A dear colleague of mine just rang me up on the phone and said, “I’m interested in your take on Egypt.” He was asking because I am 100% Egyptian, although born and raised in America. We spoke for about 30 minutes, and I realized that there are many facets of what’s happening in Egypt that so many Americans (or others in the world) don’t know.
So this will not be an entry about politics, or about history, or about civil disobedience, or a journalistic report about unfolding events. But it may espouse all of those disciplines and many others, since it will be about the marketing of what I believe is one of the greatest countries and one of the greatest peoples on earth.
What’s happening in Egypt is at once breathtakingly fabulous and terrifyingly tenuous. A revolt is underfoot, fueled mostly by young citizens demanding change at the highest level – regime change. But what’s not seen is the potentiality of disaster in this, the most populous Middle Eastern country. While Egypt needs a complete marketing makeover, let’s begin where all good marketing begins – with data. Here now, a brief SWOT analysis for Egypt.
Egypt has amazing strengths and strategic assets, both natural and man-made, including the Suez Canal, a thriving agricultural export, (ever pay a premium for Egyptian cotton?) globally appealing tourism and the mighty Nile, where most of the nearly 80 million residents gravitate to make their homes and their livings. Perhaps one of the most underestimated and underreported assets of the country is the strength, the resolve and the character of Egyptian people. A fun-loving, hospitable and intelligent bunch who bring high-level skills (like medicine, engineering, technology and arts,) to the free world. There are countless other assets that may be less apparent: Egypt’s contribution to the arts, medicine and mathematics in ancient times. A stable and thriving population in modern times that has led to the Middle East’s leading free media infrastructure, some of the most advanced communications networks in the region and a growing stock market.
But there’s an underside, too. And the country’s weaknesses are evident. Egypt has grown rapidly, with a disproportionate distribution of wealth concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria. There is woeful poverty and a quiet but obvious acceptance of class distinctions. Take the Zabbaleen, a minority people in inner-city Cairo who basically pick up more than ¾ of the garbage in the capital city. Despite their historical presence (they’ve been living this way since about the 1930’s,) as an urban asset, they have been overlooked in recent years when Mubarak’s administration awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to Italian contractors to pick up Cairo’s trash. Guess what? The Zabbaleen are better at it. They have found ways to recycle and/or repurpose up to 80 percent of Egypt’s waste, when nine figures of government capital investment can only manage about 20-25%.
And what of Mr. Mubarak’s NDP (National Democratic Party?) How is it that they’ve managed to stay in power for more than 30 years? Another major weakness in Egypt: the beloved dance of apathy and system-wide corruption. Interestingly, Mr. Mubarak’s “term,” which has been won with either unanimous referendums or lame turnout is due up this September.
Egypt is now in a new dance. A dance with opportunities. A free media has led to the opening of minds throughout the country, and dissenting voices are (selectively, but mostly) being heard. The rise of communications allows the flow of ideas and invites interaction through social media. And quietly, throughout all of this, a potential successor. Mohammed El Baradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for work with the International Atomic Energy Agency, is something of a folk hero. He has been summarily dismissed (and even harassed, some would say,) by the Egyptian government for openly criticizing the sitting administration. And today, he is in Tahrir square, squatting with teenagers and propagating a message of possibility and potentiality. Is El Baradei the answer to Egypt’s problems? Probably not. But it sure is nice to entertain the possibilities. What Egypt really needs is a global intervention. (Next post, I promise.)
And there are threats, to be sure. Apathy is a lame foxhole companion, and with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood lurking and operating underground, it may be easy to quickly and perhaps completely overtake a country which has remained an ally for the West and an example (despite taunts, teases and threats,) to the rest of the Middle East. Don’t forget, this type of subversion was seen recently, when Hezbollah came to a position of near-irrefutable power in Lebanon’s parliament in 2008. Economic factors also play a crucial role in the threats facing Egypt…those in poverty will do nearly anything to get out…including, in some cases, listening to anyone, or voting for anyone that promises change. Gulp.
And for that matter, change itself may be the most threatening factor of all…despite Mr. Mubarak’s inefficiencies as the head of government, he has succeeded – wildly – as a head of state. He shows up. He calls back. He’s on a first name basis with Barack, Nicolas, David and Angela as well as Abdallah, Michel, Momar and Bashar. He has kept his word and held Egypt’s stance on some of the most important issues facing the world, not the least of which is the 1979 Peace Accord signed at Camp David between Egypt and Israel. He averts risk. He stays out of the “he said/he said” arguments that most of the Middle East entertains. He has enjoyed decades of military and economic aid from the United States. He has kept a strong and loyal military in top shape. He has also presided over the longest stretch of peace in Egypt’s modern history.
So where does Egypt go from here? Where all sound marketing plans go: setting objectives. Without goals, without a direction, Egypt will continue to wander aimlessly through the long night of stagnation. If El Baradei can help set those goals, then perhaps he is a viable alternative. If he can’t (if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s someone else – a more Obamaian type,) then someone must. As with any marketing plan, without objectives you can succeed and still go nowhere. Standing still is no longer a viable strategy. If this recent movement has proven anything, it’s that Egypt must now embrace movement.