Expose wolves in sheep’s clothing

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

May 23, 2011

By   Philip Whitfield

Anyone with a mobile phone knows the truth. We are in the throws of the knowledge revolution, as meaningful as the agricultural or the industrial revolutions, which shaped social revolutions across the globe.

At his farewell lunch last Thursday the British Ambassador Dominic Asquith coined an apposite phrase. Diplomats bewail hanging around for months with nothing moving, he said. Then in a week, the situation leaps forward decades. Dominic should know. He came to Cairo from Baghdad.

The issue for Egypt is to figure out which revolution comes first. The Tahrir revolution was a political revolt made possible by the IT revolution. Information and knowledge (information in context) was spread effectively on Twitter and Facebook to the chagrin of the rulers who pulled the plug on the Internet for a few days.

Control of information is a primary goal of governments. Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe are among the worst repressors of freedom of speech.

Britain reserves the right to impose information blackouts when the government believes national security is at stake.

The United States was founded on five inalienable rights. One, freedom of speech, is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Words that are deemed obscene, defamatory, would incite riot, or are fighting words are exceptions.

Yet as we’ve witnessed this year, the spread of information and knowledge, ignores jurisprudence. Wikipedia published secret cables between diplomats. The British courts are to consider prosecuting Twitter for carrying information about footballers’ extra-marital affairs. So all you need is a few seconds on a mobile to read diplomats’ thoughts and soccer players’ indiscretions.

The situation in Egypt is clear-cut. The press cannot criticize the military under the current law. Neither can it spread unfounded rumors. On the other hand, such is spread on Twitter. So what’s the point of continuing with a prohibition that is ineffective? A sensible approach would be to include a redefined definition of freedom of speech in the new era constitution.

The industrial revolution crept into Barak Obama’s Middle East speech last week. If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland ($232.6 billion in 2010), the president said.

Obama said the US will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.

Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, he said, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

Lunching with a group of business leaders last week, we agreed that Egypt’s new era offers extraordinary opportunity for investors and companies in Egypt. The key is to encourage and mobilize the millions of young people who find it so difficult to get good jobs.

We should take heart from Brazil, Russia, India and China. For decades the BRICs disappointed. Under pressure from their populations they eased restrictions and mobilized their workforces. To them it has been a revolution of their societies.

What’s needed in Egypt is a tangible demonstration that Egypt has vanquished corruption, supports entrepreneurs and is committed to a market economy, not stultified government ownership. Words aren’t sufficient to quell the skeptics.

The election of a new president and parliament offers the opportunity to show the world that Egypt is embracing these changes. Reelecting wolves in sheep’s clothing spells disaster.

The agricultural revolution is long awaited. You can buy produce shipped to Scotland that is in far better condition than the fruit and vegetables on the shelves in Cairo.

This is because in Egypt the produce is mostly transported domestically in un-refrigerated conditions. I’m told if the finance were available for commercial loans the costs of introducing cooler vans could be amortized over 10 years and would make the sale of pristine produce viable.

Egypt’s sluggish approach and preservation of protectionism is doomed. As Twitter proves, the Information Age is a world without communication borders, sharing information, which begets knowledge, which begets wisdom.

The wise will ungag Egypt to allow ideas to flourish.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at pjwcairo@yahoo.com or twittered @mohendessin

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