"What is our way forward?"

I recently had the following exchange with an official from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, which (as its name suggests) is responsible for apportioning water among Egypt's millions of farmers, small and large

Until now, it’s not clear, the [economic] policy of the state. It’s not clear. Are we going to a socialist system? Are we going to a liberal system? … What is our way forward? If the socialists come to form the government, they have their ideas, and the government should control everything, and manage everything. If the liberals come—or the Islamists, because their ideas depend on the liberal thinking—we can use the open market and the best man can have the most chance.
Q:And right now you're just waiting to see?
A: Now we're waiting.

We were talking specifically about managing water for irrigation—this is an enormous issue in Egypt, a water poor country, in which subsidized water is granted to farmers, who use about 86% of Egypt's potable water, often in highly inefficient ways. Egypt urgently needs to make tough decisions about how to apportion resources. Its groundwater and its quota of Nile water are fixed, and together they are no longer sufficient to provide water for drinking, food, and fiber crops for the country's rapidly growing population.  (The UN standard for "water poverty" is 1000m3 per person per year, Egypt currently has roughly 700m3 per person, and less every year) Without going into excruciating detail* Egypt has a number of different routes it could take: subsidizing water efficient irrigation equipment instead of water; encouraging small farmers to grow cash crops for export, thus raising foreign exchange which can be used to import staples from water-rich countries; prioritizing large scale operations, which, through economies of scale, use scarce resources more efficiently; tightly regulate agriculture to force small farmers to use water more efficiently, centralize crop patterns and resource management; stop subsidizing agriculture altogether, and let already impoverished farmers sink or swim, in hopes that their children will train for careers in another sector. All of these options (except, I think, the first) are extreme, and most would cause pain to farmers, who are already suffering greatly. But the fact is the status quo (which is basically a veneer of neoliberalism over a decayed socialist foundation, and relies on draining non-renewable aquifers) is hurting everybody, farmers included, and is leading the country to the brink of a truly disastrous water shortage.

People in the ministries know this. Say what you will about corruption and inefficiency in the bureaucracy, if you go to mid-level technical and research positions, you will meet scores of civil servants who are committed and well-trained, and genuinely want to do what's best for the Egyptian people. And these people have their hands completely tied, because neither the SCAF nor the Ikhwan seem to have an actual program or vision for how to govern the country. (Rule, perhaps, but not govern.) Nor is the recently approved draft constitution much help. It promises, in vague terms, to promote "balanced sustainable development" and "protect production, increase income and guarantee social justice, solidarity and welfare" but does not actually define those terms in any meaningful way.
 
As the conversation above illustrates, people working in government don't know, even in the most basic sense, what kind of economic system they will be operating in. This, of course, makes it completely impossible to make long-term plans for water management, or housing policy, or healthcare or pretty much anything else. And in the meantime, the government is spending unwisely, and borrowing at ruinous rates to do so, while the people get poorer than ever.

I remember a year ago, people assured me that once Egypt had a parliament, decisions would be made, and the country would get moving again. Then, when that failed to yield results, people said Egypt just needed a president. Then, a cabinet. Then, a constitution. Now, I'm starting to hear that we just need a parliament again (as was the case in the conversation above). But I don't believe it, that it's that simple, that one more trip to the ballot box will solve things. And I'm afraid for Egypt.


*for those who want excruciating detail, I recently wrote a very long report on the subject, which I can send at your request.