The country that Pope Francis will visit is afflicted by a failed economy, overpopulation, corruption, pollution, terrorism and fatalism. But it is home to a much bigger treasure than its millennial history: the joyous heart of its people.
Cairo (AsiaNews) - In the Book of Exodus, in the Old Testament, God deals with Egypt with ten punishments to punish the Pharaoh who prevented the Jews from leaving the country and persuading him to let them go. Among the calamities that Yahweh inflicted upon the Egyptians, we notice the most extreme: the water of the Nile turn into a river of blood; a plague of locusts swarm all over the earth; The country falls into darkness and, in the end, the most terrible, the death of the firstborn of Egypt. The rigor of these harsh punishments are striking. Today, Egypt is facing scourges that are equally devastating and which leave those who visit her with a sense of sadness mixed with impotence.
Why is the Egyptian people afflicted by such plagues? Will she ever heal and recover her good health?
Demographics: no doubt one of the major sources of poverty and instability in the country. The population is close to one hundred million and has a growth rate of more than 2.5%. Cairo, the megalopolis whose population is estimated at between 20 and 23 million, attracts hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from rural areas every year. Alexandria, the second largest city, is crumbling under the weight of a population of nearly seven million, which has tripled in 50 years. Egypt is crushed everywhere, its infrastructures cannot meet the demand. Large families are still considered a blessing and their prosperity is measured by the number of children. Religious and cultural factors are difficult to change.
Bankruptcy of the economy: Egypt depends largely on foreign aid, particularly from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some of the Gulf countries, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ) and other international organizations. The three major sources of revenue are tourism (11% of GDP), oil, natural gas and the Suez Canal. Now, the substantial drop in oil prices, the decline in tourism following the jihadist terrorist attacks and the slowdown in trade between Europe and the Far East have led to a fall in revenues which has had a negative impact on the national economy. The repercussions are particularly severe on the health and education system, and the finances are insufficient to meet the needs. Schools and public hospitals are deficient. How can you possibly teach a class with more than 80 students? Or how can you adequately compensate doctors and other health professionals with limited financial resources when they can get more generous salaries in the Gulf countries? Following a major devaluation of the Egyptian lira, a galloping inflation of 40%, and an official unemployment rate of around 12.5% (certainly higher among young people), the economic prospects are not encouraging . The crisis that has gripped the country for more than four years is likely to continue and constitute Egypt’s greatest plague today.
The gap between rich and poor: there is a fairly small class that has been enriched considerably over the past twenty years in Egypt. People belonging to this category can afford to buy property built in closed communities in Cairo, on the Red Sea shore or along the Mediterranean coast. Conversely, the vast majority of young people still live with their parents, cannot afford to buy an apartment or get married. This gap between rich and poor is getting widening and a wave of despair is easily perceptible among young people, whether they are graduates or not. If you know someone who can open a door for you, you get a job, your future is secure. Otherwise, you end up joining the mass of unemployed people wandering through the streets of big cities.
Corruption: It's compulsory to bribe someone to get what you want in Egypt. Everything has a price. A policeman pulls you over from a no parking space? Ten lire and he will close his eyes. Do you want to get a contract to build a road, a factory, an irrigation channel? Nothing is easier. A few million and you have the contract in hand. Later, you find the contractor who will do the job for half the price. There are also good chances that the subcontractor will in turn have a sub-sub-contractor who will undertake the project for a quarter of the initial sum. And so on. It is no surprise that for years, entrepreneurs form an oligarchy that corrupts power and vice versa. An incestuous alliance that does not deceive anyone. This corruption led to the 2010 Revolution and the fall of Mubarak. The arrival of Marshal Al-Sisi in 2013 has failed to eradicate this gangrene that is putrefying the country.
The erosion of values and respect: one of the results of corruption is the emergence of a general sense of powerlessness even among institutions that should lay social foundations. Today, it is clear that a disillusioned egocentric sentiment is taking over, with everyone fiercely defending what they have at the expense of what united individuals in the past. The subsequent revolutions of 2010 and 2013 did not respond to the expectations of the people and somehow reinforced this discouraged attitude of not having the power to change anything. The result is that respect for those values that up to that point were seen as national values, such as social solidarity, national pride of belonging, family and work, is being eroded.
Terrorism and Fundamentalism: This social crack has allowed the establishment of ideologies that have internal tensions. Movements that claim religious inspiration such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis today occupy an important place in the country's life. These ideologies shed discord in religious communities and foment terrorism. In many cases, they are funded by Arab countries that envy Egypt its strategic position and influence in that part of the globe: they want to undermine its potential at all costs. They are helped by Western countries who have always supported the need to divide to govern. A series of attacks have reduced tourism to zero and the Western media have transmitted this information in repetition, ruining the country's economic plan. The tourist by nature is a prudent creature that avoids risks, preferring to choose safer destinations. However Cairo is no longer more dangerous than Paris, London, Madrid, Stockholm, Brussels or Orlando in Florida. A trip to Egypt in April 2017 allows me to affirm that the country is safe; the nation has a long tradition of tolerance and pacifism. It is time to block entry into the territory of foreigners who preach hatred on the pretext of religion, geopolitical principles, or international aid.
Pollution and desert: Egypt is battling two aggressors. Human activity, industry and traffic in the larger cities are the cause of serious pollution problems that threaten the health and the future of the country itself. In addition, waste discharged into the Nile aggravate the precarious situation of drinking water. Despite all the efforts to decongest the capital and large urban centers by building satellite cities, solutions seem to come too late with little positive impact. In addition, we often forget that Egypt is a desert country, and despite all the means we have to colonize the desert, the struggle is in vain and nature resumes its course quickly. In Cairo, cleaning the city of the sand brought by the winds is a daily job. It is an authentic never-ending task like that of Sisyphus.
Fatalism: If there is a dominant cultural characteristic in the Egyptian, it is the silent acceptance of one's fate. He recognizes a divine hand that directs his destiny in all things. He submits to this will with abnegation and gratitude. Because his faith is his supreme guide. There is no point of rebellion or doubt about his fate: everything comes to pass by divine will. So it is not only useless to oppose it, but, on the contrary, it is necessary to resign oneself to it with gratitude. This attitude has two consequences, it is a double edged sword. On the one hand, given that he is submissive to his destiny, the Egyptian remains in a good mood even though immersed in the worst of calamities. He takes charge of his situation, convinced that he cannot do anything to change it and that God will not let him fall. For him, the present moment is a gift from heaven. On the other hand, the Egyptian will never go to any great efforts to try to mold and master his own destiny. He submits and accepts it in advance. He goes back to higher instances that, if they are not divine, have assumed temporal powers. With all the dangers and abuses the latter can commit. Unfortunately, the history of Egypt is full of these leaders who have abused this fatalistic inclination of the good people.
This list of the plagues that afflict modern day Egypt is by no means exhaustive. It is the result of what strikes those who visit this wonderful country and are concerned about its situation.
Much more than its history and its glorious past, much more than the monuments that defeat imagination and time, much more than its decisive role in the evolution of human civilization, the true wealth of Egypt is the Egyptian people. Their character is generous, good and tolerant. But today, the Egyptian is sick and his body is covered with sores. He hopes that they will heal one day to finally plan a future of justice, security and prosperity.
* An Egyptian native, emigrated to North America, who frequently travels between Canada and Egypt.