How wonderful that the Egyptian dictator Mubarak has finally stepped down. But there are considerable uncertainties about when and how a fully functioning democracy that benefits ordinary Egyptians, especially the poorest, will be formed. Restoring the Egyptian economy and ensuring that it benefits not just the existing upper class that supported Mubarak is a key challenge. Economic reforms, however, are hardly mentioned by all those talking so much about the wonderful transformation in Egypt.
A global tourism boycott of Egypt is appropriate until it is absolutely clear that the revolution has actually and fully succeeded and economic reforms achieved. The enormous amounts of money stolen by Mubarak and others must be sought.
Now is the time to send a clear message that there will be no renewal of tourism in Egypt until there is crystal clear evidence that a true and honest electoral democracy with a more equitable economy have been created. Then a huge wave of renewed tourism will be the reward. This must be seen as an incentive to the new military dictatorship to honor the revolution. Everyone must remember that the military supported Mubarak, as one of them, and now owns about 10 to 15 percent of the Egyptian economy.
The US government and other nations should immediately issue official rulings that impede their citizens from any travel to Egypt until the formation of a trustworthy government. Major businesses connected to tourism should do likewise; issuing strong statements that travel and tourism are being ended until the entire Mubarak regime is replaced, including his wealthy cronies and sons in the business community. “The corruption of the Mubarak family was not stealing from the budget, it was transforming political capital into private capital,” said Samer Soliman, a professor of political economy at American University in Cairo.
Global Financial Integrity has estimated that illicit financial activities and government graft stole $57.2 billion between 2000 and 2008. Certainly, tourism was one source of that stolen money.
Make no mistake about it. Tourism is critical for the Egyptian economy that unfairly has rewarded the Egyptian plutocracy. In 2010, nearly $11 billion in revenue was generated when 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt, reports the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York. That number is about 11 percent of the total gross domestic product for the country. It is a critically important source of foreign currency. The sector employs about 12 percent of Egypt’s workforce. In my experience working in Egypt a number of times those figures probably underestimate tourism spending. Because so much of the spending is part of the underground, cash economy such as money spent on guides, taxis, goods and souvenirs in small stores and from street vendors, and food in restaurants. Tourists also were generous with the ever present street beggars.
Before the eruption of the massive demonstrations against Mubarak, experts predicted Egypt’s growth would be second only to Qatar in the region. However, forecasts have since been revised downwards: from the 5.4 percent originally anticipated this year to growth of only 1 to 2 percent. But economic growth does not necessarily benefit workers, as the past has demonstrated.
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman said recently that about one million tourists flew out of Egypt in the first nine days of the protests, causing losses of about one billion dollars. Their return should be carefully debated. Recovering stolen money from the Mubarak family and their cronies should be a higher priority in the near term.
Consistent with the apparent delusional thinking of Mubarak is that officials at the Egypt Tourist Authority during the revolution predicted a quick recovery for the national tourism industry following the political turmoil. Now the world must send a clear message that the “mass departure of tourists” the agency acknowledged in recent weeks will definitely not be quickly reversed until a strong, reliable democracy and reformed economy are established.
Of course without tourism Egyptians suffer, but we must remember that even when tourism flourished most Egyptian workers suffered economically. And they mounted their rebellion knowing that they would be hurt financially. They have thought in terms of the longer term, and so must we. Now we must see a tourism boycott for Egypt as a political statement and tactic that aids and supports the brave citizens that sacrificed so much for their revolution.
We will hear much from that business community that they want tourism to quickly be restored and that ordinary citizens need it. But the business elites in Egypt supported and benefited from the Mubarak regime and siphoned off much of the nation’s wealth that tourism helped create. Critically needed are reforms in the economy and business community to ensure that workers share in prosperity. Let us beware of those rich pro-Mubarak elites who own tourism-related businesses and who did not support the revolution but who have already started to plea for a return of tourists. First, show the world how economic inequality in injustice will be eliminated.
Joel S. Hirschhorn can be contacted through delusionaldemocracy.com.