x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Fear of Egypt's Islamists is a poor substitute for policy

The problems Egypt faces today demand a focus on the structural challenges of the state, not the cultural beliefs of a party.

The Salafis are coming. Previously, it was the fearsome Muslim Brotherhood, until the votes from the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections showed the austere Salafis had won an astonishing quarter of the popular vote. So the danger of the Brotherhood in the popular imagination has faded, to be replaced by the fear - echoed among liberal Egyptians and in western newspapers - that Salafis will attempt to ban the bikini, prohibit the sale of alcohol or enforce unpleasant punishments.

Some of this is mere scaremongering, a way of attracting attention, but there is also symbolism represented in these policy fragments.

For the conservative base of voters, from whom the Islamists generally and Salafis specifically draw their support, the symbol of the bikini, like the veil, is a way of contextualising wider policy changes. It is, for one, a shorthand for a return to old-fashion Muslim values.

For Egyptian liberals, banning the bikini would be a symbol of a wider shift against personal liberties, a fear that secular norms might be overturned. For the West, it would be a sign of increasing autonomy - the West's more hysterical commentators do not fear a change in how Egyptians dress, they fear a change in how Egyptians collectively act, a change to the status quo.

But the fact that the symbolism of one narrow issue, such as the enforcement of conservative dress codes, has different meanings for different political constituencies shows the trouble with such fragments of policy. They are deliberately divisive and draw the lines of culture wars over issues that only marginally affect the nation's progress.

The problems that Egypt faces today are not cultural, they are structural. Two in particular stand out: the economy and security. Both these issues have to do with the architecture of the state, the underlying basis for all the other social and cultural policies that are being debated. Without clear solutions to these problems, there will be no Egyptian renaissance.

Security is a broad issue, not only about rebuilding the public safety that allows normal daily life in Egypt, so that people can simply walk down the street unmolested, but also about transforming the relationship of the police with the population.

Under Mubarak, the police were seen as defending the regime, using arbitrary detention and even abuse to frighten the population - recall that it was the death of Khalid Said in police custody last year that sparked the online campaign behind the uprising.

This aspect of security shows that Egypt desperately needs to rebuild belief in the rule of law, which will depend on an independent judiciary that ensures laws are consistently and fairly applied.

Inextricable from that sense of security is the task of rebuilding the economy. This is a more complex task. Egypt is a big country whether measured by geography, population or resources. How this giant hauls itself up will depend on private enterprise, international aid, internal reform and related changes to the rule of law and representative politics, among other things. Egypt's interim leaders have already signalled their intention to rely less on international aid, this week postponing a decision on whether to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

It will also require real political vision - at present, there is no clear answer to Egypt's woes. Talk of post-Mubarak political freedoms is often linked to the idea of economic freedom, which, in the language of international organisations, really means unbridled freedom of the markets. Economic freedom, by that way of thinking, means separating politics from the economy, so that resources are managed by anonymous markets, rather than guided by the hand of government.

Yet no one really knows what the best prescription for Egypt's economic ills will be. Unfettered markets have brought globalised economies to near collapse. The neoliberal reforms that were started under Mubarak in the last decade exacerbated the division between the Egyptian elite and the overwhelming majority of ordinary Egyptians, about 40 per cent of whom live on about Dh7 a day.

Changing that grotesque imbalance will involve attacking sacred cows, among them the large public sector and food subsidies. Yet beyond that, there is little consensus among the political parties on the best way forward. Different parties - socialists, conservatives and neoliberals - will have different views. To make matters more complicated, many people who vote for parties that appear defined by cultural symbols are actually voting for economic reasons.

When parties talk of reclaiming an Islamic identity, they are often using that as a symbol for the country's independence (from foreign interference, which can include aid or large-scale foreign investment in key areas). Voters understand the metaphor in the message, even if the details are not always clear.

The trouble is that cultural symbols are bad substitutes for structural solutions. Egyptians need the details. Fear of a Salafi or Brotherhood takeover of government is expressed in symbolic questions, with the details implied. But how Egypt's economy will be rebalanced is a more proper question for voters to ask political parties, even if the answer isn't easily digested.

What the government - of Salafis, other Islamists or liberals - eventually does about esoteric questions like the privatisation of natural resources will ultimately affect many more people than whether bathers can wear bikinis. The more Egypt's politicians skirmish over culture, the harder it will be to wage war over structure.



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