A Golden Canary in the Egyptian Coal Mine

It is commonly said that “an investment in gold represents an investment in fear.”  Indeed, reports that recently deposed Tunisian leader Zine Ben Ali absconded with 1.5 tons of gold bars from that country’s central bank would seem to highlight the truth of this maxim.  Here in Egypt, it was reported two days ago in Al Ahram‘s Arabic edition that Cairo airport authorities commandeered 59 parcels of pillowcases in which someone had hidden tens of millions of dollars in foreign currency and gold bullion bound for the Netherlands.  Given recent events in Tunisia, Tunisian-inspired self-immolations in front of Egyptian parliament, the recent car bombing of a Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, and general unease over upcoming elections, the questions immediately surrounding this recent airport seizure were many.  Obviously, those questions have grown even more pointed over the last two days of protest in downtown Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and elsewhere.  Perhaps President Mubarak saw some reason to follow Ben Ali’s example but is smart enough to avoid the last minute rush to spirit gold out of the country?

The question that ought to be asked in Egypt, however, is not who might be enveloped by such fear but who isn’t.  The Egyptian economy has been only marginally insulated from the global financial crisis and inflation still stands at 10.5% annually.  Meanwhile wages remain stagnant, having been historically suppressed by government violence.  Hosni Mubarak is 82 years old and faces yet another dubious election this year, which (if it happens at all) he will undoubtedly “win” in spite of the declining standard of living endured by the vast majority of Egyptians.  Nevertheless, Gamal Mubarak is obviously not going to be a popular candidate, so presidential succession is uncertain in the event of Mubarak’s death.

Simultaneous to the political uncertainty generated by decades of sham elections, crony capitalism, and status-quo domestic economic policy, religious fervor is also dividing Egypt.  An Islamist Web site has published a list of Coptic Churches targeted for bombing in protest over a Christian woman allegedly prevented from converting to Islam.  Whether the allegation is true or not, the impact of this incendiary propaganda was the aforementioned car bombing of an Alexandrian Coptic Orthodox Church during a new year’s liturgy and the tangentially related shooting of several Coptic Christians on a train south of Cairo.  Given this rise in sectarian violence in Egypt, the related economic instability characterizing the local economy, and rising unrest in the wake of Tunisa’s revolution, it is also very likely that any number of wealthy Egyptians might like to invest in a bit of fear and move it abroad.

There are in fact several wealthy Coptic families in Egypt who would likely see a clandestine move of physical wealth to be quite appropriate under these divisive circumstances.  Who could blame the Sawiris family for instance for initiating a large-scale transfer of physical wealth in a world where President Mubarak’s hold upon power is obviously weakening and his ability to keep the Islamists under control is not what it used to be?  The more general reality, however, is that ANY of the newly monied families who benefitted directly from Mubarak’s rule might not appreciate the way the current political winds are blowing.

With Friday prayers undoubtedly being followed tomorrow by more large-scale protests forcing their way from Al Azhar Mosque to Attaba Square and from all areas to Tahrir Square, it will likely become clear if the mover of this gold made a wise choice.  In spite of what the mainstream media and YouTube and Facebook show us, protests until now have been somewhat anemic, usually with crowds of hundreds where thousands are necessary.  Photos and videos out of Cairo are often cropped tightly to create the illusion of more people.  The descriptions of downtown as “a war zone” by the British press are laughable as far as I can see, as people were shopping quite normally this evening.  Women were not panic-buying groceries in anticipation of trouble tomorrow, and people were not mobbing the bank ATMs for fear of an inability to withdraw funds while surrounded by rioters.  Frankly, it is this normalcy that worries me deeply.  As per usual, people seemed resigned to the Mubarak police machine effectively containing and controlling the downtown area and arresting those who get out of line with peak efficiency.  The people on the street this evening seemed resigned to the status quo . . . just as Hosni Mubarak has made them!

Tomorrow, however, is still the day for Egyptians to make an important decision — more important than any vote they have ever cast for or against their president or parliamentarian.  If tens of thousands are not present in Tahrir Square by early tomorrow afternoon, President Mubarak will know he has won.  He will know not just that he has won the day but a great deal about the impact that his past victories have had on the very spirit of the Egyptian people.  If a few hundred or a thousand or even two thousand arrive in Tahrir Square tomorrow, their insufficient numbers will allow the slightly built, underpaid, and borderline malnourished police force in the streets to bully them and ensure victory for their traitorous master.  The actions of all those who stay home tomorrow will show that their gold-loving countryman had been too cautious in his movement of assets.  Their actions will simultaneously doom Egypt to an indeterminate period of continued servitude to a flailing and aging figurehead who symbolizes nothing more than Egypt’s larger servitude to the West.  If, however, Egypt descends en masse tomorrow upon Tahrir Square, if veiled women arrive with their children, if Christian men stand with their most devout Muslim neighbors, if intellectuals stand with butchers, they will prove that whoever moved that gold and foreign currency a few days ago, whether it was a Muslim billionaire, a Coptic millionaire, or their own “president,” made a very, very wise decision and was quite right to fear the voters whose will has been ignored for so very long.

John Pastrikos is a writer in Cairo, Egypt.

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