March 13, Alexandria, Egypt.
Alexandria is a sprawling city of 10 million out of Egypt's 92 million. We received a good briefing from leaders of the governing board of 3,200 nongovernmental organizations (NGO) in the Alexandria area.
Since 2005, there's been an explosion in the growth of NGOs under their umbrella. This indicates the growing demand for customary NGO services such as health, social needs, human rights, literacy, career prep and arts for low income people. These services are generally provided by committed volunteers.
The leaders expressed strong concerns about the economy and said their work load would grow more important if there was a meltdown.
We caught an earful of discontent over a recently announced tax increase for many goods and services, including a tax on NGOs. President Morsi made the announcement then pulled it back within 24 hours. Since then, all those affected by the first pronouncement are uncertain whether the new taxes will kick in or not based on the singular power of the president.
The Library of Alexandria was our next stop. It was a thrill to tour this facility with a New York-accented guide who had never left Egypt. The library is absolutely stunning from many perspectives. This structure is one of the most beautiful contemporary buildings I have ever seen.
We dropped in at an arts center created out of a broad alley between derelict buildings donated by the Italian owner. Artists were painting, readers were reading, musicians were playing, actors were acting and we were left with an imagination of a late night jam session packed with people in this carved out section of Old Alexandria.
We have a consulate office in Alexandria staffed by eight Americans and 60 Egyptians. Then-Secretary Hillary Clinton asked that the shuttered consulate be opened last July to serve the 23 million Egyptians of the region. We met with the two top staffers for an extended briefing.
We focused on the emergence in this region of the Salafis (Nour Party) after the revolution. These fundamentalist Islamists were basically a social group and uninvolved in politics until recently as political parties were recognized.
The strength of this conservative group stems from the in-migration from regions of strong fundamentalism in Egypt. Many came to work in the factories surrounding Alexandria. Ironically, disfavor with the Muslim Brotherhood could mean the Salafis pick up voters in future elections. The Nour Party wants legitimacy and is striving to become a modern Islamic party.
We capped off the long day dining with four prominent businessmen. One guest had been Egypt's "Businessman of the Year" and he expressed sincere reservations over the Muslim Brotherhood's inability to govern. He compared running a state to corporate governance, his area of specialization.
The analogy was apt. Minority rights must always be recognized, management must listen carefully and you can't discount the source of the next good idea. Transparency and accountability are keystones of good corporate governance.
He said that trust is a key element, and that it is lacking. He was optimistic about the future, however, because a large percentage of Egypt is young, tech savvy and will never go back to a dictator.
A sage economics professor was pessimistic about the economy, stating that "production is down, factories are closing and inflation is up."
Unemployment is hurting the working class tremendously. "There is no planning whatsoever," he said. He also said the birth rate is high among people with lower incomes, which is compounding the problem.
It was a terrific and long day. Clarity about the immediate future is still elusive and I have not heard anyone articulate a path out of the economic morass.
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. LaRocco has agreed to submit commentaries outlining his views on life and politics of this Middle Eastern country.