By Andy Mayer
The resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the most populous Arab state, following weeks of protests is a fantastic day for the millions that made it happen, and we hope the progress of liberty and democracy.
This is not assured. The Egyptian military is in charge in the interim, Mubarak’s apparatus of power remains intact, and building a consensus for a new constitution amongst opposition factions will be painful.
Islamists and secularists have different ideas about fundamental liberties and pluralism. Many of the middle-class protesters leading the chants this month, helped keep Mubarak in power previously, precisely to avoid government by the populist movement represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the bright-eyed revolutionary socialists interviewed by the BBC this week are certain to not get what they want.
It is reasonable to expect though, given the impetus, some kind of pluralist democracy will emerge. The street are unlikely to accept another dictator. The army so far have expressed an interest in stability not any particular outcome. Most protesters will now want to get back to work.
That government will face large internal reform challenges; and difficult foreign policy questions over their relationship with Israel, their new position within the League of Arab States, and a host of new and old friends from the US to China waving their chequebooks in gestures of commercial solidarity.
We will be amongst them. The UK currently imports around £0.5bn of Egyptian goods and exports just under £1bn every year. The opportunities for growth in energy and financial services are not trivial, and Egypt’s economy is far more diversified than most neighbours.
Some of the reporting of the last few weeks has highlighted the Mubarak regime’s relative economic competence. This should not be overstated. It is certainly true they reformed and replaced some of the Marxist central planning legacy of the Sadat era, and have seen inflation fall from a decade of rates over 15%. But with GDP per head at just $5-6,000, 10% unemployment, double digit deficits, and GDP rates closer to Western European than Chinese or Indian levels, they clearly did not achieve the kind of catch-up growth seen in the latter, nor the commodity growth of wealthy Arab nations. We can also reasonably expect a ousted regime to leave a few nasty surprises and loot what they can.
Egypt’s largely young, often poor, but well educated population will expect this to change under the new government. This is a nation of untapped potential yearning for the freedom to prove themselves in the world.
We all must hope the tensions inevitable failures and set-backs will cause does not lead the government to resort to the easy option of blaming and attacking foreign influence. Egypt needs external support to grow, and growth is ultimately what will fund reform and the reduction of external tensions. Let us hope whichever new Leaders emerge have the gifts to turn those aspirations into lasting change.