Monday, June 25, 2012

Egypt: The great experiment really begins


AS EXPECTED, Mohammed Morsi, a former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, won election Sunday as Egypt’s new president, the first democratic choice in modern times. Since then, analysts and observers have laid the grim suspicion that Morsi’s victory may mean a morphing of secular Egypt into a fundamentalist backwater, Iran West, an Islamist state with the potential to alienate Western nations and inflame relations with Israel.

But there are as many good reasons to believe that Morsi might recognize how the economy of his country will call for precisely the kind of interaction with those Western nations that his party, the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, has opposed in the not so distant past.

Morsi’s fundamentalist leanings on behalf of the Brotherhood may well have already been tempered by the practicality of election demographics. Morsi won the election with better than 52 percent of eligible voters — 13 million people, living in the most populous nation and (with unemployment at 12 percent) one of the poorest economies, in the Middle East.

On Sunday, in his first speech as president and no doubt as an anodyne gesture aimed at the West, Morsi pledged to “preserve international accords and obligations.”

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There’s almost certainly more such moderation to come. Among the reasons why is a purely financial one: The Republic of Egypt can’t rely on vast sums of export wealth from untapped oil deposits, like Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Only 32 percent of its export economy is petroleum-related, according to MIT Media Lab and the Center for International Development at Harvard University.

It has no well-established foundation of outreach for foreign investments in technology and trade, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Happily, the Suez Canal, a major source of shipping-related income, has been a strong revenue generator recently. Business along the vital man-made waterway has reached record levels; Adm. Ahmed Ali al-Fadel of the Suez Canal Authority, announced that canal revenues hit a record high of $5.2 billion in 2011, and are expected to keep climbing in 2012, al-Shorfa reported in May.

But Egypt’s is also a tourism economy, one powered until fairly recently by millions of tourists who’ve journeyed there to witness that nation’s storied antiquities.

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UPI reported in April of this year that the number of tourists visiting Egypt in the first three months of 2012 dropped by about 25 percent from the same period a year before. A report by the state-run news agency MENA found that 2.3 million tourists visited Egypt in the first three months of 2012, down from 3.1 million in 2011.

In raw dollars, tourism revenue fell from $12.5 billion in 2010 to $9 billion in 2011. And the tourism figures represent an ongoing downward cascade: The number of visitors in 2011 dropped to 10.2 million, down 32 percent from 2010, UPI reported.

In February 2011, Egypt's then-vice president Omar Suleiman said on state television that the unrest precipitated by the Arab Spring uprisings had cost his country $1 billion in tourism over the first nine days.

So it stands to reason that if the new president hopes to put his nation on a solid economic footing, it will to a great degree be done by building on the economic infrastructure that already exists. Among other things, that means tourism. And since tourism by definition means encountering and interacting with visitors from around the world, there’s an incompatibility with the isolationist inclinations of fundamentalist doctrine.



How well President Morsi navigates that middle ground between satisfying both the demands of the Islamic traditionalists that helped him attain power and the demands of a secular Muslim nation with a shattered economy and a citizen median age of 24 years old may reveal whether Morsi is a transformational figure in Egyptian politics or merely a caretaker on a tightrope.

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SUSAN HACK, writing for Conde Nast Traveler, understands what’s at stake: “Morsi knows well that high spending tourists from Saudi Arabia, who traditionally flock to Alexandria and Cairo in the summer in search of cooler temperatures and social freedoms, will be also be reluctant to visit Egypt if women and men can’t share beaches and have to sun bathe fully clothed.”

Hack reports that Morsi may already be trying to have it both ways: “During a campaign appearance in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheik earlier this month, Morsi told businessmen and Bedouin tribal leaders that he wants to create jobs (and alternatives to discos and thong-wearing beach volleyball player tournaments) by encouraging medical, cultural and “spiritual” tourism.”

That may or may not play with the sunseeker crowd. “Arrivals from Russia, which sent the most tourists of any country to Egypt in 2010, dropped 40 percent in 2011, according to the Association of Russian Tour Operators,” Hack reported.

On the basis of percentage of GDP, tourism may not be that big a driver of the Egyptian economy, but it’s clearly the public face, the most outward-facing sign of the Egyptian economy, to say nothing of the country’s culture and outlook. It’s what people will look to as a visible barometer of Egypt’s future prospects. When times were good, or at least better, people didn’t go there from around the world to glimpse the wonders of the Suez Canal.

For a nation in which 40 percent of a population of 82 million people lives on less than $1.87 a day, tourism needs to be one of the weapons in Morsi’s arsenal for the reinvention of the Republic of Egypt — regardless of fundamentalist diktat.

In a January 2011 interview with NBC News, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times observed that “Egypt, and most of the Arab world, has been on vacation from history for the last 50 years.” The election of the first democratically-chosen president in its modern history suggests the Egyptian people are ready to end that vacation with history, and start making strides into the future. Morsi’s political future depends on how nimbly he undertakes to do just that.

Image credits: Morsi: Al Jazeera. Egypt exports graphic: MIT Media Lab and the Center for International Development at Harvard University. Egyptian protest: Al Jazeera. 

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