Egypt's Economy: Hints Of Sources Of Unrest?

Egypt's political repression has been seen as one cause of the country's current unrest. But what about Egypt's economy? Steve Inskeep talks to Max Rodenbeck, Middle East correspondent for The Economist.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

World leaders seem to have settled on a phrase to describe the complaints of Egypt's protestors. They're saying the people have legitimate grievances. We know about Egypt's political repression, and next we'll talk about Egypt's economy with Max Rodenbeck. He's the Middle East correspondent for the Economist magazine. He's in Cairo.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. MAX RODENBECK (East Correspondent, Economist Magazine): Thank you.

INSKEEP: We're talking here about the most populous Arab country, of course. Where's it rank, though, as an economic power?

Mr. RODENBECK: A little bit further down the line. I mean, it's a country where most people are poor, although Egypt's performed pretty well and it's economy has come up, there's a problem of distribution. The wealthy have gotten very much wealthier, and the middle class has grown, but there's a large chunk of the society that feels very left out.

INSKEEP: Has the state been deeply involved in the way the economy has evolved?

Mr. RODENBECK: Very much so. Because Egypt had a sort of socialist model of the economy for about 30 years, until 20 years ago, when there was a kind of shift towards a more capitalist model. And it - in many measures, it's been a success, in terms of creating wealth - the tourist industry, for example.

INSKEEP: What hasn't been so successful?

Mr. RODENBECK: Sharing the wealth, raising standards for the general public. And people have kind of put their finger on one problem, which is the standard of education. I mean, literacy has gone up. More and more people can read, but the schools are so bad that they often come out with very few skills. And so people aren't able to exploit very well the economic opportunities that exist.

INSKEEP: And when you've been moving about Cairo in the last several days, how often have people on the streets been talking about the economy as they describe why they're protesting?

Mr. RODENBECK: Very much so. But the real focus of these protests is political. People suffer economically, but I don't think they're expecting an economic miracle if the Mubarak regime disappears. Even after just a few days of unrest, the poor are suffering. Already, there are long lines - people waiting for bread, for example. And, in fact, one of the reasons why there hasn't been a similar revolt earlier is because so many people can't afford to stay a few days away from their jobs.

INSKEEP: Oh, no, this is very interesting, because there's been talk today of a general strike. But the reports we're hearing from Cairo suggest that that is not happening. Not everybody's shutting down. You're suggesting that people can't afford to do that.

Mr. RODENBECK: Many people can't afford to. And it's also the end of the month and people want their salaries, and banks are closed. But also, the organizers of this movement, they managed to mobilize huge numbers of people in the street for a very vaguely stated aims - multiple aims, the main one of which has been for Mubarak himself to go. But they don't really have the organizational power to push for a general strike - not yet. I may be wrong, but it's hard to see, judging by how many people need their wage. It might work in a week's time, when people are again angry with the government. But it's a bit early to tell.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's really interesting, when you talk about vaguely stated aims, other than the demand that Mubarak should go. We've heard other analysts in our program today suggest that Mubarak seems to be near his end, that perhaps within a couple of days, he could be out of there. Do you see another possibility that these protests could continue remain unfocused, and that they could peter out over time?

Mr. RODENBECK: I tend to doubt that. I think that - what I'm saying that is that there were many, many different goals, and many people who joined in the protests had slightly different aims. The one thing that they unified on was getting rid of Mubarak. And it's a matter of, as time progresses, how well the opposition forces can again focus attention. I think that Mubarak's time is definitely up, and he's unquestionably going. I would agree with that. He's trying to get himself a graceful exit, that this is one of the things that will unfold in these coming days is grateful will his exit be and what exactly succeeds him. Is it the plan that he seems to be putting in place, or will the protests continue and push for more radical reform?

INSKEEP: Max Rodenbeck is Middle East correspondent for the Economist. He's in Cairo.

Thanks very much.

Mr. RODENBECK: Thank you.

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