BRICs and more tar

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

April 5 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Talking shops or photo ops? Verdant oases of green shoots? Or overblown blooming nuisances? Downtrodden by history’s rapacious greed, the wooed nations are the benighted forlorn — ugly ducks turned swans. Their allure? Growth.

Though not in the top tier, Egypt is on the cusp says Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist credited with creating the BRICs in 2001. South Africa expanded BRICs into BRICS in 2010. Now O’Neill says Egypt shouldn’t think twice about making BRICS into BRICES.

That might surprise anyone reading the papers — 1,570 Egyptian factories shuttered, out of cash, supplies and/or customers — idylls of idling indolence.

The chicken and egg of the Arab Spring is to crack the politics before the economics. Yet we’re anxious to see what the hens lay: feisty pullets pecking precociously, or brooding broilers roosting on rafters of recalcitrance?

If the presidential candidates are to be believed, the answer lies in Egypt’s soil. The well-ploughed furrows of ingrate carpetbaggers aren’t their quest. Agriculture is. The hint of a glint of gelt in the fertile Nile Delta.

As Brazil, Russia, India, China and now South Africa industrialize and politically homogenize with $12 trillion of combined assets and half the world’s population, the chase is on to feed the BRICS; to spar with the quivering United States’ $15 trillion and Europe’s $18 trillion economies.

Egypt can choose to cement new pacts with the BRICS, rely on old reliables or try something new: a contemporary structure incorporating the best of the old with new fitments, such as sun-powered motors and grains that flourish in aridity.

Three keys unlock the conundrum: information, knowledge and wisdom. Egypt has all of them in an abundance of talented young people eager to grasp a challenge.

The lost spirit of Tahrir hankers for a spark to reignite its effervescence. Otherwise Egypt’s zest for liberation will be tarred with the feculent follies that are strangling hope in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Egypt eschews these aberrant insurgencies. Its independent streak is characterized by meekness in the face of adversity, the essence of its pride in its hospitality towards visitors who came in the earliest days to marvel at its majestic monuments. That generosity was flagrantly abused: tomb raiders, enslavers building the Suez Canal, the hypocritical humbugs who hampered building a dam to tame the Nile.

Egypt has not lost its seductiveness. What might it be offered? Cheap and cheerful do-dats? Cars, clothes and castoffs from production lines facing obsolescence?

How many washing machines can a family feed?  Imported spin driers are on sale downtown. Did nobody figure out it takes an hour to dry clothes in one of those and only a jiffy to billow everything bone dry on a washing line stretched across the balcony?

Addressing BRICS leaders in Delhi, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil says the current economic crisis began in the developed world. It will not be overcome through austerity measures, fiscal consolidations and depreciation of labor. Neither through quantitative easing she described as a monetary tsunami. Growth is the dynamo.

Brazilians’ annual income is $15,000, about the same as a Russian’s — bigger than China’s $5,000, which dwarfs India’s $2,000. Rousseff advocates establishing the BRICS own investment bank to stem the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The Organization for Economic Organization and Development (OECD) says BRICS are expanding the global middle class faster than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. The world will go from being mostly poor to mostly middle class in the next 10 years, according to their research.

Asians will form two thirds of the global middle class, shifting the balance of economic power from the West to the East. India’s middle class will grow by 70 percent within five years to 267 million people, nearly a quarter of its population, according to India’s National Council of Applied Economic Research.

In seven years, China’s 800-million strong middle class has jumped into the driving seat. Instead of buying one General Motors car for every 10 sold in the US China has become GM’s biggest customer.

It’s not surprising to find Egypt tip-toing around the BRICS. Egypt’s location sits it on the fence between the East and the West, dithering which way to hop. Is it better to stay with the Devil you know, or tinker with the Devil you don’t? There’s a downside to both.

Throwing your lot in with the BRICS is to flirt with trading in political freedom for prosperity, the option to ditch corrupt leaders pruned. Egyptians paid handsomely to topple Mubarak and his cronies. Is it worth an iPad or a new outfit for the strictures of servility?

Not in my book. In his, Brink Lindsey, the author of The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, links America’s post-World War II prosperity with its mind-opening educational opportunities.

And thus we stumble on a way forward for Egypt that could be embraced by all politicians if only they’d pause before prescribing off-the-cuff cure-alls.

The BRICS will exploit Egypt’s low costs and proximity to mega markets to trade goods for profit. Europe and America offer a gift of greater value: the transfer of knowledge. Don’t expect the inscrutable Chinese, the rapscallion Russians or the artful Indians to share secrets. Brazil’s unique ethnic blend of Portuguese, Spanish and Latino homem cordial is a fudge, permitting their elites to plunder — the common good brushed aside.

Britain did it honorably before when Africa’s liberators arose. The UK’s then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan recognized the game was up for British colonialism. He stood before the South African parliament on February 3, 1960 declaring the wind of change was blowing through the continent.

Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact, Macmillan told a surprised audience. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it, SuperMac said. Britain opened up its universities and colleges to a new generation of Africans to be trained to run their independent countries.

Overlooking the tranquil Nile, enjoying the calm after Sunday afternoon’s sandstorm, a UK emissary mused aloud: What should Britain and the West be doing to help Egyptians in their time of need and our time of austerity?

What you hold is a vast repository of knowledge, he’s reminded. How many former colonies has Britain helped on the road to democracy? Share your knowledge with Egypt unreservedly, as Macmillan did. Open the floodgates of learning. Egyptians will burnish that gift — a prize more valuable than gold: the respect wisdom endows.

The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty — James Madison, father of America’s constitution, the fourth president of a nation seeking illusive answers.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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