Ismail Serageldin


Egyptian Reform: The Time for Action is Now!



At a time when the whole world has put the Arab world under a microscope, and Arab as well as foreign voices are crying for reform, the question is no longer whether reform is needed, but rather how to bring about lasting change.

In Egypt, slow change has been ongoing for the last twenty years. From the assassination of Sadat, to severe domestic riots and terrible confrontations with terrorism President Mubarak's steady hand has kept Egypt at peace, restored relations with the Arab League and the Conference of Islamic States, and much has been done to liberalize the economy and the climate of debate and discussion in Egypt, even if much still remains to be done. Today, different segments of society are struggling to set the boundaries of the permissible and the acceptable. This is a struggle that must be joined on the side of liberty and freedom of thought and expression by all caring individuals.

But past achievements are under threat of being undone. Egypt is facing severe difficulties. In the last few years, the economy has been stagnating, the education and health systems are under stress, and every move towards liberalization fuels more appetite for real, widespread and effective participatory democracy. The political parties need major reform if they are to be real articulators of policy platforms and if they are to open their ranks to the young as well as to the experienced. The public has no confidence in the current government executives as they seem to be drifting and hesitating, searching for a strategy of economic renewal. This last is crucial, as the economy must grow at least at 6-7% per annum if it is to generate the job opportunities for the tide of young people entering the labor force for the first time. In today's competitive global market and the world­wide movement towards the knowledge based economy, this is a task that requires not just the introduction of change, but the adoption of a policy of continuous change and upgrading of skills at an ever faster pace.

But the regional context cannot be ignored. The ongoing drama of the US in Iraq and the continued tragedy of the ill-treatment and injustice meted out to the Palestinians, with the US support for Sharon, have fueled unprecedented anti-US feeling, and more generalized anger against the injustices of an unfair world, and the major powers in it.

Against this background, the calls for Arab reform emanating from the US and the EU generated resentment and suspicion. All voices in the Arab World rose to reject these proposals and assert that reform cannot be imposed from the outside. Reform, like development, is a tree that can be nurtured in its growth only by feeding its roots and not by pulling on its branches. Experience has shown that reforms to be successful and lasting must be home grown and driven by forces inside the societies concerned.

To articulate a home-grown Arab vision of reform, a civil society conference was held at the Library of Alexandria. It purposely excluded Arab ministers and well-meaning foreigners, as it sought to give an authentic voice to current Arab aspirations for reform. It produced a remarkable document referred to as the Alexandria Document (see ). It is the only comprehensive document – covering political, economic, social and cultural reforms – that can claim to be an authentic Arab viewpoint. Other excellent documents (such as the Sana'a declaration, or the Arab Business Council Documents) are partial views, addressing one or another aspect of reform, and they do find solid support in the Alexandria Document.

President Mubarak took a major step in relation to this effort. He not only put the effort under his aegis, but he also delivered a speech emphasizing partnership between government and civil society, the need for reform and its urgency, and that the basis for reform must be respect for human rights and the removal of all forms of discrimination against women

This was the first time that President Mubarak inaugurated a non-governmental affair, and he effectively opened the door to the Civil Society to play a real role in shaping Egypt's future. Initiative is not the monopoly of government. It will be up to us – members of the civil society – to push the reform agenda, show imagination and come up with real proposals, promote public discussion and undertake effective actions at the community level as we assume a much bigger role in bringing the Egypt of the 21 st century to life.

The Alexandria meeting and the new open door to the civil society that it heralds, came on top of a year of important changes that witnessed the abolition of the hated state security courts, the creation of a human rights council headed by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a ban on imprisonment for any journalist on the basis of what they write, and a declaration that the president was ready to discuss even constitutional reform. The emergency law could be replaced by a new law on terrorism. All this has given many in Egypt high hopes that far-reaching reforms are in the wind, and that government changes are likely. Both are badly needed.

But here too, actions will speak louder than words. Our future is in our hands. The time to act is upon us.

The author is Chairman of the Conference on “Arab Reform” which produced the “Alexandria Document” of March 2004. He is the Director of the Library of Alexandria and a former Vice President of the World Bank.


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