered.

Those finding themselves in charge during this transition period seem reluctant to make policy lest it be howled down by the masses in the streets. The most extraordinary claims are being made in a media suddenly unshackled after decades of tight control. With the state controlling large slabs of the economy, there are worries that powerful bureaucrat-businessmen could emerge as Russian-style oligarchs in the political vacuum.

Still, amid the tumult, there are green shoots. Tahrir Square has become as much a marketplace of small holders as it has been a theatre of dissent and martyrdom. And with so much traffic to be gridlocked in, the popular items for vendors are national flags and mock car registration plates commemorating the ”January 25 movement”, marking the day the intifada kicked off.

Harness and expand that energy and Egyptians like Ahmed will get their reborn nation sooner than they think.