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Opinion

[Martin Khor] A new dawn, but many questions linger

People across the world were mesmerized last week by the remarkable images of the dramatic events in Egypt that eventually propelled President Hosni Mubarak out of office on Friday.

In the end, the courage, determination and fighting spirit of the millions of mainly young people that packed into streets in protest in many cities overcame a president who had been entrenched in power for over 30 years.

What started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt could well be the dawn of a new democracy in the Middle East.

The jubilation of the masses in the streets and homes of Egypt was well-deserved. They succeeded, in so short a time (18 days) and in so peaceful a manner, after withstanding violent attacks and the twists and turns in the responses of the top leadership that tried to cling on to power.

After the celebrations of last weekend come the hard questions to answer, so that the achievement in the streets can be translated into real progress in the lives of people.

First is the political transformation from autocracy to democracy. Power was transferred from the president to the military leaders.

That this transfer was taken as an acceptable arrangement by the protesters, and seemingly by the opposition political parties and figures, is quite remarkable.

The army is traditionally respected in Egypt and its restraint in not attacking the protesters earned it further respect and acceptance as the authority in charge during the transition period.

The military leaders must prepare to take on a new role, that of honest brokers that facilitate the building of new elements and structures of democracy.

These include ending the state of emergency, drawing up a new constitution, enabling political parties and civil organisations to establish and flourish, having fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and the assumption of power of the new leaders.

An important component is how the largely unorganized young people who were so courageous and articulate in the art of revolution drew themselves into the process and became key participants, instead of leaving politics only to professional politicians and the old-style parties.

The events in Egypt bring back to mind what happened in the Philippines when the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos was brought down in 1986 (after he was declared winner of a rigged election), when the military chief Fidel Ramos and the Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile revolted against their old boss.

They were supported by the show of “people power” of hundreds of thousands who surrounded the military buildings to prevent the defectors from being arrested or bombed out.

After Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos flew off to Hawaii, Cory Aquino was sworn in as president. She appointed a commission to draw up a new constitution within a year. New congressional elections were also held by 1987.

Although a revolt by military leaders sparked the departure of Marcos, it was a popular civilian political leader (who had stood against Marcos in the presidential elections and who the people were convinced had actually won) who took over power.

In Egypt, a process of rapid transition is even more necessary because power has to be transferred from the military to civilian leaders and institutions.

Egypt also needs to review its economic and social policies. A major weakness of the Mubarak presidency is that besides being politically repressive, it did not deliver development to the people.

The new Egypt has to tackle the many social problems. Top of the list is poverty. By one measure, the poverty rate is currently more than 22 percent having increased from 20 percent in 2008.

Unemployment is also high and rising, from 8.4 percent in 2008 to nearly 10 percent today. One in three young men aged 15 to 29 was unemployed in 2009, according to a UNDP report.

This has led to insecurity, hopelessness and frustration among the youth, which contributed to their anger against Mubarak. The present euphoria from the overthrow of the president may be replaced by a new frustration if the job situation does not improve.

The rise in the price of bread led to riots in 2008, and in recent months, food price inflation has shot up again. Egypt has become a food deficit country, importing a significant part of wheat, corn and other important food items that its people consume.

It should revitalize its domestic agriculture sector and consider producing more of its own food, especially since world food supplies and prices have become so volatile.

The new Egyptian leaders may also consider strategies to improve the country’s industrial and services sectors, and the trade, financial and technology policies that have to support these sectors.

The development policies should aim to be employment-intensive so that future growth can be accompanied by more jobs.

The world will also be eager to learn if there will be a change in foreign policy in the new Egypt.

The country’s past policies are regarded as pro-Western, and especially pro-U.S., partly because of the large amount of U.S. aid it receives.

Will the new Egypt reduce its aid dependence and take a more independent line? How will it address the Israeli-Palestinian problem? In particular, will it take a more friendly approach to the Palestinians in Gaza, with which it shares a border?

These are some of the questions, on the transition to democracy, on social issues and the economy, and on foreign policy, that the emerging leadership, as well as ordinary Egyptians on the ground who carried out the tremendous change of the past few weeks, will have to grapple with.

The rest of the world wishes them the best of luck.

By Martin Khor

Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre, a Geneva-based intergovernmental organization of developing countries. ― Ed. 

(The Star)

(Asia News Network)
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