Talkin' About an (Economic) Revolution

While economic concerns were at the forefront of the demands of protesters who took the streets of Egypt in 2011, the public debate about national economic development and growth has been obfuscated.
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"Why do we seem to focus on the political revolution while forgetting the economic side, which is no less important?"

A question asked at a public discussion forum I attended last week in Cairo has found no real answer then, and has kept me pondering for a good while. While economic concerns were at the forefront of the demands of protesters who took the streets of Egypt in 2011 -- and indeed, in the previous two decades -- with "bread" being the first word chanted by the millions who demanded "bread, freedom, and human dignity", the public debate about national economic development and growth, both on the street and in mainstream media, has been obfuscated.

Allow me to venture three reasons for that.

One is human: the immediate takes precedence over the long-term, important as it may be. It's the tree that hides the forest. We fall for that regularly, too: the silly task due tomorrow will always seem to carry more urgency than the infinitely more important long-term project due next year.

The second is the laziness -- indeed, deliberate sidestepping of economic issues by political parties and factions. It's easy to pump a fist and chant "Constitution First" (or Last); it will easily find echo with people with more or less made-up ideas about the subject. Especially if the political argument is then masked in a dichotomy, with parties clearly pitted against one another and on either sides of a clear seam line.

But no one will ever write "the People Demand Public Debt to be Capped at 60% of GDP" on a banner at a Tahrir square protest -- simply because, regardless of its actual importance, it is uninteresting; and for political groups, it is unlikely to garner the following they hope for.

The third reason is the most important. We don't discuss economic issues because we were told it's too complicated for us as a public, and we believed it. When the argument cited against minimum wage, for instance, is that it would raise inflation, it's hard to argue back without having run actual economic simulations to assess the possible inflation rise that would occur in such case -- or without knowing exactly what the effect of inflation, (beyond intimidating people and being a discussion-ender par excellence), would actually be.

This is only half-true. Sure, being able to discuss economic policies requires at least some knowledge and understanding. (that, and economists want to maintain their profession a modicum of mystery). But getting the general idea behind a policy and its possible repercussions does not require much.

With the constitutional reforms referendum upon us last March, activist and social groups endeavored to meet with political and legal analysts to get a better understanding of both sides of the debate. They developed pamphlets, short videos to be broadcast on television and on the internet to simplify the arguments and enrich the debate.

My suggestion therefore is as follows. Not unlike for the constitutional referendum, where many people got together, discussed the matter with lawyers and legal experts, and consequently developed training and advocacy material to simplify the implications of each choice to the public - pamphlets, videos, tv and internet spots, etc - so can we for the 2011.

A good start would be to take a closer look at the 2011/2012 National budget that was released weeks ago by the Ministry of Finance. Minister of Finance Samir Radwan has showed himself amenable to discussion, holding a series of consultation meetings with groups of businesspersons, non-governmental organizations, and youth, in the days following the announcement of the budget. (whether their feedback is incorporated remains to be seen). The budget is far less of a black box that it is made to be. We could start by simplifying the concepts of income and expenditure, and publicize the contents of the new budget, particularly in comparison to last year's. (I personally believe that Health and Education are the most underaddressed issues in the new budget, with the increase in their budgetary lines being significantly below average).

Beyond raising public awareness, which is its own virtue and an inherent part of their societal responsibility, political factions and groups will also find a direct benefit in popularizing economic discussion. Often accused with "halting the production wheel" as goes the Egyptian expression, pro-revolution forces are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain support within the Egyptian population, increasingly impatiently awaiting the the growth they have demanded so loudly and sacrificed so much for.

Discussions about the economy may not be sexy and generally cannot be summarized in a two-word slogan. But it assuredly is more accessible than it is made to be, and infinitely more important.