Jumping frogs

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

November 14 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Betting on certainties is a mug’s game. Forecasting voters’ intentions in Egypt is dotty. Anything could happen in the next two weeks before the poll. But there are some straws in the wind.

You should listen to your friends. For Egypt that means understanding what its partners abroad are thinking. Let’s face it after the election foreigners’ goodwill will be required to get the economy moving.

An interesting perspective comes from the UAE. Egypt’s generals risk stability for their own self-interest says The National, a government-owned newspaper. The editorial pillories the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for riding roughshod over the people,

Egypt’a generals will appoint 80 of the 100 members of the panel assigned to write the constitution. Only 20 will be parliamentarians, the paper says. It adds there have also been trial balloons for a presidential candidacy by Field Marshal Tantawi,

Their opinion is the revolution that galvanized Egypt last February seems to be turning to water. Egyptians would do well to look to Tunisia, where Islamist and secularist parties are coming together to form a government following fair elections.

In the New York Times Neil MacFarquhar says a group of upstart, mostly liberal parties will challenge the Muslim Brotherhood’s well-organized juggernaut as well as remnants of the old government’s political machine.

MacFarquhar says Egypt’s basic election math goes something like this: Among up to 50 million voters, 20 to 30 percent are believed to be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist factions and are sure to vote. The elite and the Coptic Christian minority, comprising less than 20 percent are likely to be committed to civilian rule and are also eager to vote.

Hence the challenge is to win over the roughly 50 percent of undecided voters — not least in getting them to vote.

Under the headline, An Islamist Egypt? New York Post readers have been getting a taste of what might happen in Egypt. Liberated from 60 years of military rule, will Egyptians hand over their destiny to parties that could impose another despotism in the name of religion, asks Amir Tahiri?

He reckons Egypt could jump out of the frying pan into the fire, opting for Islamists who are spending on a no-tomorrow basis. He examples interest-free loans, free doctors and hospitals, free food and clothing and cash handouts to persuade poverty-stricken Egyptians to help them dominate the parliament.

He says after six decades the military represent a state within the state. They fear a democratic parliament would nationalize their businesses and submit them to the law of the land.

The military like the taste of power and don’t want to abandon their privileges, Tahiri says. Their average salaries are a third higher than civil servants’. They run more than 4,000 companies that pay no taxes. The military import virtually whatever they like duty-free. They have their gated residential compounds, exclusive hospitals, supermarkets and resorts, New Yorkers read.

One of the most astute observers of the scene is David Ignatius, for three years executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, an associate editor and columnist for the Washington Post. Why is security so bad, he asks?

He visited the Ain el-Sira police station in a rundown Cairo district to find out. He found it empty, except for one white-clad policeman named Hani Salama Yousef.

Asked why his colleagues have disappeared, the cop bows his head: We are depressed. When we go to protect people, they don’t respect us, he says. The police, like nearly everyone else in Egypt these days, have been on strike. One of their 15 demands is the right for pious Muslims to wear beards.

Ignatius says Egypt should make haste slowly to make sure the fundamentals of the constitution are right.

What’s clear to me is that SCAF simply doesn’t get it. Disregarding their featherbedding and contempt for accountability, how can they afford to ignore the global repugnance of their activities?

It’s also clear, as these foreign writers say they are attempting to load the dice by ignoring flagrant breaches of law. Islamists are using mosques as election pulpits. Former Mubarak acolytes masquerading as liberals are on the ticket.

Meanwhile law and order, which is their business is out of control.

Their focus is bashing secular groups and rounding up would-be politicians who were responsible for ridding the country of a tyrant’s control.

Apart from the consequences at home, look at the damage being done. The economy is crawling along. Foreign direct investment has dried up. Reserves of foreign currencies are falling month by month.

Tourism is in the doldrums. Foreigners are heading elsewhere for their holidays. A couple of examples: Since January the number of tourists choosing Dubai is up 11 percent and revenues increased 19 percent. Hotels were 100 percent booked for Eid and expect to be booked 90 percent for the coming months. Turkey reports a 9 percent increase this year.

Greece’s only immediate way out of its quandary is to boost tourism to pay its debts.  Some say Greece and Italy will forsake the euro – just as Argentina cut the link to the dollar in similar straights 10 years ago, devalued and then regained its regional dominance.

However it goes for Greece and Italy the southern European Mediterranean states are putting the squeeze on Egypt.

Egypt’s only sure bet is to vote for democracy. Fiddling around, trying to fool the people won’t work. Denying human rights destines military regimes to the dustbin of history. It’s only a matter of time.

Mark Twain rose to fame after he wrote a story Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. He picked it up in a bar. Jim Smiley trained a frog to jump higher than any other frog. He’d bet anything his frog could win against all comers.

Then along came an interloper who filled Jim’s frog’s mouth with shotgun pellets while Jim wasn’t looking.  For the first time in his life Jim lost his bet.

SCAF might think it’s got all it’s bases covered. But the public has an unerring habit of confounding those who think they know what they’re thinking.

After its publication Mark Twain recognized the Jumping Frog story was more than 2,000 years old – told in a Greek myth.

Look what happened to the Greeks – humiliatingly toppled from their lofty perch after they were caught cooking the books.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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