Launching our online series of first hand accounts from trouble spots around the world, construction lawyer Kate Orviss gives her impressions of the mood after the fall of Mubarak
It isn’t that long ago that the people of Egypt started taking to the streets to protest against the regime of president Hosni Mubarak. A mere 18 days later the Egyptian people managed to achieve what must have seemed unthinkable in the early days of the protests - despite tear gas and beatings, the death of many protestors, hundreds of arrests and the general absence of any form of security force, Mubarak and his government were toppled.
For many a huge change is the ability to cast their vote in a meaningful way
The scenes from the streets and in Tahrir Square sent an important message around the world. The people had power where they had none before. Despite decades of not having any voice the people had stood together and proved that they could make a difference and that their president and government had to listen to them. It was a time of unbelievable change and great excitement and hope within Egypt.
It is now more than 100 days since the Mubarak regime was toppled. But has life changed for the people of Egypt?
The mighty fall
It has changed radically for some - for Mubarak and his family facing trial for corruption, for former ministers such as the former minister of the interior, Habib El-Aldy (who has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering and unlawful acquisition of public funds and awaits trial for ordering the killing of protestors), the former minister of housing Ahmed el-Maghrabi and the former minister of tourism Zoheir Garranah who are all in prison and also for those former ministers such as Yousef Boutros-Ghali who fled Egypt and are now the subject of international extradition orders. Personal assets of leading industrialists such as Ahmed Ezz are frozen and the public desire for retribution is strong.
For many a huge change is the ability to cast their vote in a meaningful way. The turn out for the referendum on the constitutional reforms showed that the Egyptian people took their voting seriously. Very few had exercised this right before because there was quite simply no point. This vote gave the Egyptian people dignity.
A new start
There is great optimism in Egypt - but also fear of the unknown. There will be parliamentary elections in September with presidential elections to follow (likely to be in November) meaning a new government before the end of the year. The fear expressed by people is what sort of a government will they have - will it be the replacement of the old system with new faces but the same rules? Or will the Muslim Brotherhood (or more extreme Muslims) effectively take power and insist on a more Muslim state? What if the recent clashes between the Christians and the Salafis in which 12 people were killed shows the start of a greater intolerance? Given that there was no political system to speak of before 25 January it seems astonishing to think that in such a short space of time a meaningful democratic system could be established. It is unlikely that the elections will be truly free and fair but when all you’ve had before are meaningless elections it is a huge step forward.
There is great optimism in Egypt - but also fear of the unknown
Whatever the make up of the new government it will face huge issues - poverty, inequality, corruption and a poorly performing economy. These are difficult issues for any government to inherit, let alone one which will have no experience of running a country. Egypt has a population of 82 million, many of whom are illiterate, without opportunity or in a job which doesn’t pay enough for them to feed, clothe and house their family. How would any government seek to address some of these problems? Jobs need to be created and housing needs addressed. And the country needs to return to work. Strikes need to stop. How might this be achieved?
President Obama’s speech on 19 May indicated a new start encouraging investment in and trade with Egypt as opposed to provision of aid. Egypt has a huge need for improved infrastructure and greater electricity generation capacity. But with the economic difficulties the chances of the government being able to afford these schemes are minute.
So, where does this leave us? If the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is going to have its mandate changed to enable it to invest in Egypt as president Obama suggested then this would unlock Egypt’s ability to access international finance. We could see development on the scale that we saw in Eastern Europe when it was impossible to contemplate how the Eastern European governments would have been able to attract such investment any other way.
In comparison to proceedings in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, the people achieved their goal in a peaceful way
The scale of the need is huge and Egypt had already taken great steps towards establishing a credible and internationally attractive PPP programme before the revolution. That programme remains in place and generally supported by the international investors who had previously identified Egypt as a target market. However, the programme is subject to delay and there is political uncertainty surrounding any progress made with the interim government. With this uncertainty it would take something quite bold from the interim government to enable it to make any meaningful progress in advance of the new government being elected. That is not to say that they wouldn’t make such a move but investors will need some comfort before they commit further resources.
Egypt has demonstrated a huge capacity for change on a relatively peaceful scale. That is not to say that there were no casualties - there were. But in comparison to proceedings in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain (the list could go on) the people achieved their goal in a peaceful way. And the international community, led by America and the UK, are keen to support and encourage the economic development of countries like Egypt which embraced change and are turning their backs on the ways of the old regime.
In a world where investment opportunities in infrastructure and energy are sometimes difficult to come by, Egypt might be a good place to start to reconsider.
Kate Orviss is a partner in the projects & construction team at Pinsent Masons. She leads the firm’s initiatives in relation to Egypt which encompass PPP and energy. She wrote this article after her most recent trip to Cairo at the beginning of May to meet clients and contacts she had been in touch with but not seen in person since before the revolution.
Click here for Foreign Office advice on travelling to Egypt