Egypt: choice of language matters

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jun 6 15:21:46 UTC 2008

Time for a change Egypt's government has lost all credibility and should go,
writes *Galal Nassar<gnassar at>

Something is wrong either with the government or the people. The government,
led by Ahmed Nazif, is talking about achievements, unprecedented steps
towards reform and a better future for the people. Egypt, it says, is living
its brightest political and economic period ever. And yet the nation, across
most class divisions that is, is shedding tears of pain, bemoaning the
harshness of life, diminishing living standards, and the continuing state of
emergency. The gap between what the government says and how the people live
is so huge that it seems to me that the government is governing another
country, not this one.

I admit to being one of those who don't believe the government or trust it.
I don't feel any of its alleged achievements and see cause to change it, for
governments lose their reason to exist when they lose trust and credibility.
For me, this government is not fit to lead the country at this critical
stage of our history. I know that the government and its supporters are
going to brand me a dissident, for anyone who dislikes the policies of the
government is automatically viewed as a foe, as someone with no care for the
country, if not indeed a traitor. This reminds me of the famous words of
Bush regarding his so-called war on terror: "You're either with us or
against us."

I also confess to be one of those people our cabinet members accuse of
failing to comprehend the lofty aims of government policies. But once again
I have to admit that I don't trust the government and its policies. For me,
good policies put a smile on people's faces. This is a simple measure that
every official should take to heart before taking office. Those who want to
judge the government's performance should look around them. The eyes of our
people are not happy; their smiles are cut with sadness.

This is our government. It belongs to all of us. Having trust between the
government and the pubic is a requisite to progress in this country. If
someone cannot get this into his head, then it's time for that person to
leave office. What we have here is a group of ministers who have lost touch
with the realities and complexities of Egyptian life, even at a time when
poverty is hitting the country like a tornado. According to the UNDP,
poverty in Egypt is at 52 per cent. In other words, more than half the
nation is living under the poverty line. The government and the opposition
have debated the point with the former claiming that only 30 per cent of the
population lives in poverty and the latter saying that it is 60 per cent or
more. In either case, this is not a situation that befits Egypt. And with
international shortages of food and fuel putting the brakes on the global
economy, things are likely to get worse, more so for the poor.

I believe the ratio to be just as the UNDP estimated. My reasons are: first,
the methods used are not in any way controversial and there is no history of
animosity between the UNDP and the Egyptian government; second, even if the
UN is lying, would the World Bank, which provides essential funding for the
Egyptian reform programme, be lying as well? Regardless, what matters is not
how poor we are, or even how we got to be so. We've all seen the bread lines
that satellite TV stations are airing for the whole world to see. What is in
question is the poverty of the solutions the government has to offer. Our
government has resorted to pre-capitalist methods to get money out of our
pockets. It has gone back to the days of the poll tax and other arbitrary
means to fill up its coffers. Its aim is no longer to better our lives, but
to keep us where we are.

This is a government that was put in office with a mandate to take Egypt
into the information age, to help us catch up with the rest of the world.
Then several businessmen were brought into the cabinet, disregarding the
conflict of their private and public interests, a conflict that later on
proved crucial. Those ministers ran their own show with no recourse to an
overall policy that takes the concerns of average citizens into account.
This is what got us here. This is what caused past problems to get worse.
Due to their mismanagement and lack of vision, our ministers seem unable to
lift a finger to alleviate the suffering of ordinary citizens without the
personal intervention of President Mubarak.

Many cabinet members, including Nazif, act as if being presentable and
fluent in a foreign language is the key to the future. But talking to
foreign correspondents in their own language is not how one gets the
confidence of investors. It is not how one gains the trust of international
organisations. A laptop in meetings is not a magic wand. E- governments, for
all their language and computer skills, fail too. The government failed to
get its message across to average citizens. It failed to connect with the
people, mostly because it spoke a different language. And when the
government handpicked writers and journalists to write about it, it chose
those who have no credibility and no skills to mention, not in language, or
even communication.

In Germany, France, Japan, China, Russia, the US, the UK, Latin America, and
even Israel, officials use exclusively their mother tongue in press
conferences and in front of the media. This is because, even while talking
to foreigners in public, they are actually speaking to their constituency at
home. They want their message to reach ordinary citizens and they want to
keep their language alive. In meetings I attended in foreign countries, this
was always the case. This is something that may not seem essential to our
government, but it is crucial in other countries that understand what
progress is about. Choice of language matters.

There are other factors that widened the gap between citizen and government,
such as clear contradictions in the statements of cabinet ministers and
inconsistencies in figures released -- if ever -- by government
institutions. We don't even have laws that make access to information a
right for citizens and journalists, a situation that adds to the ambiguity
and lack of transparency in the country. It also makes people doubt
everything the government says.

Take for example the government's habit of denying any intention to raise
prices, right before it does exactly that. No wonder ordinary people feel
uneasy whenever a minister says that there are no plans to increase prices.
This is what happened before the prices of basic foodstuffs (rice, cooking
oil, beans, etc) went up. It also happened in the case of gasoline and
diesel prices. Such behaviour is criminal, for both the government and the
people know that when you increase the price of fuel, everything else will
get costlier. So don't blame the public when it cannot believe the
government's promise to keep price inflation down.

As if a costlier life is not bad enough, the government kept pushing laws
through the parliament without allowing pubic debate to emerge and without
giving us a chance to take our breath. It is as if the country didn't have
any laws before. And all the new laws, without exception, only serve to
heighten discontent and widen the gap between the public and the regime.

Take, for example, the traffic law and the real estate tax. Both laws show
that the government is intent on taking as much money as possible from all
segments of society. The reason is that it failed to promote real revenues
that finance the state's budget without having to dig deeper into the
pockets of the people. Even the government's friends call the new taxes a
bitter pill.

The government's policies and widespread discontent in the Egyptian street
is likely to awaken -- if it hasn't already awakened -- social ills such as
robbery, violence, sectarianism, the black market and corruption among
government officials. We'll see students dropping out because they cannot
afford to go on. We'll see more instances of commercial fraud, as with the
recent selling of donkey meat for human consumption. There is already
negligence in public hospitals, price gouging in private hospitals and poor
service in public and private transportation.

The truth is that the government doesn't have a plan to control the market
or the street, or even its own institutions. The government makes its
decisions behind closed doors and then watches the public reaction on
television, as if it were a mere spectator. The government is unleashing its
police and security services to deal with demonstrations, protests and
disturbances as if the latter were security problems, not the consequence of
misguided policies. As a result, Egypt is being seen abroad as a police
state intent on repressing freedoms.

The worst part is that the government failed to lift the state of emergency
declared and upheld since Sadat's assassination in 1981. It has so far
failed to rally pubic opinion around an alternative law that it calls the
terrorism law, saying that it is working on it. The government has allowed
the country to appear to the world as unsafe. If otherwise, why do we live
in a state of emergency and why are we unable to function without emergency
laws? That's why investors and businessmen are reluctant to invest in Egypt.
And that's why the country is incapable of moving forward, notwithstanding
the prime minister's claim that extraordinary measures are a "necessary

Those who keep track of what the National Democratic Party (NDP) government
is doing cannot help but notice the power struggle ongoing within its ranks.
This power struggle is affecting its decisions and undermining its
popularity. Private as well as government media have noted it. Apparently,
rival groups have formed within the government and the ruling party. They
often leak news about their counterparts in order to undermine their
standing -- all part of the ongoing conflict between the old guard and the
new. Then again, the new guard are fighting among themselves. Even big NDP
businessmen no longer keep their internal wars a secret.

The NDP may have offices in every governorate, town and village, but
apparently it has no clue as to the feelings of the people. It has failed to
explain the government's policies to the masses. Had it done so, perhaps the
anger we see all around may have abated. So what exactly are the NDP's
specialised committees doing? And why are they not examining the party's
decisions and sense of timing? And why are they not explaining all that to
the public?

The NDP's failure, from the bottom up and vice versa, is eroding its
popularity and setting it up for an unpleasant surprise in the event of
genuinely democratic elections. Punitive votes against the NDP now outweigh
any support it still has. Perhaps it is time for the NDP to admit this and
sack the government before it does more damage to the country and the party
that put it in power.

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