It's not by chance that the free-trade agreement between Israel, Egypt and the United States was signed this month. It's an agreement that Egypt could have signed anytime since 1996. But for more than eight years the draft agreement gathered a thick layer of dust in the dense bureaucratic corridors in Cairo. The excuse, as usual, was political: "At a time like this" it is impossible to sign a trade agreement with Israel, which would mean the promotion of normalization.
"At a time like this" is an expression that can be attributed to a specific event, such as a targeted assassination by Israel in the Gaza Strip, or to an ongoing event, such as a war in Lebanon or the continuation of the occupation. It's possible that if it were not for the sharp ax that awaits Egypt at the beginning of next year, Cairo would have preferred again to postpone the signing of the trade agreement until the advent of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The problem is that the articles of the agreement that Egypt signed with the World Trade Organization will come into effect in another month. They stipulate that goods from most countries can enter the Egyptian market without going through customs. Egypt was compelled to find a haven for its own goods in light of the expected deluge from the outside, in order to balance at least somewhat the already negative trade balance. The free-trade agreement may be a partial cure for the problem and it is most essential now and not one day later.
Galal Zorba, the head of the Union of Egyptian Industries, was effusive in explaining why this agreement is necessary. "It will save more than 700 factories and create more than 400,000 jobs," he told the Egyptian media. It was no accident that Zorba cited these manifestly inflated figures. Egypt now needs some 300,000 new jobs a year, and about half a million jobs are needed to overcome the gaps of the past few years. The official assessment is that the trade agreement, once it reaches maturity in three or four years - that is, after the establishment of the factories and the creation of the marketing network in the United States - will create "only" 100,000 new jobs a year. That, too, is a tremendous gain in a country that "creates" tens of thousands of fictitious jobs every year in the governmental system and is not succeeding in implementing its privatization plan.
Egypt is not the only country that is need of a mass production of jobs. According to Ibrahim Quwidar, the head of the Arab Labor Organization, an umbrella organization that studies employment trends in the Middle East, the Arab states will have to create about 100 million new jobs by 2020, when the total Arab population will stand at 490 million. The population of Egypt alone will be more than 110 million and it faces a particularly bleak future, which even the long underwear to be woven by the factories in the free-trade zone will not be able to help. In developed regions, such as the European Union, manufacturers can rely on the large, rich local market. However, in the Middle East, inter-Arab trade accounts for less than 10 percent of the total trade of the Arab states, and the Arab labor market, which is supposed to absorb workers from poor countries in rich countries, is a misleading term. The Arab states prefer to employ workers from Asia and not from other Arab states. It is easier to expel foreigners than brother Arabs. The result is that economic needs in the region, which will become increasingly more acute, may impose the creation of an atmosphere that promotes trade.
The important publicist Abd al-Wahab Badrakhan also laid down the terms of payment that those needs will call for: "political hard currency." By this he means payment in the form of political goodwill gestures and conciliation in return for economic life preservers, both among the Arab states themselves, and between the Arab states and those who can guarantee new markets, such as Israel.
It is possible that the trade agreement with Egypt is the first signal of this new trend, in which economic interests overcome sentimentalism and the settling of accounts with the past. The trend of "self-normalization," even if under constraint, is beginning to do a calculation of real profit and loss instead of examining the prestige index. If this is, indeed, the trend, it is good news for Israel, provided it doesn't make everyone angry by trying to play the patron again.
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