Monday, February 14, 2011

All Eyes on Egypt

Hosni Mubarak, the “President for Life” of Egypt, finally yielded and resigned on Feb 11th, the 18th day after the first mass protest that called for his ousting at Tahrir (Liberation) square in Cairo on Jan 25th.  Word like cosmic and historical have been used by the journalists and commentators to describe the event, considering the size and strategic importance of Egypt in Islamic and the Middle East geopolitical plays.   So much coverage by the press has been reported across the world daily for the last 2+ weeks that requires no repetition.  I do however like to highlight a few what I thought were unique aspects of this mostly non-violent revolution and made some observations as Egyptians began to search for and shape their path to the future.

It is the first time in history that Internet based social network services like Facebook and Twitter were used in organizing and mobilizing protesters from bottom up dynamically.  Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Egyptian marketing manager of Google Inc. was credited for starting the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” under the assumed name “El Shaheeed,” (meaning the martyr in Arabic) that called for and sparked the first protest on Jan. 25.  It took less than 8 months to gather sufficient energy and momentum: that Facebook page was set up within 5 days of the suspicious death of Khaled Said on June 6th last year, an 28 years old Egyptian blogger (see Jennifer Preston’s Feb 5th New York Times article) who was beaten to death by two policemen.  With more than half a million people signed up, it is the biggest dissident Facebook page in Egypt.  Egyptian government made Wael Ghonim disappeared on Jan 28th.  Fortunately he was not physically harmed and was released 12 days later.

With the distributed, decentralized and self-reconfiguring architecture of Internet, with the applications like YouTube and social networks, and with technologies like cell phones and smart phones equipped with camera, dictators no longer have monopoly over information dissemination and “truth”.   State sponsored and orchestrated propaganda through radio, printed press and TV networks is no longer the tool the authoritarian governments can depend on to fool their people.  When Mubarak and his men tried the oldest isolation trick on the protesters by shutting down Internet and mobile services, the assault could not continue as Egyptian’s every day economic activity came to a halt without these ubiquitous infrastructures.  

You may wonder then the social-economy status of Egypt when you saw the scene that some pro-Mubarak people on camels and horses charging against the anti-Mubarak demonstrators with cell phones at one point during the revolution.   With 80 million people, Egypt is the most populous country in Middle East and the second most populous in Africa with almost all of them concentrated in few areas along the banks of Nile and Suez Canal.   For the last several decades, Egypt has had a high population growth rate (2.0+%) and has been adding more than 1.5 million people per year recently to its population.  As a result, about 50% of its population are under age 25.  While the commitment to education is strong (free public education through university) with over half million students enrolled in colleges and universities, Egypt’s 70% literacy rate is much less than desired.  It does have bright spots in recent years for economic development, but the population growth has outpaced its resources (especially water) and economic growth with a per capita GDP at $6,000+, ranked 103rd in the world (according to IMF).  Over 40% of its people live in the range of extreme poor to near poor.  On top of it, a significant number of high school and college graduates are unemployed (estimated at around 25% for those under 25 years old) or under-employed and there is no hope in sight.  Doesn’t it sound like a prescription for social instability and revolution in waiting? 

As the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 enters the next phase when Mubarak stepped down and handed over the power to the 11 members Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, all eyes are now on the Egyptian military led by the 76 years old Mohamed Hussein Tantawi who has been the head of the Defense Ministry and Defense Production Ministry since 1991.  With nearly half a million active personnel, it is the 10th largest military force in the world.  The guesstimate for the annual defense budget of Egypt ranges from $7 to $25 billion dollars including a steady $1.3 billion dollars aid from U.S.  The Egyptian military is an independent entity that reports directly to the President.  Throughout the 59 years of the Republic since the Revolution of 1952 by a group of young army officers, Egypt had effectively only three rulers, all from Egyptian military:  Nasser (14 years), Sadat (11 years, assassinated), and Mubarak (1981 – 2011). 

What is more intriguing and less known is the significant role and influence that the Egyptian Military has in Egyptian business world.  The reality is that Egyptian economy has been following the state-dominated model with 70% of the workforce outside of agriculture sector work for the government!  The Egyptian military in fact controls not only security and the defense industry, it is also heavily engaged in civilian businesses including consumer staples, road and housing construction, owns land and involved in resort management, starting with the construction of the Aswan High Dam back in 1960.  According to the Feb 9th Time Magazine article by Ken Stier, Egyptian military business empire may account for 10% to 15% of Egypt's $210 billion economy!  

As the most powerful institution from the rest of the government with a vested interest, the Egyptian military has served as the critically needed stabilizing force in the autocratic government.  It enjoys the popular nationalistic support and has managed to keep the respect of the people by staying behind the scene and positioning itself successfully as nation’s neutral guardian.  When the scenes of the friendly interaction between the protesters and the Army were shown on news media, one can’t help but to contrast it with the image of Tank Man in Beijing during the suppression of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 by the Communist China.  It could have ended in tragedy should the military choose to side with Mubarak.  

Despite all that, it is questionable that if the military can meet the younger Egyptian’s zeal for reform and for more and faster changes.  For one, changing status-quo is hard; the older generals are not likely to be able to deliver satisfactory result in short time, even if they are willing, given the fundamental issues above and their self-interest in maintaining status-quo.  The first test will be the September election.  It remains to be seen how will the Egyptian military address the revision of the Constitution and the transparency of the process.  Only in last Sept, a New York Times article reported that it has put eight striking employees of a military factory on trial in a military court for “disclosing military secrets” and “illegally stopping production.”   Even a bigger challenge and the next test will be if and when a civilian controlled military, a necessary condition for democracy, would take place.

All in all, the Egyptians people should be proud of what they have accomplished in this short 18 days.  They have been an inspiration for many suppressed people in the rest of the world and the peaceful revolution serves as a loud warning to all corrupted and dysfunctional authoritarian regimes.  Hosni Mubarak is not the first one nor will he be the last one who tries so hard to hang onto his/her position and to hold onto their power.   The truth is if you sit back and reflect for a moment, you would find such behavior familiar in public and private sector, and in large and small organization.   “When and how to let it go” is actually a very important but often overlooked question; something for us to ponder. In the mean time, as the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 moves forward, I wish the Egyptian people succeed in managing their future and making a better life.

Talk to you soon!

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