Egypt is lauded as a poster child for neoliberal reform. But few of its people have enjoyed the spoils of the boom
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - November 2009
When it comes to dry reads, it ranks somewhere between Welding and Metal Fabrication Monthly and the collected speeches of Alistair Darling. And yet a newly-published report from the Egyptian government's investment authority, GAFI, is one of the most significant and explosive pieces of writing to appear anywhere in the Middle East in recent years.
It doesn't mention the Muslim Brotherhood, or antisemitism, or artificial hymens, and so far it has garnered precisely zero coverage in the international press. What it does do is address an issue which day in, day out, shapes the lives of the vast majority of Egypt's population and hundreds of millions of others beyond its borders.
The report systematically destroys the myths and distortions that have driven the country's economic policy for the last two decades – the same myths and distortions which have set the development path for numerous other countries in the Global South – and shatters the illusion that soaring economic growth rates have anything to do with widespread, sustainable social prosperity.
Since 1991, the year Egypt yoked itself to an IMF structural adjustment programme and embarked on a series of wide-ranging economic reforms, the country has been something of a poster child for neoliberal economists who point to its remarkable levels of annual GDP growth as proof that "Washington consensus" blueprints for the developing world can work. Coming on the back of an economic crisis precipitated partly by profligate government spending on arms sales (subsidised by US aid), the regime of President Hosni Mubarak signed up to an IMF loan that was conditional on economic liberalisation. Those conditions – relaxed price controls, reduced subsidies, an opening up of trade – were met with gleeful abandon.
Ever since, the country has been subject to successive waves of neoliberal reform. In 1996 a huge privatisation drive kicked off – resulting in sham sales to public banks and regime cronies, a rapid deterioration of working conditions and a wave of strikes so powerful that one analyst labelled it the largest social movement seen in the Middle East in half a century.
Then 2004 brought a new cabinet which swiftly cut the top rate of tax from 42% to 20%, leaving multimillionaires paying exactly the same proportion of their income into government coffers as those on an annual salary of less than £500. Special economic zones were created, foreign investment reached dizzying heights ($13bn in 2008) and, in the past three years, economic growth has clocked in at a consistently high 7%. The minimum wage, incidentally, has remained fixed at less than £4 a month throughout. The global business community applauded Mubarak's rule as "bold", "impressive" and "prudent".
So Egypt is now a glitzier, more prosperous land with pharaonic-style riches to match its pharaonic-style leader (now entering his 29th year in power). Except, as the GAFI report inconveniently points out, 90% of the country has yet to see any of the bounty. Foreign investment has been largely channelled into sectors like finance and gas which create few new jobs. While national resources like natural gas have been sold at subsidised rates to the tycoon owners of iron and fertiliser factories, the cost of ordinary commodities like bread and cooking oil has spiralled. In fact since the IMF began hauling Egypt's economy into modernity, Egyptians have got steadily and dramatically poorer: when structural adjustment began 20% of the population were living on less than (inflation-adjusted) $2 a day; today, that figure stands at 44%. In the past decade, when GDP growth was at its strongest, absolute poverty has climbed from 16.7% to almost 20%. Chomsky called neoliberalism "capitalism with the gloves off"; it's hard, looking at this jumble of statistics, to discern anything but a shameless hit-and-run job perpetrated by a tiny band of Egypt's business elite.
Of course this isn't the first time that conservative economic theory has proved to have a catastrophic effect on the lives of ordinary people, especially in poorer countries, but this report – sponsored by the very government it criticises – is a particularly powerful example of just how dangerously flawed the idea is that making the rich richer can be a engine of society-wide economic progress.
Timothy Mitchell argues that neoliberalism's triumph is its double-thinking: it encourages the most exuberant dreams of private accumulation and yet aggressively narrows public discussion so that "the collective well-being of the nation is depicted only in terms of how it is adjusted in gross to the discipline of monetary and fiscal balance sheets". Nowhere is that truer than in Egypt, a doublethink society where the ruling National Democratic Party can use its annual conference (held last weekend) to congratulate itself on wearing a western-tailored economic straitjacket while millions struggle to meet their basic daily needs.
The conference was entitled "Just for you". Whom that "you" was wasn't specified, but it can't have been any of the 90% shut out of Cairo's miraculous economic boom. As the eminent Egyptian economics professor Galal Amin argues, "Those who continue to preach the trickle-down theory are likely to be the ones who do not really care whether anything trickles down at all."