Nasserist on transforming Egypt into a world power
Exactly two years later and on the eve of the presidential elections, Egypt Today revisit its interview with opposition contender Hamdeen Sabbahy.
By ET Staff
Q Where do you see Egypt compared to the rest of the world and where would you like to take it?
A Egypt’s identity has been shaped over thousands of years by its Arab, Islamic and African elements, and it maintains the key fundamentals of a nation. I think Egypt’s identity is Arab due to the language and common history, Islamic due to the belief and culture, and African due to its geographic location and race.
This means that we have a well-established identity. Whatever ideology tries to touch this ancient identity can either respect and adapt to it, and this identity will embrace it in return, or it will break in the face of this identity.
Q How do you plan to tackle this unemployment, which is more than 12%? What are your thoughts on taxes versus subsidies, controlling inflation, eradicating slums, low-income housing, and ensuring income to cover cost of living hikes?
ِA Nobody can forget that the Egyptian Revolution took place to ensure the rights of the poor and achieve victory for them. The slogan that Egyptians held up high during their great revolution, “Bread, freedom, social Justice and human dignity,” shows without doubt that the Egyptian citizen is demanding his legitimate rights, like bread and social justice. Therefore, the citizen will not feel that the revolution has succeeded until he can reap these fruits.
This is why I will work to achieve these demands on two fronts. First, in the short run, I will increase the minimum wage to LE 1,200 and provide unemployment allowances to the youth who can’t find real employment opportunities until they are trained and offered jobs befitting their skills and educational levels. In addition, a minimum grant of LE 500 would be given to 4 million poor families, which includes 12 million citizens.
Those needs will be funded through implementing a minimum and a maximum wage and re-evaluating Egyptian gas prices for both importers and local producers who have factories with high energy consumption and who sell their products at international prices. This plan will also be funded through tax reforms and maximizing revenues from the Suez Canal by transforming it from a simply waterway to a fully integrated service area, this can have a potential annual revenue increase of $6 billion.
As for the slums, one of our top priorities, along with eliminating slum areas, is to limit the boundaries of those areas so that they don’t grow even bigger. [Growth in the size of slums] have economic, environmental and health implications on the country and the citizens.
Q What do you see as the main problems with the budget, and how do you plan to make up for the deficit, particularly given that Egypt has lost a considerable amount of foreign direct investment over the last year?
A Our platform aims at an economic revival, creating a strong industrial economy that leads the way for development. It focuses on mobilizing the state’s resources, eliminating corruption, encouraging local and foreign investors in the context of a planned development economy, and creating balance between the three economic sectors; public, private and cooperative.
Over the course of four years, our program will put Egypt on the road towards solid economic development based on strong foundations so that in eight years Egypt can become one of the world’s major rising countries.
We adopt a set of economic ideologies that will help us join the developed countries. The most prominent of those ideas is making use of the natural resources that God has given us, most notably our solar energy. Egypt has one of the largest shares of sunshine worldwide and so can achieve great economic leaps using solar energy, even greater that what petroleum achieved for Gulf countries. We also need to use the white sands abundant in our deserts for electronics and technology manufacturing.
We also strongly believe that development should first target those areas that have been marginalized under the past regime, so we will work on developing Upper Egypt, Sinai, Nuba, Matrouh and the Egyptian countryside to achieve social justice and equality between rural and urban dwellers. We will use the resources available in each of those areas to develop it, and we’ll establish the Upper Egypt Bank to help the farmers implement projects without the crippling conditions banks and funds imposed on them under the previous regime.
Q What is your stance on foreign loans?
A Borrowing means increasing the public debt and increasing its servicing costs, and austerity measures have a harmful effect on citizens’ standards of living and contribute to a recession that the citizen pays for. In some cases, there might be reductions in governmental spending that wouldn’t reach the point of austerity measures, but we want to adopt alternative plans to get over the issue of debts. This is why it is important to differentiate between internal debt, which is the greater, and external debt.
We will exert all efforts and political means, be it gentle power or pressured negotiations, with the debtor countries to reschedule those loans or at least drop the interest on all or part of them.
Q The previous regime forged ahead with an industrial development policy that created new factories, even if it can be said that it served the interests of the investors and not the greater good of the country. Would you resume this policy, change it, abandon it? What other industrial, agricultural or other ‘national projects’ would you endorse to help generate income and ensure better living conditions for citizens?
A We have a number of big projects such as developing Sinai, the Kattara Depression and Lake Nasser’s banks; developing and localizing solar energy technology and locally manufactured wind turbines to generate electricity. There are also projects to make us self sufficient in wheat and principal crops, livestock, fish and poultry as well as desalinating sea water for agriculture. We are also planning the solar village project, which is a self-sufficient village that uses solar energy to generates all its needs. We also want to transfer environment-polluting industries outside residential and agricultural areas, and have a project for the geographical redistribution of people. In short, my platform is a fully-integrated plan to put Egypt on the map of developed countries in eight years. This guarantees Egypt a ticket to the economic giants club.
But none of this can be achieved without social justice. So I am adopting an integrated development plan with several pillars, most important of which are economic and social rights of citizens — what I call ‘1+7.’ Those rights are citizen’s right to healthy nutrition, security, appropriate housing, education, health, work, fair wage and comprehensive insurance. We will work on ensuring those rights for all citizens, in addition to his right for a clean environment to live in.
The second pillar is to expand the urbanization by 50 or 100 percent to create new urban communities along with the required expansion in all related fields those communities might need. We also plan on developing and mechanizing Egyptian agriculture to achieve self-sufficiency in food, and developing local industries that Egypt can excel at, such as solar energy and technical industries. This could achieve serious and efficient foreign trade relations for Egypt with all of the Arab nations and achieve a collective good for the nation, as well as build the necessary steps for a needed economic unity.
Q Education is arguably the service sector currently in most need of attention. Do you agree with this? How will you go about first identifying the problem points and then coming up with solutions. What, if anything, are you planning along the lines of scientific research?
A Education is the trailer supporting an economic, technological and civil renaissance, and free education is what assures that Egypt’s sons of all classes and backgrounds reach their full potential and enter the service of their country. Depriving some of Egypt’s sons and daughters of good quality education due to a lack of financial resources is depriving the nation’s future of the scientific skills and human resources that it direly needs for its development.
Under those principles, the platform adopts the following strategies:
1. Free education is a right guaranteed by the state to every citizen until the end of their basic education, at universities and beyond basic education in specializations needed to achieve the national development plan.
2. Students who fail and have to repeat the academic year are deprived of free education for that year; they regain their right to free education when they succeed and move on to the next academic year to continue their studies.
3. The state will eliminate illiteracy and educate adults.
Our education plan aims at decreasing illiteracy from the current 21 percent to 10 percent in four years, paving the way for total elimination in the future. State funding for fighting illiteracy should be increased to meet the program’s goals. Media, cultural and awareness campaigns should be launched using all media, cultural and arts channels to educate people about the national goal to eliminate illiteracy in Egypt.
As for scientific research, we consider it the backbone of all intellectual work and organized planning of any country’s future. Our platform depends on scientific research to expand the horizon for our future, develop our industries and economy and solve the main structural issues we face.
So the more attention the state gives to scientific researchers, freeing them to think and create, the more scientific research will be able to give back to the state in terms of vision, creativity, solutions and scientific results that contribute to developing the nation and solving its problems.
Q What is your stance on freedom of expression and minority rights for groups such as women, Copts and different ethnicities?
A We aim to achieve a democratic system that preserves all freedoms in the society, including that of intellectuals, literary and creative people. We will not take away anybody’s right to express their opinions honestly and freely without fear of a state that interferes in everything and monitors every breath the citizens take. This right will be protected through clear and conclusive legislations.
I believe that creativity has no limits as long as it doesn’t harm cultural and intellectual fundamentals of the society. The oppressive state will automatically dissolve when a true democratic system is implemented, one that protects political and civil rights as well as the independence of the judicial system. The president’s authorities should also be limited under this type of system, and parties, syndicates and other bodies should be given the right to be free and independent. The transfer of power through honest and transparent elections should also be guaranteed.
Q Obviously state security is what’s affecting people’s lives right now. How do you plan to deal with this issue, and what will constitute a threat to national security from now on?
A I am sure that this state of insecurity in Egypt is made up and will end completely if those in power will it. The evidence to that is that the phenomenon completely disappeared during the periods of the public referendum and the parliamentary elections even though those occasions provide the right climate for bullying and insecurity .
So if I become president, this state of insecurity would end in a week. As for my vision for reforming the security body, it includes a change in the culture of the security system to yield people who can prove to us that they are really in service of the people and not the regime; that stresses on the [security] body’s civil nature as a whole.
Q The biggest problem areas remain the US and Israel: what change if any will you want to see in our relations with these two superpowers? Closer to home, how would you want to develop relations with the Arab world and Africa?
A Egypt is in need of an independent president that doesn’t make his decisions based on the US or Israel. Our international relations should be based on common interest, balance, mutual respect and an equal relationship.
We aren’t enemies of the American people, but our disagreement is with the ruling authorities of the US, who our rulers used to bow to and make Washington DC their political Mecca. I will not perform a pilgrimage to the White House and will not bow before it, but at the same time I am do not bear hostility to the US. I understand the international situations.
So if I become president, the relationship between Egypt and the US would be based upon common interests. If the US respects Egypt’s interests, then surely Egypt will respect its interests in return — keeping in mind that there has to be an equal relationship between the two countries.
To reach this level in our relationship, we need to focus on our internal affairs and regain our economic power so that our wheat is from our heart and our decisions from our heads. That way no country, be it the US or any other, will dictate its conditions for giving us aid.
We need to start right away on a renaissance that ensures all our needs and put us back in a position of power, one that allows us to make our decisions based on the interest of the Egyptian people, which is the interest that should govern all international relations.
We need to adopt a foreign policy that returns Egypt to its status as a pioneering country, not a follower; a leader of the Arab world and the African continent, and a beacon to the Islamic world. Egypt doesn’t submit to orders from the White House or the Israeli Knesset.
Egypt possesses soft power like Al Azhar, which graduated every public speaker in Africa, and the church that is followed by Ethiopian churches. So we need to regain African respect and maximize Egypt’s role as a leader on this continent. The door to this is through Sudan, which is the closest Arab, African and Islamic brother to us.
We also need to form an Arab triangle with Turkey and Iran. In the past, we have fought with Turkey and Iran, because we were acting as mediators for Israel and the US.
Q Egypt has a much greater capacity for attracting tourist arrivals, but we have always fallen short of the targets. Why? How would you work to change Egypt’s image now and to get tourists to come back to Egypt?
A In our platform, we aim for Egypt to become one of the leading countries in tourism, attracting 30 million tourists annually in the next four years, which would increase our national revenue by around $48 billion annually.
In eight years, we plan to attract 50 million tourists per year, bringing in an annual national revenue of $80 billion, by opening the North Coast totally for tourism and expanding the urbanization of Egypt in this great touristic and economic area.
Naturally, this will not be achieved during the first year, which will be a recovery year after the events in 2011 and first half of 2012. But as soon as the situation settles down with the presidential elections, the instability will go away and Egypt will regain its beautiful touristic nature.
Q What do you say to the popular demand to make the armed forces accountable to the civilian government?
A The Egyptian armed forces is a national institution, and its main role is to protect the national security. We will work towards establishing a civil, democratic nation that respects rights via constitutional guarantees.
The Egyptian army will go back to protecting the borders and paying attention to national security. To guarantee its strength, it should be excluded from the political debates and clashes between parties.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) will hand over power by the end of June, of that I am certain. I urge them to hand over power completely and in a way that ensures they will not be running the country behind the curtains. We are looking into issuing a law that bans military men from politics for five years after they leaving their military occupation.
Q How do you see yourself working with the popular Islamic trend that has now taken over parliament?
A First and foremost, I have to say that followers of political Islam have all right to practice their political rights, going out to the streets and interacting between the public, just like anybody else in the rest of the parties.
We need to realize that what pushed them to practice politics through religion is the former regime’s monopolization of political life and oppression of the opposition.
I am sure that these followers of political Islam will alter their ideologies and political policies as soon as a healthy democratic climate is achieved in the political arena, even if they continue to based their moves on religious backgrounds.
I will work on containing those trends by giving Islamists full opportunity for political practice and public work through legal establishments like organizations and parties and so on, under a totally democratic regime. The law should, however, regulate the works of those organizations and they can’t be immune from the state’s authority.
As for what I think about the Muslim Brotherhood’s control over the political arena, I believe it is related to the degree of the people’s satisfaction with them. The people gave them their trust in honest elections, so we can only respect the results. As long as a free democratic regime prevails, this trust will be withdrawn if people aren’t satisfied with their performance. The people will say their word and everyone should respect it.
Q This is a country of more than 80 million people, some of which will not vote for you. How will you, in this age of experimental democracy, accommodate your non-supporters?
A I would be a president for all Egyptians, those who elected me and those who haven’t. Therefore, every Egyptian citizen would have rights over me, being their president who runs the country’s affairs, and I would deal with everyone with equality and without any difference — this is the most basic rule of democracy. et