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Arab Economies Ignored

By Farah Halime, a business journalist in Cairo and Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on Egypt’s economy. This post originally appeared on Rebel Economy.

Ignore the economy at your peril. That is the lesson Arab leaders of transitional countries should learn from the Egyptian military’s removal of Mohammed Morsi from power, but one that continues to fall on deaf ears.

Rather than embrace the economic demands of protesters from across the “Arab Spring” countries in 2011, the new governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have failed to address the key economic problems that brought people out to the streets in the first place.

Instead, they’ve done something much more uninspiring, which is to plaster over the status quo, and present it as a new package. 

The result is angrier, more frustrated citizens and Arab economies that are just as unsustainable as those in 2010.

In Tunisia, the country’s chronically high unemployment, high prices and slow economic growth has triggered a touch of nostalgia among some for the reign of Ben Ali. Meanwhile in Libya, despite impressive economic growth numbers, the country continues to face a fragmented political landscape and tribal power struggles, which the IMF says “complicate efforts to reestablish security and the rule of law”, and make for a vulnerable oil price.

Egypt is the most worrying of all.

The huge numbers of people appear to have embraced the military, believing the generals are acting in the national interest. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Successive governments have repeatedly crafted messages intended to tug on the patriotic heartstrings of the people, ignoring the real economic challenges for as long as they can and until someone else takes over.

Islamist president Mohammed Morsi presided over almost two sets of ministers after just one year in power, as political tensions alienated large sections of Egypt and led to mass resignations. And his plans for an “economic Renaissance” were exposed for what they were: a mirage. He did not have any control over the economy and instead, wasted his presidency trying to please his Islamist base.

But in the aftermath of his downfall, egos have quashed rational thinking and a naive optimism that Egypt is now saved by the army has blinded some of the best Egyptian economic thinkers.

PIMCO’s Mohammed El Erian, writing in the Financial Times, talks of the main factors that will drive “Egypt’s eventual recovery” (Rebel Economy’s own comments in square brackets):

First, Egypt has several economic growth, income and employment engines that can be easily restarted once calm is restored. [Egypt isn't going to be "calm" for a long time, and do not convince yourself tourists will think any different]

Second, the country’s internal finances, while messy, are not beyond repair. [He partly means subsidy reform, which no one has been able to touch for 60 years...]

Third, Egypt can alleviate immediate foreign reserve and currency pressures through emergency financing on highly attractive terms. [How convenient! Enter the sugar daddies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Because pumping billions of dollars into Egypt's coffers really helped last year too.]

Aside from coming across as grossly misinformed about the ability of Egypt’s new interim leaders to tackle problems that would be difficult to implement even without the backdrop of a military-led coup, this type of thinking comes down to plain, old gloating.

And nobody likes someone who dwells on another’s misfortune with smugness.  

For example, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, whose family is the richest in Egypt, says he will invest in Egypt “like never before”. But this says more about the blurred lines between Egypt’s biggest business empires and the ruling government, than an endorsement for a popular new leader.

The last years of the Mubarak era were marked by increased public resentment against the perceived growing influence of businessmen on government, and not something the new interim administration should repeat.

And take this highly-politicised investor note from Pharos Holding, a Cairo-based brokerage firm, which describes the new prime minister [Hazem el Beblawi], his advisor [Ziad Bahaa El Din], the finance minister [Ahmed Galal] and the planning minister [Ashraf al-Arabi] as the “fantastic four”:

It is day 17 and the light at the end of tunnel is getting brighter, despite sporadic incidences of violence. Egyptians are no longer willing to see their lives put on hold. It has already been put on hold for almost two years and a half.

Now that the final structure of the interim government is almost complete, we view the economic team as significantly more coherent and competent than all the teams appointed post the Jan 2011 revolution.

The fact that they are well-qualified doesn’t overshadow the very real polarisation in Egypt.

How can these economists enact their ideas if the streets are awash with blood and Muslim Brotherhood leaders are locked up without charges? Morsi’s failure was not being able to bring disparate groups together to focus on rebuilding Egypt. What sign is there that a new government will do any better, considering the dramatic exclusion of the Brotherhood and their allies?

In fact, the planning minister, Mr Al Arabi, has already made it clear there is no need for an International Monetary Fund loan now.

That may seem like a very good move, considering Egypt has just received $12 billion in loans, deposits and oil from the Gulf, but that money is sure to run out in a few months, and then Egypt will be asking for more money from its sugar daddies.

Let’s be clear about Mr Al Arabi’s motives.  He is playing a political game, and not working in the best interest of the country.

The IMF loan is highly unpopular but one of the few chances Egypt will get to rightside its budget and seriously sort out its deficit by implementing energy subsidy reform, correcting the tax collection system and raising taxes for the middle class and wealthy.

The effect of IMF-mandated reforms is not to make Egyptians poorer, but give the government room to spend its revenues in the right place. Healthcare and education are being neglected so that Egyptians, rich and poor, can have cheap fuel. Cutting that subsidy will hurt but it will also make life better for Egyptian children who face the very real prospect of no jobs when they graduate from substandard universities and high schools.

It’s also politically advantageous for the interim government to hold off on any contentious talks until elections in February. Why would the temporary government do anything to push through reforms if they have the option of passing the buck?

And what happens when people rise up against another government that fails to improve daily life? Will they call for the military to rid Egypt of the same government they ushered in?

The outright refusal of an IMF loan sets a worrying precedent for economic recovery in Egypt. Mubarak, too, was not keen on the IMF loan, and instead appeased the masses by pouring money into the public sector and systemic reforms.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that  Mubarak-style economic policies are likely to return, minus the big businessmen of the past like Ahmed Ezz.  That might be good for the Sawiris’ of Egypt, but it won’t be for the ordinary Egyptian. Mubarak’s neo-liberal policies helped increase gross domestic product to $145 billion but only widened the gap between rich and poor.

Some are relying on the idea that the trained economists appointed to a technocratic government will have a methodological approach to the economy, without politics playing a role. But this is very hard to believe.

As Avi Asher-Schapiro writes in the Jacobin blog:

Technocrats, of course, are not above or outside of ideology and they do not operate apart from politics. They preside over a system that distributes resources and divides political power. By their very nature technocrats are antithetical to revolutionary politics; they grease the gears of the machines that revolutionaries seek to dismantle.

The developments of the last fortnight are emblematic of Egypt’s struggle to impose any alternative economic plan.

With the budget deficit expected to hit 12% and economic growth still stagnant, jobs are hard to come by and the country is turning to the Gulf for a “quick-fix” to its energy and hard currency shortages.

Instead of just accepting whoever is made minister, prime minister and president, Egyptians (including high-profile members of the business community) should hold the interim government to account.

Mr Beblawi and his team should be grilled for answers and a plan, not adorned with praise. Contributed by Farah Halime.

Also by Farah Halime: Egypt - The Honeymoon Is Over

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