Text size

CAIRO - The employment bureaus in Egypt are swamped these days with thousands of young people who are looking for government jobs. Some of them even send their requests from abroad, while others sleep next to the offices in order to be first in line in the morning. The government is currently offering 180,000 places of work, in order to overcome the unemployment problem, which is getting worse every year. The newly available jobs don't come with a high salary and don't demand great knowledge; they are standard government positions, which will earn those who hold them between 300 and 500 Egyptian liras a month (which comes to about the same in Israeli shekels) and will enable them to hold their head above water.

There are also quite a few articles in the press these days about the bankruptcy of the Egyptian tourist industry in the Sinai region and concomitant mass dismissals of staff. The Egyptian lira was devalued recently by about 15 percent, and with the creeping devaluation of the past year has lost around a quarter of its value. Unofficial data speak of the closure of 150,000 private companies that have gone bankrupt and about foreign investments that are conspicuous by their absence.

The visit of President Hosni Mubarak next month to a series of countries in Europe and Asia is being described by his spokesman as "intended to discuss the situation in the Middle East" with other leaders. However, Egyptian government officials indicate that the true purpose of the junket is to raise money for Egypt.

"No one has made the connection yet," says an Egyptian policy-making source, "but the Intifada is not only a social and political danger, it is also an economic calamity. Because when you have unrest in one part of the Middle East, people stay away from the whole region."

The view in Egypt is that Cairo will soon be forced to make the necessary political shift - and for economic reasons. True, Mubarak has drawn a clear red line in his public statements, according to which there will not be a regional war in the Middle East. But those pronouncements are not enough to induce even Egyptian investors to transfer their capital, which is estimated in the billions, from banks abroad back to Egypt. Egypt needs concrete calm in the region in order to be able to neutralize the political threat that is inherent in a dying economy.

Cairo, which thought 10 months ago that the Intifada would foment a new order in the Middle East and that Egypt would then be revealed in its full diplomatic and political splendor, is now wrestling with the question of how to contain the Intifada and downsize it to the scale of a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Proof of this new attitude lies in the limitation of the volume of the various Arab conferences, a marked cooling-off toward the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and a readiness to reexamine the possibility of kick-starting the diplomatic process. The foreign minister of Qatar, who chaired the meeting of Arab foreign ministers held last week in Cairo, minced no words when he explained why it is impossible to agree on a united Arab position: "There are countries that need outside assistance and therefore cannot act." He was not referring to Sudan.

Respected political and economic sources in Egypt believe that this hot potato - the Egyptian economy - will ultimately cause Egypt to start moving, and sooner rather than later. Egypt, though, needs an Israeli or Israeli-American signal that will give it the go-ahead to launch a new initiative.

"The atmosphere today is conducive to this," says an Egyptian political source. "The Arab world is fragmented, Arab pressure on the United States is barely felt, the Intifada has no discernible direction, Arafat is traveling all over the world, and the Egyptians, perhaps more than any other Arab country (the Jordanians certainly would not agree with this) are suffering from the bad odor of the conflict. Is there any prospect that [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will give Egypt even a bit of rope that it can latch onto in order to get things moving?"