Last week, as millions of Egyptians huddled around their television sets to witness a heated four-hour debate between presidential candidates, another political skirmish was unfolding just six hundred miles north in Athens. As a result of it economic woes, Greece stands at the brink of insolvency, faces potential ouster from the Eurozone, and has thus far been unable to form a unified cabinet. The fiscally conservative approach, espoused by both Greek and foreign politicians, calls for a belt-tightening regime of economic austerity. The plan is fiercely opposed by leftist politicians who describe the austerity measures as draconian and bemoan the negative effects on the livelihood of the Greek populace.
As a result of the economic crisis, for the first time in Greek history, popular discourse is now dominated by what was once the sole preserve of economists and academics. In stark contrast, Egypt’s lengthy televised presidential debate involved few questions about the country’s economic circumstances. Neither the role of Saudi Arabia’s sudden $1 billion central bank deposit, nor the crippling inflation that drove thousands to protest soaring food prices were mentioned or scrutinized during Thursday’s debate. Instead, the candidates exchanged barbs regarding the role of religion in Egypt’s government and other ideological concerns.
This development is troubling, considering that the economy was a top priority in the months following the revolution. Even more upsetting is the complete lack of emphasis by the candidates and their supporters on technical expertise or economic acumen. The candidate with the most economic understanding, Khaled Ali, former head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), continues to run his campaign in relative obscurity.
For years to come, events in Greece will serve as a reminder of the consequences of rampant corruption, reckless fiscal management and economic policies dictated by foreign actors – in short, all the problems that continue to plague Egypt. The role of Shariah or the nationality of a candidate’s mother may dominate media coverage and political debates in the short term, but the sobering and harsh economic realities of Egypt will be the worse for it. The Greeks spent years mulling over the ideological implications of joining the Eurozone, only to realize at the eleventh hour that the most damning consequences were financial in nature. Egyptians, both policy makers and voters, would do well to learn from the tribulations of their Mediterranean neighbor and find a way to put bread on the table instead of scrutinizing the baker’s ideology.