Smiles and romantic hopes of Egyptians for a better life after “the beautiful revolution”, as one of the army commanders put it, should translate into patient actions to transform the country, or the momentum could be lost with the flow of time. But some countries of eastern Europe, a region of dramatic changes in the past two decades, can provide Egypt with the opportunity to examine the circumstances in which high aspirations do or do not lead to the desired improvements. Two notable experiences of drastic social and political change lie in Ukraine and Georgia.
Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, battled against a closed circle of the country’s political leadership, who planned for, and began the execution of, an usurpation of power through election fraud. The new leadership, headed by President Victor Yushchenko, who also had a background in the old government, quickly lost momentum for change during the first year, stunned by the task of institutional and administrative reform and willing only to evolve the system rather than change the overall game. Unwillingness to prosecute high-profile corruption cases, deals with corrupt individuals from the ancien regime, and the lack of drive for streamlining government operations led to disappointment and the rapid demise of Yushchenko’s administration.
In contrast, Georgia’s Roses Revolution of 2003 allowed the country to transform from a failed state to a modern, effective society. Georgia’s President Michael Saakashvili, who speaks English, French, and Russian fluently, immediately initiated sweeping reforms, while strengthening state institutions. As one of the initial steps, the government drastically reduced the number of policemen, simultaneously increasing their salaries by no less than five times to stamp out fraud and neglect of duty, introducing draconian penalties for not reporting a bribe offer. Corruption of government officials became subject to severe punishment, while jobs in the government sectors became prestigious overnight. Second, the government welcomed tens of thousands of new civil servants on a competitive basis without exceptions. At a risk of losing some institutional memory, the action introduced a higher degree of responsibility and flexibility to public service. Third, the government initiated an aggressive national competitiveness programme to bring in international investments, by bringing down administrative barriers for business registration and maintenance, paying taxes, bank payments, and state licensing. As a result, the country moved fast ahead on modernizing the economy.
While Egypt has a different culture and history, here are several hopefully relevant observations. First, reforms are executed much more effectively and faster if they are accompanied by strengthening the state rather than weakening it. In Ukraine, the revolution coincided with a major constitutional reform, which took powers from the president and gave to the parliament. This only led to confusion and limited the ability of the executive branch to start and complete major reforms. The constant requirement to negotiate everything with representatives of local elite groups made the executive and the government even more ineffective. In Georgia, the president and the government took risky measures to reform specific public sectors, such as policing, education, and the business environment. Consequently, the strengthening of the Georgian state came as a result of improving the government’s efficiency.
As Egypt is awash with distrust in the police and its state security system, one of the major challenges is to change the rules of the game in those sectors. These agencies need to become more responsive to those whom they serve, by receiving and regularly responding to feedback from the citizens. They also need to get rid of corruption and giving individual preferences, which is done by changing the modus operandi of those agencies, and removing the motivation for corruption, such as by increasing officers’ salaries, regular training and criminalizing the offer of bribes.
Cleaning the police and the state security from bribery and nepotism will pave the way for the next objective, which is administrative reform. Egypt’s government services are known as relatively inefficient. However, there is no reason why the Egyptian government agencies should be less efficient in solving their customers’ needs than Orascom or Vodafone. One way to dramatically improve the performance of the government is to introduce meritocratic systems of hiring and promotion of government employees at all levels.
Salaries of government workers should become competitive with those of the marketplace, at the same time as annual performance evaluations should become routine. Government employees should be evaluated not by tenure only, but by their preparedness to solve a broad range of problems, targeting the satisfaction of citizens as their main objective. A more efficient government service will definitely please ordinary Egyptians, but it will also increase the economic competitiveness of the country.
For example, at present, according to the World Bank ‘Doing Business 2010’ report data, it takes at least 218 days on average to obtain construction permits, whether for private homes or business premises, in addition to the at least 72 days it takes to register the property. Just easing and streamlining regulation in real estate development has a significant potential to help the country solve her ‘Yacoubian House’ challenge. Unlike Ukraine, Georgia did manage to make the whole government system play by the new rules of efficiency, meritocracy and fairness. Regular performance evaluations at all government ministries have made it possible for the nation to choose more prepared and conscientious professionals to run the country’s critical public sectors. Having administrative barriers removed, this nation was able to proceed to putting emphasis on science, innovation, and education.
Still, a modern society may remain only a dream if economics neglects civics. Party building, democratic participation in decisions of public interest, and free dialogues in the media is equally important to further the aspirations of citizens. One example of such work is establishing a practice or regular consultations with active citizenry through civic boards at all levels and branches of government, where every registered NGO can participate. Once a civic board’s members develop policy proposals, the corresponding government agency should be required to review it for further administrative action. Such practice is successfully implemented in both post-revolutionary Georgia and Ukraine.
Another example of civic participation, presently absent in Egypt, is legislation enabling citizens to petition the government, where petitioned government agencies are required to provide a detailed written response within a specific period of time for any type of inquiries. Both Ukraine and Georgia have similar legislation and practice, topping such a response period at a maximum of 30 days.
Egypt has a tremendous potential to exploit the benefits of democracy to further her interests in the global arena. Other countries have had their own opportunities for a dramatic turnaround in social and political life, and it is up to the Egyptians to find out if they can apply some of those painful lessons in a way that suits their country best. One thing Egyptians should remember: there is no time to waste.