A New York Times story on Feb. 17 that ran beneath the headline "Dreams Stifled, Egypt's Young Turn to Islamic Fervor" provided a stark portrayal of Israel's largest and most populous neighbor.
According to the article, Egypt's command economy has been unable to keep up with a decades-long population boom. A generation of increasingly well-educated men and women are encountering bleak job prospects and, out of frustration, are increasingly turning toward religion and, at least potentially, Islamic extremism.
But the head of the Egyptian embassy's economic and commercial bureau in Washington, D.C. painted a different picture — one in which measures to privatize and reform the Arab nation's economy have led to overall economic growth, rising investment from abroad and even a renewed emphasis in developing commercial ties with Israel.
"I feel that it's obvious in many parts of the world — trade and cooperation and investment make miracles everywhere," said Ashraf El Rabiey, in an interview just prior to a speech he gave at a local event held at, of all places, the Pyramid Club.
The Global Interdependence Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that promotes international dialogue and free trade, hosted several dozen participants in an executive leadership program for Telecom Egypt, a phone-service provider that holds a monopoly but, according to Rabiey, has undergone some privatization.
According to its Web site, Telecom created the leadership program to help modernize its business practices. The participants are spending a month meeting with American corporate executives, including the Philadelphia-based Comcast Corporation.
According to Ian Hartshorn, program director for the interdependence center, an invitation was extended to the Consul General of Israel in Philadelphia, though a representative of the office did not attend the event.
Rabiey did not answer any questions related to recent developments along the Egyptian border with Gaza, the growing Islamization of Egyptian society or his government's apparent abandonment of democratic reforms. The economist said that he was only authorized to speak on matters related to trade.
He did note that a number of policy changes enacted by a new economic team in 2004 — including reducing tariffs on imported goods and lowering taxes on citizens — have begun to pay dividends. He said that in 2007, Egypt's economy grew by 7 percent, up from an average of 2 percent to 3 percent earlier in the decade. For this progress, the country's efforts have been commended by the World Bank.
He noted that American companies now invest more than $7 billion a year in Egypt — mostly, but not exclusively, in the oil sector — placing it third in the region behind Israel and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Pennsylvania exports roughly $55 million in goods a year to Egypt, mostly machinery and electronics, according to Wilfred Muskens, the commonwealth's deputy secretary for international business development, who attended the program.
But Rabiey admitted that the country faces huge challenges in creating enough jobs with livable wages to employ a young population. (He estimated that one-third of all Egyptians are below age 15.)
And what is the state of trade between Israel and Egypt?
According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2001, Israel exported $58 million worth of goods to Egypt — mostly textiles and chemical products — but that number declined by 20 percent the following year after the outbreak of the second intifada soured diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Cairo. For a time, Egypt even recalled its ambassador.
But Rabiey spoke of continued cooperation.
In December 2004, the United States, Egypt and Israel signed a trade agreement creating Qualified Industrial Zones in Cairo. This accord affords certain Egyptian companies that collaborate with Israeli firms the ability to import goods free of tariffs to America.
The diplomat asserted that increased business contacts between the two countries will foster "more understanding between the people of Israel and the people of Egypt."