The Current Discussion: With the U.S. presidential primary season in full swing, there's a lot of talk here about "change" vs. "competence" in leadership. Which does your country have more of? Is that a good thing?
I am writing this on the plane taking me back to New York from Cairo, my hometown. Almost every conversation I had during the three weeks I spent in Egypt revolved around the decay and increasing poverty that continues to tighten its grip on my country. So my heart aches just to consider “change” vs. “competence”.
They are words that have been erased from modern Egypt’s political lexicon by a succession of military dictators who have ruled since a coup in 1952. The latest one, President Hosni Mubarak, has been in power since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated at the end of 1981. For the past 26 years, Mubarak has ruled Egypt with little regard for competence or change and he is said to be grooming his son Gamal, a former banker, to inherit his regime. So much for any competence or change on the horizon.
It is a wonder how the regime runs the country when it is so out of touch with its people. While those in power boast the Egyptian economy is growing at a healthy rate, they forget to tell you that they are its only benefactors. Prices continue to soar. A sandwich of fava beans, a staple in the diet of all Egyptians but especially the poor, has doubled in price and many cannot even afford to eat meat.
You need only see how the regime reacted to criticism from the European Union to understand how allergic it is to any suggestions of change. Unlike the Bush administration, which seems to have forgotten it had ever emphasized democracy and reform – i.e. change – in Egypt, the EU recently, and rightfully, blasted Egypt’s human and civil rights record.
But to hear the regime’s response, you would think such criticism was the product of evil forces conspiring against Egypt. At least that’s how the head of the Egyptian parliament put it when he was interviewed by a television talk show. Never mind that jails are full of political prisoners or that the regime is suffocating all life out of Egypt. The official, Fathi Sorour, suggested the Europeans would regret calling for change once they understood that they needed Egypt more than it needed them. No change, no competence and plenty of delusion.
Change needs new blood and to understand the fate of anyone who believes Egypt needs it, consider the fate of Ayman Nour, a parliamentarian who was Mubarak’s main opponent in Egypt’s first contested presidential elections in September 2005. Nour has been in prison since the end of 2005 after a politically motivated trial aimed at removing him from politics as Mubarak grooms Gamal to take over.
There are plenty of competent people in Egypt who could carry out the changes that my country needs so much, but they are pushed out of the way, bullied into silence or sent to jail. Some even self-impose exile, as was the fate of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a Mubarak critic who dared to urge the Bush administration to make its aid conditional on the Cairo regime’s respect of human rights.
No matter who wins the U.S. elections in November, I remain highly skeptical that they will encourage either competence or change in Egypt. Successive inhabitants of the White House have always preferred stability there.
President Bush said so at the end of 2004. He seemed to support reform and democracy in 2005, but his recent visit to Egypt, which took place while I was there, suggested we were back to regular programming. He stayed for just three hours in Egypt, an afterthought compared to the two days he had just spent in Saudi Arabia where he delivered a major arms sale and sword-danced with relatives of Saudi King Abdullah.
Bush thanked and appreciated Mubarak several times and praised him for Egypt’s “vibrant civil society.” Less than 24 hours after Bush left, Egyptian police ended a peaceful demonstration in Cairo and dumped the protestors, including a 70-year-old opposition leader, out in the desert.
Egypt used to pride itself for being the de facto leader of the Middle East, but it has turned into a vacation backdrop for visiting dignitaries whose attention and business deals have increasingly shifted to the booming economies of newly influential Arab Gulf kingdoms and emirates.
Egypt’s diminished role is no surprise considering that Mubarak has been in power for 26 years. His regime is tired and lacking in new ideas.
Bush is the fourth U.S. president to hold office since the start of Mubarak’s reign. Whether Americans choose “competence” or “change” later this year, it seems one Mubarak or another will be waiting to receive them.
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