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Egypt: Trendsetter in the Mideast

By Youssef Boutros-Ghali
Friday, November 5, 2010; A21

Egypt's political future has become a hot topic in Washington as parliamentary and presidential elections approach. Some policy wonks claim that Egypt is stagnant and that our government is resisting change. But those of us who work in the Egyptian government believe that what matters most to ordinary Egyptians is their standard of living; in this respect, the country is undergoing an astonishing transformation.

In the five years since we launched our economic reform program, close to 4 million jobs have been created. Egypt's Human Development Index growth rate - the United Nations measure based on health, education and income - is the 10th-fastest in the world and almost double the global average. From 2005 to 2008, our economy grew at an annual rate of 7.2 percent; despite the global downturn, growth is expected to top 6 percent this year. The World Bank has named Egypt the Middle East's top economic reformer for the past three years. These are hardly signs of stagnation.

Economic growth has helped make Egyptian civil society the most dynamic in the Middle East. Independent satellite broadcasts reach 70 percent of the population. There are more than 500 independent journalism publications and more than 160,000 bloggers. Indeed, there are more opposition dailies in Egypt than in any other Middle Eastern nation. There is also Internet freedom; Google searches are unfettered. Women occupy 23 percent of public positions, and at least 12 percent of seats in the next parliament will be allocated to women.

In many respects, Egypt is a different country from the one it was five years ago.

Unfortunately, the narrative in Washington's policy community has yet to reflect that. Western observers ritually point out the imperfections in our political system - many of which we acknowledge and openly debate. The fact that Egyptians are having open discussions about the upcoming elections, government performance, poverty and even the president is proof of a healthy political space. Moreover, for all the speculation about the leadership transition, the Egyptian constitution defines a precise framework for presidential elections, which are open to any political party that has at least one seat in Parliament. At no time in its modern history has Egypt faced a crisis of transition.

We recognize that Egypt still has a long way to go. Far too many people live in poverty, and too few receive a proper education. But there can be little doubt that Egypt is at a turning point toward much broader prosperity.

The fundamental challenge is to further our economic reforms as Egypt opens up politically. This is why this month's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential election are critical.

The National Democratic Party, to which I belong, will seek a renewed mandate for change through these elections. We believe ours is the only party with the vision and the track record to bring continuing prosperity and growth to Egypt.

The main alternative to our vision is offered by those who would steer the country away from economic liberalism, religious tolerance and social progress and toward greater fundamentalism, eventually creating a religious state in a country that has always embraced diversity. Imagine for a moment an Egypt in the hands of fundamentalist mullahs, fomenting instability and allied with rogue regimes.

As a member of Egypt's Christian community - the largest in the Middle East - I know all too well the dangers of religious intolerance. As finance minister, I recognize the imperative of change in the face of entrenched interests. And as an elected member of Parliament I have come to realize that change without home-grown political support is unsustainable.

Our vision for Egypt is of a modern civil state based on equality, religious tolerance and a free-market economy. Prosperity and better education can drive peaceful political change, which we hope will in turn revive a multiparty system that has unfortunately withered somewhat in recent years. The choice should not just be between the National Democratic Party and the fundamentalists. There must be room for vibrant secular alternatives.

American assistance to Egypt over the past 30 years has played a vital role in building a free-market economy. As Egypt's economy has grown, the relationship has shifted from one based on economic aid - now less than $200 million annually - to one based on trade and investment.

Egypt has long been a regional trendsetter. Ours is the largest country in the Arab world; transforming Egypt's economy will generate prosperity and stability throughout the region and provide a bulwark against extremism. In the end, an economically developed and politically stable Egypt will improve America's security and help to create the foundations of a prosperous and stable Middle East.

Youssef Boutros-Ghali is Egypt's finance minister and a member of its parliament. He is also chairman of the International Monetary Fund's policy steering committee.

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