(Former U.S. Rep. Larry LaRocco of Idaho is in Egypt this week as part of a professional fellows program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Legacy International, which aims to strengthen the legislative and policymaking processes in Egypt and other countries. Rep. Larocco has agreed to submit commentaries outlining his views on life and politics of this Middle Eastern country.)
March 8 and March 9:
We flew from Washington, D.C., through Munich to Cairo on Lufthansa. The last leg of the flight had very few non-Egyptians on the flight. This absence of foreign visitors is one of the starkest realities of the post-revolution era. Twelve percent of Egypt's GDP comes from tourism and 10 percent of the employment is tied to tourism. This sector of Egypt's economy has been devastated since the revolution due to the current political uncertainty.
I have never worried about travel in Egypt before and this trip was no exception. However, most people who knew of my trip simply stated "be safe." This common view of Egypt is keeping the tourists out and driving the economy down.
Egypt and most of the Middle East begin the weekend on Friday and resume work on Sunday. Today we started early with meetings at AMIDEAST (www.amideeast.org ), the U.S. Embassy and lunch with the presidential campaign team for Ahmed Shafik. Shafik lost in the two-candidate runoff for president against Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.
The smog gripped the city as Cairo came to life this morning. The traffic was unbearably bad in this city of some 18 million. One must allow at least 40 minutes to drive a few miles. We ended the day with a tour of Old Cairo, adjacent to the El Hussein Mosque, and some interaction with Caireans in the Khan El Khalil market.
Egypt is a complex country. It has an extremely rich culture and history but struggles with the future. As a key ally, we still quarrel and disagree. It is the economic and thought center of the Middle East, but it is standing still at the moment.
I have always felt extremely welcome in Egypt, an over-the-top hospitable country. Chris and I have been fortunate to develop close personal friendships and business dealings in Egypt since our first trip in 1997. Those relationships have led me to read the wonderful trilogy by Naguib Mahfous, contemporary novels by Alla Al Aswany and "After the Prophet" by Lesley Hazelton, about the Sunni-Shiite split. Like many, I track Egypt through various media and felt the overwhelming elation of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution.
My last trip to Egypt was after the revolution, but before the presidential elections . That trip filled me with joy and hope that Egypt was on a solid trajectory on its transition to democracy. I should have known better. After all, our own democratic experiment is still a work in progress and the complexities of Egypt did not guarantee a smooth glide path.
Therefore, I am now on the ground in Cairo with a firmer grasp on reality and with some trepidation that things might be heading backwards.
Egyptians expected a great deal from the revolution. Too much. They are now dealing with deep frustration, and pessimism is creeping in about the future.
I believe at least 3 key sentiments are driving this frustration and negativism:
1. This new democratic freedom is being viewed by Egyptians in an "all-or-nothing" context. The nuances of taking the steps towards democracy or a true "transition" to democracy is being tossed aside for a black or white situation.
2. Nothing is as it appears. The country has made great strides with its multiple elections, but those are now being viewed as negative and making people weary about the road to democracy
3. The non-Muslim Brotherhood faction that lost the election to the MB lives in a bubble that equates to the nonrecognition of the election victors. There is a deep-seated belief that the MB could not have won the elections. Just couldn't happen. Therefore, some believe a quick "do-over" is in order.
Additonally, the Muslim Brotherhood was expected to make government run efficiently because the MB base was deep with business talent and economic success. To the contrary, the MB has made mistake after mistake since taking office in putting the economy on track. With rampant unemployment and overspending, the situation gets worse by the hour. Politics is about the future, and the "street" that supported the MB sees no future in the chosen leadership - at the moment. The MB has been unable to articulate a grand plan or play small ball. In fact, it's subtle pronouncements on limiting freedoms have alienated many who feel they have seen this movie before. There were expectations that the billions of dollars siphoned off through corruption would be recovered and shared. That's unrealistic and impossible.
The opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood has now taken to boycotts and protests. This was the stuff of the revolution but is not necessarily the right formula for making the political process work. We must consider the fact that the military still has great control over the country and Mubarak forces have not totally left the scene.
There is a theory that the second election after a revolution is the one that counts. Anyone whose candidate has lost an election in the U.S. knows there will be another. Too many in Egypt are focusing on the last election instead of the next election.
The U.S. is caught squarely in the middle. By historical standards and policy, the U.S. recognizes the party and people in power if the election process was deemed legitimate. The U.S. is sharply criticized for meeting with Morsi and some credit the U.S. with putting him in power by cuddling up too closely with him and the MB during the campaigns. Theories abound and are basically baseless, but that doesn't stop the rumors from spreading based on the deeply sour economy and the high level of frustration. Secular forces, moderates and Christians fault the U.S. for not running Morsi off his perch, somehow expecting our country to become involved internally to that degree. The withholding of an aid package pleases some for the wrong reasons. The U.S. is withholding approximately $400 million dollars in direct economic aid until Egypt agrees to certain measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and other Western nations. The stakes are high. Very high. Billions of dollars in aid will be delivered to Egypt if it takes steps to stop the spending spree it is on. Secretary of State John Kerry could not have been clearer about our policy in this regard during his visit one week ago.
Withholding the aid to Egypt will please deficit hawks in Congress, and interestingly, it will please some in Egypt angry at the U.S. who also hope Morsi fails.
I have never been in Egypt when so much was on the line for the future. There is a clear path forward, and looking in a rear-view mirror by all parties is a fool's game. Egypt's stability is in our country's best interest.
Most readers didn't wake up this morning thinking about Egypt but it might get higher on our radar screens in short order. Egyptian leaders need to wake up to the fact that the last election didn't mean a wholesale shift to create a strict Islamic nation. That train left the station a long time ago. In a country of 80 million people beset with economic problems, some good old-fashioned, down-the-middle political actions are in order. I can't wait to find out more this week. We only scratched the surface today but it was fascinating.