Who is Egypt’s Kamal Ataturk?


Egypt’s campaigning for the Presidential election is in full swing. More than anything else, Egypt needs a visionary President. A President that will bring order back to a country clearly on the verge of chaos. Egypt’s new leader will need to unite the Egyptian people and purge the country of the corruption that loomed large in the previous administration.

But, history has shown us that such visionaries are rare and hard to find. This is most definitely Egypt’s biggest quandary. It’s as if Egypt needs a Kamal Ataturk who transformed Turkey into a modern economy, an industrial giant, and a progressive Islamic state. Ataturk was a military officer that embarked upon a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms, seeking to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a reformist secular state.

In Egypt’s case, Presidential hopefuls are not only sparse, but one would be hard pressed to find a nominee that is a true visionary. While several candidates from different parties and political affiliations have been cleared to run by the Presidential electoral committee, there are only a handful of real front runners, and as expected, none of them are women. These front runners are now busy sharing their platforms to voters and what they would deliver if elected. And, they campaign under the guidelines of spending no more than LE 10 million (USD $2 million) on advertising in a country where average income is only $2 a day. Truly, sad.

The Presidential field includes two former Mubarak associates, one of whom comes from the military, a couple of Islamists, and a Nasserite. And, what of their platforms? Well, it’s a mixed bag. Their leanings expressed through television talk shows and public appearances cover politics and social inclusion, but not much else.

For example, one prominent candidate in the running continues to say that if elected, he will free Palestine. Another is promising free health care for the poor and has vowed to open government run health clinics in the most depressed parts of the country, including free medicine for all. A third is vowing a return to Sharia Law that he says will lead to improved governance, a reduction in state corruption, a sharp decline in crime, and an up-serge in honest economic activity.

Then there is a candidate who vows to support mega public projects to generate employment focusing on the public sector as a cornerstone of economic growth. In fact, at least two aspiring candidates have taken this position and have plans to roll back privatizations undertaken by the last administration. They have launched vigorous attacks on the Egyptian private sector, focusing on the role of businessmen in corruption particularly in Mubarak’s last Cabinet prior to the revolution.

These two candidates also focused on subsidies and the importance of expanding these programs to the poor. Yes, expanding subsidies. After all, they argue, look at how expensive electricity is today, that alone wreaks havoc on household income. They have also vowed to continue the policy of free education and health care and to make affordable housing available for all. Why not give away free cars too, preferably nothing American or Japanese, with subsidized gasoline of course.

What is clear from all of the discussions to date is no aspiring candidate seems to have a real sense of what to do about the economy. No one seems to address the issue of long term growth, employment generation in any form beyond government investment, industrial development, agricultural productivity, or macro stabilization. In fact, one candidate when asked what he would do about the devaluing Egyptian pound answered, “The Laws of God would make all these problems go away.” In his defense, he did end the sentence by saying that if elected, he would hire a person who would ensure the currency would not further devalue. This would be wise.

With all the speeches and talk shows by Egypt’s Presidential hopefuls, we are waiting to hear about their vision in transforming Egypt into a modern economy. This includes a viable and dynamic industrial and agricultural sector and the generation of wealth and real employment opportunities. However, all of the candidates seem to come up short.

On the face of it, we don’t have a transformational visionary in this mix of candidates. What we clearly don’t have is a Kamal Ataturk. For that reason, many Egyptians, even for their first democratic election in 30 years, will likely stay home on Election Day. Can you blame them? None of the candidates provide Egypt with what it desperately deserves – a visionary leader who can transform Egypt, who can make it great and unite its people. The current candidates either gives the country more of the same, or it brings to power theologically leaning thinkers who are looking towards divinity to define a way forward.

Egypt will not be great again until it can find a great leader. As Winston Churchill said “Great and good are seldom the same man.” In Egypt’s case, we desperately need a leader with both of these attributes, unlikely from the current lineup of candidates. Egypt seems lost until its greatest treasure is found, its own Kamal Ataturk, and we can only pray that this savior will come in the foreseeable future. What we do know is that it is unlikely in the May Presidential elections.

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© Khaled F. Sherif, 2020

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