Monday, September 17, 2012

Egypt: Back to strong leadership

ON October 6, 1981, I was vacationing with my family in Egypt. On my way to our rented apartment, the news hit the radio airwaves: Anwar Sadat, the president of war and peace, was shot during a military parade. The Qura’n was soon read on all state radios, which means he was dead.

I decided to feel people’s reaction so I asked the driver to take me to the nearby Alzamalek Club. No one was crying, for sure, and life went on, as usual. A group of young men were even making jokes about him. When I returned home, I found Um Said, the maid, preparing our lunch in the kitchen. I told her, dramatically, “‘Alraes’ (the president) is dead’”. Her reaction shocked me. Without hesitation she announced: A monster Pharaoh died, and a monster Pharaoh will take his place!

Mubarak certainly proved Um Said — the simple, uneducated lady — right. Why not? She has been mostly right about the country’s leaders within 7,000 years. The leaders were almost the nation’s owners, helped by the sweetest people on earth.

You can’t have an easier job than that of an Egyptian leader. Until Jan. 25, 2011, the Egyptians only means of protest, if not revolt, were sarcastic jokes. Their demands were always simple. An Egyptian summed these up to me in a typical joke: Foul (beans) for breakfast, Falfel for lunch, and an Um Kalthoum song for dinner!

Not anymore! The Egyptians that Dr. Mohamed Morsi have to deal with seem to come from another universe: vocal, angry and bossy. Food is not the only concern now. They want to be in the driver’s seat — or with him. They don’t just listen to Um Kalthoum, they came up with their own songs and discovered their own voices.

The French icon, the late president General Charles De Gaulle, once said: How can you run a country that produced 246 kinds of cheese? Egyptians today favored all kinds of political cheese, but one kind proved the most popular. They chose an Islamic leadership, like the Turks did before them, because they had tried alternatives for sixty years, and saw their resource-rich country fell to the bottom list of heavily indebted Third World countries. Political, administrative and financial corruption ruled. Islamic principles are supposed to be the anti-biotic for all these ills. They proved effective in Turkey, but failed in neighboring Sudan.

Dr. Morsi knows what is at stake. With his enemies, in and out of the country, up in arms, looking for the slightest mistake to attack, his challenges are daunting. While his foreign policies are popular, he still has long way to go at the home front.

His apparently successful visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, his strong positions toward Syria and Israel and cooperative approach with Turkey, US and Europe, showed his political prowess, energy and wisdom long missed during Mubarak’s regime. Finally, Egypt is taking the driver’s seat in Arab and Muslim politics. Together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Muslim ship seems in good and safe hands.

At home, Dr. Morsi is more popular and in control than ever. With his man-of-the-street approach, he is the most populist president of Egypt since the late Gamal Abdul Naser.

The army seems to be finally under his wings and the new government is in control. The young, energetic ministers are going around the country: restructuring, listening, counselling and solving problems. They followed their president’s lead. He has been meeting with opinion leaders and representatives of all sectors of society.

Those who have met him were impressed. Even his critics and doubters, like Adel Imam, the popular comedian who was sued for producing anti-Islamic movies, see him as an open-minded leader who calmed their fears and apprehensions about their future under an Islamic government. The president has assured them of his commitment to civic and secular principles.

Most important, in my opinion, is how Dr. Morsi deals with security and economy. Security is in good shape.

The new army and interior leadership have shown their teeth to keep terrorists and criminals on the run. In the economic front, stability has come. With better security, tourists are coming back, factories and businesses are humming again. The slide into desperation has stopped.

Development, however, needs time. Fixing ages of mismanagement and corruption, and restarting a stalled engine cannot happen overnight. Qatar has announced $18 billion in investments, Saudi Arabia’s package of $3.7 billion is on track, the World Bank agreed to provide $4.8 billion in loans, and the US is considering turning its billion-dollars debts into development projects.

Egypt today is stabilizing. It has a wise, calm and calming leadership, a government in control, security and business as usual. Its foreign policies are popular — at home, in the region and beyond. The future looks brighter.

Let’s hope and pray that soon the new Egypt will follow in the footsteps of Turkey, turn around its fortunes and take its rightful place at the top of the region’s leadership.

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