Monday, February 07, 2011

Business and the "Wise Men"

Just a brief note while I work on a couple of longer posts for later in the day. The narrative of the masses against crony capitalism is a good one. It’s exemplified in the story of steel magnate and ruling party leader, Ahmad Ezz. Ezz made a fortune and played a major role in running and fake parliamentary elections last fall that wiped out the entire opposition and left Egyptians feeling angrier than ever at the government. Along with this story is the one that the masses have made the revolution and now someone is now trying to steal it from them. For some observers the likely guilty party is the Muslim Brothers and for others it appears to be the business elite.

From my little vantage point in downtown Cairo the main problem remains the headline in the (Saudi-owned) daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat the other day. The ruling party has made it clear that there are two options—either constitutional change or the army. “Constitutional change” means the current regime trying to retain as much of its power, personnel, and wealth as possible. The army means, well, it means a return to open military rule. If you liked Gamal Abdel-Nasser then you might like the return of the army to power; on the other hand, many here think they’re more likely to get someone who closely resembles Augusto Pinochet. And, yes, I’ve had more than one Egyptian friend ask me if I thought that was a likely possibility. It’s a question that sends shivers down my spine since I’ve known people imprisoned in military prisons in the past and there is a large stadium not far from where I live which I would guess is a convenient location if you started arresting large numbers of people in Midan al-Tahrir.

There is now an initiative by a group of socalled “wise men” which thankfully includes at least a couple of wise women. English readers can get the text of the document put forward by this group in the Egyptian newspaper on February 3 at the website of the Carnegie Endowment:

There are several of these “wise men” groups but they seem to be coalescing and for convenience I’m going to focus just on the group who signed this particular text. They could also be called the “Shorouk group” I suppose.

These proposals are a very reasonable attempt to figure out a way forward and they represent an important set of concerns about constitutional reform and constitutional legitimacy that profoundly affect how the future of this country plays out. Briefly they deal with the issue of restricting the power of the presidency (not just the role of Mubarak himself), ending the state of emergency rule, whether to re-write the entire constitution from the ground up, and the issue of a peaceful and legitimate transition to a new order. With the threat in the background that the army can always, as it has in the past, move in.

I’m not as knowledgeable about contemporary Egyptian life as I’d like to be but as one of the few Americans who seems to have elected to remain during these weeks I’ll have to do.

Now Shorouk itself is an interesting venue first of all. Many years ago Shorouk was basically the publishing house associated with the Muslim Brothers (which, by the way, even in its radical heyday of the 1940s ran a commercial printing house that published more than its own work). With the loosening of controls over freedom of expression private newspapers, like al-Misry al-Yawm, came into existence and publishing houses like Shorouk began to publish (and sell at their own bookstores) a much wider array of literature from within and outside the “Islamic current.” Several years ago the Shorouk newspaper came into existence and while it features a column by Muslim Brother intellectual Fahmy Huweidi it also publishes a very wide array of comment including by many secular liberals. It’s not and never has been a “Muslim Brothers” newspaper but it does indicate how one particular brand, if you would, has broadened its reach as the political and economic climate has changed.

So publishing this statement in Shorouk was itself an indication of the where the signatories wanted to place themselves: smack in the middle of the growing liberal middle-class intellectual concern with pluralism, tolerance, and legitimate constitutional change. Many on the list are well known intellectuals long connected to demands for democratization and liberalization such as Amr al-Shobaky (associated I believe with the semi-official Ahram Center for International Studies) and Kamal Abu al-Magd (associated with the liberal current of Islamist attorneys and law professors).

Those signed include Amr al-Hamzawy who has been associated with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and whose presence strikes me as important not least because of his own qualities but because it is a clear statement that (and this is more so than with the international bureaucrat Muhammad al-Baradei) that Egyptians with direct connections to institutions outside the country, including the US, have as much legitimacy to ask for change as anyone inside. Not more, but also not less.

Two signers are former Egyptian ambassadors to the US including Nabil Fahmy who is now a dean at the American University in Cairo. So his presence clearly represents a degree to which people who were formerly closely associated with the ordinary functions of government (and I’m rather pointedly not saying with “the regime”) and capably carried them out now turn out not only to be critical but willing to say so in public. It’s easy to criticize people like Fahmy but he has metaphorically burned at least a couple of bridges of his own here (yes, I know he wouldn’t be out burning any actual bridges or throwing rocks in Tahrir but surely that can’t be the only criterion for trying understand events here).

Perhaps the most recognized signer outside Egypt is Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris is said to be the 374th richest man in the world and he is certainly a major magnate. He is an owner and board member of Orascom and plays a key role in the telecommunications in Egypt (Mobinil) and the world. There were rumors shortly after January 25 that Sawiris had left Egypt and indeed many very rich people (including some very famous entertainment figures) left the country. Sawiris announced that he was with his employes at a construction site (his larger family firm is also in the construction business as well as telecoms). His presence on the list is important again as an indication of the degree to which sections of the economic elite are breaking with the government. Given the importance of connections to the state for making business work here this is indicative of how broadly the incompetence and corruption of the regime has antagonized Egyptians. Although Sawiris is not in competition with the army-based industries which are mainly in metal-working, some food production, and the like he is providing at least a limited challenge to the idea of an economy in which not just the state but more specifically the army plays a large role. Although the size of the army’s role in the economy is disputed (and a state secret), it has moved into almost every part of the economy that directly or indirectly is connected to the needs of an army: from metal products, to the production of clothing, property management (it owns a lot of real estate), and food stuffs.

It is therefore worth noting one other signature on the list: Safwan Thabet (the name is mis-spelled in the English version where it appears as Safwat). Thabet, 63, is chairman of the board of Juhayna Food Industries. Juhayna, which has been in business since 1983, is an extremely large producer of milk, milk products and juice. His particular firm is closer to competing with the army which is also engaged in this sector of the economy. Thabet, unlike Sawiris, is not a member of the Coptic minority and cannot therefore be thought to be involved because of issues of discrimination. He also seems to be more closely connected to the rest of the business community through its many local organizations and associations. Anyone who has been in big business in Egypt for more than a quarter of a century is no political naïf.

So, again, what seems to be important here is that sections of the elite, while certainly not interested in bringing down the entire structure of the economy and the polity, have distanced themselves from the regime and begun to demand change. Despite some early panicky claims that the business elite and the middle class are sending everything out of the country thus causing a run on the pound and a collapse of the stock exchange, at least some very wealthy and prominent members of the business elite have chosen to stay. The focus up to now has been, and correctly so, on the remarkable bravery and steadfastness of the hundreds of thousands (or more likely millions) of people who have faced physical danger and death by demonstrating in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere. They are the ones who have changed Egypt, but in so doing they have also allowed others who will also have a role play, to come out into the open and demand structural changes. And much as the regime and Mubarak have resisted his departure they have equally, if not more strongly, resisted the demands for thorough-going constitutional change and tried to limit the damage, as Sulaiman has insisted, to only two articles of the constitution.


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