Memo to El-Baradei: You Can’t Eat Neoliberalism

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

CAIRO, EGYPT – CIRCA APRIL 2017: An old Egyptian man drives his donkey cart on the streets of Islamic Cairo. – Editorial credit: Sarine Arslanian / Shutterstock.com

By Reza Pankhurst

Morsi’s failure to radically depart from Mubarak-era economic policy, contributed to his downfall.

Shortly before riding into the vice-presidency of Egypt on the back of military tanks, Mohammed El-Baradei told the Foreign Policy (FP) magazine, “you can’t eat Sharia” in a criticism of the policies (or apparent lack thereof) of the previous Morsi presidency. The comment appears to have been throwaway humor intended to impress the FP’s readership that is, to put it mildly, inclined to view anything other than opening up foreign markets for “trade” (or exploitation) as unfeasible, impractical and dangerous, coupled with their traditional deeply held negative views of Islam — a disdain seemingly shared by El-Baradei and his liberal secular allies, who appear to have little more than faux concern over the continued massacres of anti-coup protestors by the military upon the orders of General Sisi and continue to label the masses of opposition against the coup as “terrorist” elements. The FP editorial team duly responded by using the line as the title for their piece.

For all the rhetoric, El-Baradei would be hard pressed to identify exactly what elements of Islamic law the Morsi government was actually given the opportunity to enact in a general sense, let alone in economic policy. In fact, most criticism of the Morsi government centered on the largely continued same failed polity of the previous Mubarak regime. This implicitly would include its neoliberal economic program that earned the praise of the IMF as recently as 2010 and the widening of the wealth disparity within the country, which was one of the factors that led to the revolt in 2011. El-Baradei alludes to this in his piece, stating that the Morsi administration relied on “the same worn-out ideas” simply carried by more religious figures in power.

Committed to the Failing Policies of the Past

One of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government was accepted, if not warmly welcomed, by western governments was because of its openly stated commitment to the proclaimed “free market” left behind by Mubarak (along with their guarantee to maintain the strategically important Camp David agreements with Israel). As noted by Dr. Jason Hickel, with Morsi as president, a few key Muslim Brotherhood members have espoused free markets, deregulation and attracting foreign direct investment, all of which make up the central rhetoric of neoliberal economics.

Highlighting the acceptance of several central Brotherhood figures to play within the existing neoliberal order rather than comprehensive adherence and application of Shari’a, the Morsi government pursued a loan from the IMF despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s previous condemnation of such loans due to them being interest-based. If there is a single, economically orientated Shari’a principle that is accepted and universally known, it is the general prohibition of interest. However, this position was altered by religious figures supporting the Morsi administration, who claimed that repayments were analogous to administration fees rather than interest.

One of the conditions for the loan was the imposition of a sales tax upon 25 goods, something Morsi announced and subsequently pedalled back on within 24 hours as a result of public outcry. Note, any expert of Shari’a economics will recognize the concept of a sales tax upon goods as another non-Shari’a compliant policy. Part of the campaign to oust Morsi focused upon the fact that he was pursuing such external loans that were deemed harmful to the general population, already barely surviving with 25.2%below the poverty line and a further 23.7% hovering just above it.

The Tamarod campaign, eventually fronted by El-Baradei and used to legitimize the military ouster of Morsi, gave new impetus to the revolutionary call for an end to the wealth inequality that was one of the hallmarks of the Mubarak-era and has not improved in the two years since his overthrow. It has since emerged that the campaign was also backed by major businessman Naguib Sawiris, the second richest Egyptian who reportedly has an estimated wealth of approximately $3 billion (eclipsed only by his father, Onsi Sawaris). The Sawiris family empire grew under the Mubarak regime, with Naguib reportedly being close to Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who further advanced a neoliberal economic agenda in the last decade prior to the uprisings in 2011. Mubarak himself was not averse to going to bat for the Sawaris business interests, for example, reportedlyadvocating on their behalf with the Syrian government in an attempt to resolve a dispute over an Egyptian-Syrian cell phone enterprise between Orascom Telecoms (run by Sawiris) and Syriatel.

Therefore, it is wholly unsurprising that Sawaris lamented Mubarak’s fall, stating that he was “not an advocate that Mubarak had to go,” believing he had “done a lot of good for the country.”

Egypt’s Elite-Controlled Economy

The Sawiris clan is a prime example of the massive wealth disparity in Egypt, as it represents the tiny neoliberal elite that controls about 25% of national income. One of the most visible problems with the Egyptian economy is the fact that an elite few control it. When elites control an economy, they use their power to create monopolies and block the entry of new people and firms, which is how Egypt worked for three decades under the Mubarak regime. The government and military own vast swaths of the economy which, by some estimates, is as much as 40%. Even when they did “liberalize,” they privatized large parts of the economy right into the hands of regime insiders and friends. Big businessmen close to the regime, such as Ahmed Ezz (iron and steel), the Sawiris family (multimedia, beverages, and telecommunications), and Mohamed Nosseir (beverages and telecommunications), received not only protection from the state, but also government contracts and large bank loans. Together, this elite put a stranglehold on the economy while creating astronomical profits for regime insiders, blocking opportunities for the vast mass of Egyptians to move out of poverty. Hence, the impressive IMF pleasing macro figures coupled with poverty and desolation at the ground level.

With such financial support for the campaign to oust Morsi, it is unlikely that the military- appointed government is going to change course from the same failed policies of the past, especially given the military’s vested interests. Having already been promised a government of “technocrats,” the code-word for ostensibly politically neutral experts (whose only allegiance is to the nebulus “markets”) who will enact measures to make Egypt more “attractive” for “international investment” and financial aid, the appointment of liberal economist Hazem El-Beblawi as interim prime minister certainly bodes well for those who would like to see a continuation of the neoliberal experiment in the post-Mubarak era.

In his last interview before agreeing to front the future technocratic government, Beblawi talked about how the Egyptian people needed to understand that the current level of subsidies in Egypt were unsustainable, taking up 25% of the budget, and that “the cancelling of subsidies requires sacrifices from the public, and therefore necessitates their acceptance.” He also praised some of the economic performance of the Mubarak-era, stating: “Right before the revolt, growth rate was 7% for 4 consecutive years, foreign investments were on the rise and investing in the stock market became more attractive.” He failed to note (in the same manner as the IMF) that these macro indicators mean absolutely nothing about the state of the economy as far as the average Egyptian living on the bread line is concerned.

Beblawi’s call for the Egyptian public to sacrifice, echoed the words of El-Baradei two months earlier, who talked about how austerity was the price that Egypt had to pay for the sake of assistance from the IMF, which would then encourage foreign private investment. Indeed, if there is a universal constant in these times of “austerity” — it can be found in the ease with which the moneyed liberal elite inform everyone that the masses have to bear the brunt of suffering in the name of the greater good. As more time elapses after the global economic crash brought on by the financial sector, the liberal elite only appear to have grown more assured as the blame for economic woes has been shifted from greed at the top to the supposed profligacy of those at the bottom. Ideological preferences aside, the state of the Egyptian poor provide ample empirical evidence that you can’t eat neoliberalism.

An Alternative Islamic Economic Policy

Rather than relying upon trying to implement a “cleaner” version of the tried, tested and failed policies of the past, Beblawi might actually do better to consider radical options provided by Shari’a economics. Contrary to the pragmatism displayed by the ousted president, a real attempt to move to an Islamic economic system would entail a revolutionary shift and upheaval of the current economic paradigm. An economy based upon agriculture and heavy industry rather than tourism; wealth and land taxes rather than income and indirect taxation; direct rather than indirect redistributive policies; a currency backed by gold and silver rather than pegged to the dollar; no privatization of vital state resources; the abolition of the predatory stock markets; and, significantly, no interest-based loans or investments with risk-sharing enterprises in their stead.

Such a program would obviously conflict head-on with the vision of a neoliberal world economic order, in part because self-sufficiency means less debt and market opportunity to be exploited by international finance, meaning that it would take a brave person to follow them through. Whether that bravery would be shown to be born out of naivety or a visionary outlook is something that history will judge. But at the very least it is worth understanding that there are possible substantial answers to El-Baradei’s initial throwaway quip that could be explored, even if the Morsi presidency was unable to provide them.

Bravery aside, Beblawi has already proven to be a man of many contradictions. As pointed out by Joshua Stacher, he coined the phrase “rentier mentality” to critically describe the manner in which the Gulf states purchase loyalty for their regimes by largesse rather than through good governance. Ironically, the interim prime minister now leads a government brought in via a coup and financially rewarded by such aforementioned Gulf states. He also resigned from his position in the SCAF administration in 2011 after the Maspero demonstrations which resulted in the deaths of 28 protestors, while he accepted to join the current SCAF-appointed government after the killing of more than 50 protestors at the Republican Guard palace. Beblawi has also continued in his role as prime minister despite the killing of approximately 100 anti-coup protestors on the fringes of the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in at dawn. However, expecting a liberal economist to adopt an economic policy derived from Islamic law is probably a contradiction too far.

This means that Beblawi and his technocratic colleagues will likely move down the line of conventional wisdom in times of “austerity,” acquiring more international debt in exchange for cutting state subsidies, adherence to IMF conditionality, the promotion of stock markets and a call for (more) public sacrifice. None of these ideas appear particularly original or are likely to satisfy an ever-more impoverished population still seeking its bread and social justice, which bear little relation to macro-economic indicators. With the price of basic foodstuffs increasing along the country’s continued dependency on others for their daily bread, the stage is set for future upheavals, irrespective of whether the current military-backed government successfully eliminates its opponents from the political scene.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

About the Author:

Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He was previously a political prisoner of the Hosni Mubarak regime due to his membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir. His case was adopted by Amnesty International and covered extensively in the media. He was released in March 2006 and, upon his return to the UK, entered academia. In 2007, he completed a Master’s degree in History of International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE). He was awarded his PhD from the LSE, Government department in 2011.

Read the article in its original form on Fair Observer.