It was a relief to finally hear my client’s voice on the phone. She was a bit breathless, but not sounding in distress. She had been out food shopping by taxi just that afternoon (this was Monday, 31 January), able to find what she needed, “though many people are just buying up whatever they can get, and hoarding it,” she noted. She was surprisingly worried about work, and about the project we’re working on, a major strategy document for economic competitiveness and Green Transformation in Egypt: “No one is going to the office, because there is no point, the internet is shut down.”
And of course, there was the fire.
The first four floors of the office building had been damaged by a fire set in the shops on the ground floor, probably in connection with looting. Fortunately, the offices of the Egyptian National Council on Competitiveness (ENCC) are on the fifth floor. So the home of one of Egypt’s most important small think-tanks, a place where a true transition to sustainability was being mapped out in careful detail, is still intact.
Whatever happens in Egypt, the country is going to need that Council, and that new Green Transformation strategy, more than ever in the coming years. One of the many documents I had absorbed in trying to learn about the situation there (as part of my work as a strategic advisor to the ENCC) was the most recent national Human Development Report. The numbers on youth unemployment alone, and the accompanying quotes from young, educated people (whose needs for a meaningful life had clearly not been met), were enough to make the events that are happening now in Egypt all too easy to understand.
Not to mention the many comments I had heard from many people when I visited there, on three occasions last year. These comments were usually whispered, or voiced only after a quick look to the left and the right to see who might be listening (if one were in a public place). It reminded me of being in China in 1982, when people I met on the street literally dragged me behind bushes to have conversations about freedom in some European language they were studying. Egypt was not that extreme, but the feeling of caution, bordering on fear, about saying what one really thought was something I encountered regularly on my visits there.
Suddenly, the whispers have grown to a roar.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But in this case, many Egyptian experts had 20/20 foresight as well. No one could have predicted an uprising of this kind, of course; and no one I have met while working there predicted it to happen now. But almost everyone said, either subtly or directly, that something like this — a “phase shift” or “nonlinear event,” an encounter with unsustainable trends, building up to a breaking point — was inevitable if Egypt did not make major, transformative changes, and quickly.
The world, watching Egypt, now sees the demands for political openness and justice that are visibly driving the protesters. What is not so obvious is the array of other issues that have contributed to this enormous, tsunami-like outburst of “We’re not going to take it anymore” public emotion.
For example, Cairo was experiencing water shortages as well as sporadic blackouts when I visited last year. These are not usual; they were practically a first. Egypt has prided itself on its provision of energy and especially water to its people in modern times; they are serious matters of national security. But one man I met was embarrassed to be photographed, because newly imposed water restrictions had prevented him from shaving for a few days: “The Quality Control Director of a food processing factory [his job] should not appear in a photograph unshaven,” he told me.
Meanwhile, prices of some common foodstuffs and other consumer goods were also suddenly skyrocketing, some friends said, and those price increases were not being reported publicly. They were just being felt, and they were so significant that even my wealthier friends were feeling it.
And these were just the pressures visible to anyone. While energy prices were still heavily subsidized, Egypt had recently changed over from being a net oil exporter to being a net oil importer. It was meeting the deficit — and the needs of its fast-growing population of over 80 million — by pumping out natural gas faster than ever. The production curves literally turned almost straight up.
Were these the indicators of a sustainable future? Not a chance.
I am convinced these and other pressures, both visible and less visible (but widely known), helped to create a general feeling of unease, and that this feeling combined with the much more visible calls for democracy and openness that are now playing out so very publicly on the world stage. All of it taken together created a pile of very dry social kindling. The dozens of self-immolations that followed on Tunisia’s example were literally the spark that lit a conflagration.
Today, the hopes regarding Egypt are many. Indeed the hopes of the people there, and the hopes of the world on their behalf, have already become highly documented history. World leaders are speaking out in support of the protesters demands in almost unprecedented ways — or at least, in ways not seen since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public statements of Egypt’s military are no less remarkable in their embrace of transition.
But I have private hopes, as we all do. First and foremost, as an outside observer with clients and friends in Egypt, I hope for their safety and security. (I could easily have been in Egypt the week the protests began, as I had been invited to the country for a work engagement, but felt the need to stay home for family reasons.)
And I also have private worries, more than I care to express in a public blog — worries for the safety of specific individuals I know and their family members. I join my voice to the prayers for safety that my client mentioned so many times, when I finally reached her on her mobile phone on Monday.
When it comes to the Egyptian transformation — for that is what we are witnessing — I think most engaged observers have both high hopes and big worries for its outcome. The opportunity for change is enormous now, and Egypt truly needs enormous changes: this was a core message of the materials that had been presented to ministers and senior business and society leaders in May of last year. These Egyptian-born ideas about purusing a Green Transformation strategy — renewable energy, water consevation, sustainable agriculture, jobs and capacity development, innovation, education — were due to be presented in an even more strategic and practical way this year. These were urgent matters before (they were being increasingly framed as national security issues) and they remain urgent, perhaps “super-urgent”, matters for the foreseeable future.
And now, one can add a phrase to the list of “super-urgent” matters, a topic that was essentially taboo just two weeks ago, a topic that numerous people essentially only whispered to me previously, a topic than anyone with access to a global news source can now plainly attest to as being the desperate longing of the Egyptian people, a topic that may even become the source of the accelerated sustainability transformation that Egypt desperately needs: