Egypt’s Substantive State Outside the Shell of Politics

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While the rest of the world continues to focus on the Egypt that is bogged down in a quagmire of political disintegration, I choose to focus on the parts of Egypt that remain and continue to function throughout, not in a sedentary fashion, but in a stabilising state-building fashion.

At this point, when the political discourse is so damaged and bruised that optimistic suggestions of reform etc will be blown away on the collective exhale of held breath, we must look to the other side of the equation too: the side that constitutes the State away from politics. This might seem like a foreign concept to many, and certainly in formal terms the definition of a ‘State’ is not settled; but in simple terms, and in Egyptian terms, the State is far more, in fact is spectacularly more, than mere government and its bureaucracy.

One demonstration of this is the housing sector: over 50% of Cairo’s housing is informal – that is, it does not formally or legally have permission to be built – hosting more than 60% of Cairo’s population of an estimated 20million. More to the point,  if you look to the myriad causes of unrest and dissatisfaction across the country, it goes far deeper than the structure and figureheads of an autocratic government, it lies in the daily experiences of poverty, lack of opportunities and employment,  lack of freedom of movement and expression amongst other deep-rooted social and economic disparities. Therefore the solutions, in a (currently) fragmented landscape, have to go deeper than the bare structure of government and politics – as essential as they are – they are not the whole answer.

Thus when the deepest part of politics, away from the pressures of individuals egos, is operational – that is the representation of groups of people defined by geography – then the question arises, what are they representing?

Anyone looking at Egypt from a developmental, innovation, business or environmental perspective will notice one common factor in all their respective areas: fragmentation.

This includes any and more of the following: fragmentation of practice, funding, infrastructure projects, civil society projects, business opportunities etc.

Why? It seems to me that the most recent events are a clear show of why people and business like to fund individual on-the-ground projects rather than country-wide or city-wide initiatives (which don’t necessarily connect up but which do cater for the specific need in that specific place). Whether it be access to fresh water wells, reforming the filtering systems of polluting cement plants, turning a tourist venue into an off-grid eco village, investing in a large one-off wind farm, or a permaculture test centre. Yes there are many many examples of projects with the same elements of bottom-up, community or need-led ideas across Europe; but where widespread poverty of a particular kind exists in developed countries for example, that issue tends to be tackled in a more unified way by central government and local authorities (e.g by providing access to mains water for every household already standing and yet to be built) rather than tackling issues case by case, which is not only inefficient in time but also in expertise and money.

The excuse for this comes from both sides: from the State side, justification lies in the definition of developing country; i.e resources and money are tight, population growth and demands are high, we are doing our best. From the receiving end, i.e the rest of Egypt, the valid question of what can you do if you are faced with the 30 year reign of a dictator and autocratic ‘government’ which centralises money to the benefit of certain people, which does not, by the very dint of being an autocracy, allow citizen participation in local or central government and facilitates multiple webs of corruption extending between various authorities, central and local, using bureaucracy as the reason why you can’t make an appointment with Mr X, or why you can’t file for permission for Z, or if you do, as the justification for the interminable length of time it will take. (The latter perspective is more valid, in my opinion, as a reason why Egypt remains a developing country.)

Either way, the end product is person to person, business to person/community funding, catering for needs as and when the appropriate contacts arise, rather than co-ordinating an overall solution to be rolled out across the country.

From an international investment perspective; borne out over the last 2 weeks as the US got worryingly closer to following through on its military threats to Syria, Egypt’s stock-market dipped 4% in response, soon after rising promptly as diplomacy seemed to be the order of the day instead; the State they are investing in needs to be able to provide certain guarantees. Clearly investment in large scale energy infrastructure (as one example) just isn’t going to happen without sufficient buy-in from the (stabilised) central authorities who control the electricity grid and some of the state owned power stations. Not only is political stability required to be able to come to an agreement on such large scale investments in the first place, but also a ready set of qualified employees and the ability (and therefore stability) to be able to maintain machinery/business/the product, and an assured internal or external market to sell too. Well, we know stability isn’t what it was in Egypt as we speak, and as Egypt’s poor get poorer, with the cost of living taking up more and more of their income, and unemployment currently set at 13.3% (1% higher than the last quarter in 2013) the internal market isn’t sitting too pretty.

This trend tends not to put off oil and gas investors – the beginning of September brought with it a new discovery of gas off the shores of Damietta on the North coast of Egypt – but that is because they can and do own up to 100% shares in their business interests. They bring in their qualified staff, do their thing, cater for the starving internal fuel market in Egypt, and they’re done. Of course, all with the lubrication of the politicians (of any persuasion) and the army’s (who often own relevant land) unregulated consent, who await news like this with baited breath as one part of the silver bullet they seek to solve Egypt’s financial woes with.

And so the net result is a fragmented, project by project landscape across the whole country, punctuated by large infrastructure projects funded by foreign corporations or the State when they are seen as essential to the ongoing basic functioning of the country.

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So what could Egypt’s politicians represent?

As a positive counterweight to the above, and in an effort to steer eyes towards more of what I see every day, here are 5 (of many) great projects that haven’t stopped rolling along as politics has rolled backwards.

Innovation Hubs:

Starting with ICE Cairo, which is officially launching this weekend, it is a “community-powered green tech innovation hub” which roughly translates into a physical office space for co-working and ‘fablab’ for creating innovations with 3D printers, good old tools and some technical advice; an online and real community and network of engaged social and business entrepreneurs in Egypt; and an events space and hub for activities relating to green innovation and projects. A lively and young crew, now expanding to form ICEAlex in Alexandria, and possibly a desert hub too. All in all an inspiring bunch, with whom I shared an office for my first 6 months in Egypt, so they have been the home of Zero Carbon Egypt up until now.

Social Enterprise

An up and coming subject right now, there’s one heavyweight on the block: Nahdet el Mahrousa.

NM calls itself “an incubator of early stage innovative social enterprise in the Middle East”, but I have come to think of it as more than that. Potential social enterprises and projects apply to be incubated and if they are successful gain the expertise, sounding board, and guidance of the NM team. NM also organises ‘salons’, i.e events on certain topics and issues that fall within its area. I attended one of the only public civil society discussions on the massively controversial Ethiopian Dam plan that was revealed in June this year, (See this post I wrote for more on that.) it remains the only public discussion outside the media that was had…. One of the projects it has incubated that I’m most familiar with is Green Arm, a youth policy group on urban issues such as transportation. During Morsi’s stay in power Green Arm were in fact asked to write a sustainable transport policy for one of the larger opposition parties. NM’s roster of incubated projects extends from organ donation to creating spaces for people to express themselves (rarer than you might think in Egypt), to theatre groups performing for the marginalised in Egyptian society.

A different but nevertheless great support mechanism, is Yomken, a new crowd-funding platform for local enterprises, of which there are many more traditional ones that lack access or entry points to the modern market. As I said since I arrived, the sheer ingenuity of what Egyptians try to make money of always astounds me – even if its lemonade with food dye, they’ll make something of it. But in this case, some are high quality products mixing traditional design with modern appeal, like this clay cooler project.

Environmental Rights Advocacy in Egypt

This is one close to my heart, as that’s the foundation of my role at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights where I work; but it isn’t only us working on the connections between environmental problems and the poorest’s ability to sustain a livelihood or access to clean food and water for their families. There are similar organisations also working behind the scenes and directly with communities, as their pollution or land-grabbing issues don’t stop as the world of politics falters, unfortunately. Namely the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Habi Centre for Environmental Rights.  This fascinating little documentary by the Mosireen Collective, on the power of the Idku community in standing up to BP who wanted to build a gas plant affecting their fishing grounds and tourist-attractive beaches, is well worth watching for a flavour of the work. Expect a lot more on these issues.

Peer to peer training

An impressive start up by an Egyptian friend of mine, also in his 20’s, Ro2aty, based in Alexandria, purposely away from the centrifugal pull of Cairo so as to spread out the expertise and opportunities a little more fairly. Its slick office seems to be constantly full of engaged young people taking part in workshops or training sessions on anything from photography and languages to management and leadership skills. It’s very impressive.

Even amongst this random and unrepresentative selection, there is no doubt that more schemes and more innovation on grander scales would be possible if Egypt had by now had its revolutionary requests granted. As that is not the case however, recognition of the good that is being done, despite all the defeating circumstances, is long overdue.

I see these initiatives as micro examples of what could be learnt from and adapted when the time comes for Egypt’s future participatory governance (formally called democracy or not) to call on its wealth of informal experience that it has ignored and failed to facilitate in any way so far. This would truly be one cause for celebration on the winding path of transitional and social justice for Egypt.

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