During the last week of January 2011, millions of demonstrators flooded the streets of Egypt’s major cities, demanding “bread, freedom and social justice” (Frerichs, 2015 p.610). President Mubarak’s seemingly unshakeable thirty-year dictatorship collapsed in a mere eighteen days, engulfed by a wave of public fury that shook the Arab world from Tunisia to Bahrain. “Economic grievances… dominated the agendas” of the protestors, who had experienced decades of declining wages, unemployment and a shrinking social safety net (Bessinger, Jamal & Mazur, 2013 p.4).
Yet as late as 2010, International Financial Institutions (IFIs) had been lauding Egypt as a shining example of economic success. Egypt’s economy had been “resilient” to the financial crisis (IMF, 2010 p.3), and the country had retained its position in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business Top Ten Reformers’ every year since topping the list in 2008 (World Bank, 2008, 2010). Indeed, Egypt had attracted an alleged US$8 billion in FDI the year before the revolution – 36% of total investment across the African continent – purportedly due to 2004’s neoliberal reforms, which had promoted “good governance practices and stable and stimulating economic policies” (OECD, 2011 p.49, Achcar, 2009).
However, a closer look at Egypt’s economic performance during the 2000s reveals worrying trends. At the end of 2010 total external debt stood at “about US$35 billion” or 15% of GDP (Hanieh, 2011 p1). Unpredictable fluctuations in growth rates and food prices revealed an economy vulnerable to external shocks, whilst unemployment remained stubbornly high, particularly among women and graduates (UNDP, 2011 p.4, Ahram Online, 2011). What’s more, the previous decades had witnessed industrial action on levels unseen since the colonial period, evidence of brimming unrest in the Middle East’s most populous nation (Beinin, 2016 p.7).
This essay will assess the social and economic results of neoliberal reforms by interrogating the World Bank’s assertion that neoliberalism would develop the private sector into “the engine of strong and sustained growth” (Hanieh, 2013 p.49). It will be argued that the Egyptian Revolution was a symptom of the failure of twenty years of neoliberal reforms to achieve this goal or produce equitable social development in Egypt. Mass privatisation and the liberalisation of financial markets produced an unstable economy rife with structural inequalities, facilitating the mass transfer of wealth from the Egyptian people to a kleptocratic minority closely tied to the regime. In addition, labour deregulation and the rollback of social protections had devastating social consequences, leaving millions unemployed in a country where over 30% of people live below the national poverty line (Egypt Today, 2017a).
The final section of this essay will reflect on the Egyptian experience since the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ to conclude that prospects for the Egyptian people are unlikely to improve in the near future.
Squandered Wealth: Neoliberalism and Egyptian Agriculture
Following the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, Egypt was beset by a “structural fiscal crisis” characterised by “large budget deficits” and “chronic indebtedness” (Soliman, 2011 p.2), with foreign debts reaching one-and-a-half times GDP by 1990 (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.80). In response, following abortive attempts at reform in 1987, President Mubarak signed the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme (ERSAP) with the IMF and World Bank, which aimed to restore Egypt’s credit worthiness by transforming it into “a private sector-dominated market economy pursuing an export-driven strategy.” (Hinnebusch, 2003 p.220).
This was to be realised through a series of reforms which aimed to reduce the deficit to “a virtually balanced position by 1996/97” (Korayem, 1997 pp.2-3). These reforms involved short-term “stabilisation” policies centred on reducing government spending (primarily through cutting subsidies and government investment and restraining wages) and long-term “structural adjustment” policies which involved mass privatisation and the deregulation of labour, trade and finance. (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.80). Inspired by the theories of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, these policies embodied neoliberal economics, which had informed the practices of the IFIs since the collapse of the Breton Woods System in 1971 (Lilley, 2006).
Transforming Egypt into an export-driven, market-based economy demanded a fundamental restructuring of Egypt’s agricultural, industrial and financial sectors. In 1992, Mubarak’s government introduced Agricultural Land Law 96 (Korayem, 1997 p.2) which reneged on many of the commitments of Nasser’s 1952 Land Law that had redistributed land to the fellahin (peasants) on favourable terms (Frerichs, 2016 p.619). Rent on agricultural land was raised to twenty-two times the land tax and, in 1996/97, terminated existing leases, which had previously been automatically renewed (Korayem, 1997 p.2). The government also announced projects to reclaim “vast areas” of desert through irrigation, to increase the availability of Egypt’s limited arable land (Mitchell, 2002 p.273).
As a consequence, wealthier landowners and agrobusinessmen were able to greatly expand their holdings, whilst the smaller landowners who make up the majority of Egypt’s rural population were evicted en masse. Indeed, an estimated one in ten Egyptians lost their farms under Mubarak’s regime, in a process that Ray Bush has described as “accumulation by dispossession” (Prosterman 2011, Bush, 2011 p.393). Newly landless farmers were either forced into wage-labour on larger farms, which was far less profitable and more precarious, or else drifted toward urban areas seeking work, frequently settling in the ashwaiyat (slums) expanding on the outskirts of Cairo (El-Ghonemy, 2003b p.4).
The economic impact of these reforms was largely unsatisfactory. As Adams has noted, despite Egypt’s modest area of cultivable land, a combination of fertile soil and millennia of farming experience had already made Egypt’s farms among the most productive in the world (Adams, 2003 p.33). The Land Law encouraged newly consolidated farms toward export crops, such as strawberries, with USAID granting generous subsidies for the purchase of modern American machinery (Frerichs, 2016 p.619, Mitchell, 2002 p.223). However, the drive towards mechanisation had unintended consequences. Industrial agriculture has a low-labour absorption rate, which in a country with a huge population worked to increase unemployment and rural poverty (El-Ghonemy, 2003b p.3). Equally, as more land was allocated to export crops, Egypt’s food imports actually increased, as landholders diversified their production away from wheat for the domestic market (Frerichs, 2016 p.619). With subsidised bread forming an essential part of the Egyptian diet, the “breadbasket of the Roman Empire” quickly became the world’s largest importer of wheat (Frerichs, 2016 p.610).
The transition to industrial agriculture also had negative environmental consequences. Plans to reclaim desert land through irrigation, such as the project to create a new valley in the Western Desert, stretched Egypt’s already tiny water resources, achieving only negligible growth rates of just 3.1% between 1995 and 2000 (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.90).
Neoliberal reforms thus failed to promote effective export-led growth or improve efficiency in Egyptian agriculture. Despite continuing to employ 28% of Egyptians, the share of GDP comprised by agriculture has fallen consistently, from 30% in 1972 to 14% in 2014 (Zaki, 2017 p101). Meanwhile, Egypt’s food security has diminished considerably while vast tracts of the rural population have been impoverished.
The Race to the Bottom: Neoliberalism and Industry
Privatisation is a hallmark of neoliberal ideology and the privatisation of Egypt’s expansive public sector was a central tenet of ERSAP. In 1991, Mubarak announced Law 203, which put 314 publicly-owned companies up for sale. During the first decade after ERSAP, privatisation proceeded in a “piecemeal” way, with 122 companies being privatised by 2001 (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.82). However, the pace was greatly accelerated in 2004 by Prime Minister Nazif Ali’s “government of businessmen,” and between 1998 and 2013 privatisation receipts reached US$15 billion (Hanieh, 2013 p.50).
An Egyptian textile worker tends a loom (Source: Middle East Monitor)
To attract investment, efforts at “restructuring” were made to tackle the problem of overmanning, which had long been utilised by the state to disguise chronic under-employment (Aglan, 2003 p.168). The IFIs promoted the deregulation of labour, which entailed driving down wages and rolling back social protections such as minimum wage laws, permanent contracts, paid annual leave and severance pay, in what Raymond Hinnebusch has described as a “race to the bottom” (Hanieh 2013, p.52,54, Hinnebusch, 2003 p.220). As Adam Hanieh has asserted, “working conditions in the public sector had to be significantly worsened” for the private sector to attract low-pay workers, with privatisation and deregulation representing “two sides of the same process” (Hanieh 2013, p.53).
Deregulating labour was coupled with other measures to create an attractive business environment supposedly conducive to export-driven growth. Investment laws and restrictions on the repatriation of profits were relaxed to attract FDI, and in 1991 the highest rate of corporate tax was slashed from 78% to 48% and again in 2005 to 20%. The highest personal income bracket was also lowered from 40% to 20%, putting somebody earning US$550 a month in the same bracket as a billionaire (Hanieh 2013, p.70).
These aggressive neoliberal reforms failed to adequately increase manufacturing output, which has never exceeded 30% of Egypt’s GDP (Zaki, 2017 p.101). While FDI increased 17-fold between 2003 and 2008, it centred on extractive industries and the burgeoning service industry – particularly tourism, real estate and finance – which accounted for as much as 57% of GDP in 2010 (Zaki, 2017 p.112,101). Investment in manufacturing was concentrated in “low-value added sectors” with low innovative capacity (Zaki, 2017 p.102). This meant Egypt was severely deficient in medium- and high-tech industries which accounted for just 26% of manufacturing output, half that of Lebanon and over a third less than Poland (Zaki, 2017 p.103).
These patterns of investment failed to develop consistent, export-led growth for several reasons. Whilst potentially extremely profitable, extractive industries are capital intensive rather than labour intensive and failed to produce sufficient jobs for Egypt’s population, which reached 90 million by 2015 (Hinnebusch, 2003 p.219, Ahram Online, 2015). Similarly, both oil and tourism are industries highly vulnerable to external shocks. This was repeatedly demonstrated by large drops in tourism receipts caused by both internal events, such as the Luxor massacre in 1997 and the revolution of 2011, and external events like 9/11 and the Iraq War (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.87, Chekir & Diwan, 2013 p.7).
Exports were also perversely affected by import liberalisation. In Egypt, textiles represented 29% of Egyptian manufacturing employment and exports had grown impressively following trade agreements with the U.S. and the EU in the 1990s (Hanieh, 2013 p.58). Unlike regional neighbours like Morocco and Tunisia, Egypt also had a thriving domestic market, but following the end of the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2004 sales plunged as locally-produced products were displaced by cheaper East and South Asian garments (Hanieh, 2013 p.60,58). The result was massive layoffs – one of the largest textile producers, Shebin El-Kom Textile Company, sacked half its workforce during the later 2000s – and a further severe deterioration of working conditions (Hanieh, 2013 p.60).
This problem was not restricted to textiles. Many domestically-produced foods and beverages were rapidly displaced by Western-produced foods, which caused dietary changes that adversely affected the health of many poorer Egyptians. In 2000 imported powdered milk accounted for “nearly half the total milk consumption, despite the availability of domestic milk” (El-Ghonemy 2003c, p.51).
The resounding failure of economic reforms to create competitive, export-orientated growth in Egyptian industry is a damning indictment of the neoliberal experiment in Egypt. By systematically degrading working conditions and failing to create adequate jobs, neoliberalism increased poverty and immiserated millions of Egyptians, with relatively insignificant macroeconomic results. However, to understand why Egypt failed to attract the investment required to promote stable growth, it is necessary to examine the nature of the Mubarak regime itself.
Mubarak’s Kleptocracy: The Decline of a Rentier State
As Samer Soliman has noted, since the mid-1970s Egypt’s dictatorship had “depended on a quasi-rentier state that obtained large influxes of money from oil, Suez Canal revenues, and foreign aid” (Soliman, 2011 p.3). Indeed, despite the failure of President Sadat’s infitah policies to attract investment or reduce government expenditure – culminating in the 1977 “bread intifada” – rentier revenues presented themselves “in such quantities that the period 1974 to 1985 was one of sustained economic growth” (Owen & Sevket, 1998 p.135).
However, by the eve of the revolution, the state was living on around half the revenues of when Mubarak came to power (Soliman, 2011 pp.167-168), a combination of declining returns from hydrocarbons and remittances, wasteful untargeted subsidies and rampant corruption (Mills, 2013). Equally, the tax breaks and exemptions for corporations and investors demanded by the IFIs, combined with capital flight – “a major scourge of Egypt’s economy” – robbed the regime of vital tax revenues (Achcar, 2009).
Rather than transitioning to a “tax-levying” state, the government complied with the neoliberal diktat of slashing expenditure on social development, including infrastructure, education and healthcare, and by “decentralising” authority to government departments (Hanieh, 2013 p.67). This compelled them to compete over declining central funding by taking “greater responsibility for fiscal matters,” which essentially facilitated “the commodification of public sector activities” (Hanieh, 2013 p.67). Not only did this increase the financial burden upon Egyptian citizens, disproportionately affecting the poor and encouraging extreme regional disparities, it massively increased corruption at all levels of Egyptian society.
Faced with stagnating wages, government bureaucrats increasingly “turned a blind eye” to kickbacks, bribery and other forms of corruption, which enabled them “to compensate for the shrinkage of their official salaries” (Soliman, 2011 p.165). Unable to levy taxes in the face of dwindling central funding, local governments were forced to depend on municipal fees and administrative charges that were consolidated into special funds. In the total absence of public oversight inherent to authoritarian states, these funds were “infested by a particularly high level of corruption” (Soliman, 2011 p.165).
Budgetary pressures also encouraged degrading public services to behave in an increasingly predatory way. For example, between 1982 and 2000 the share of education in household spending more than tripled, as teachers were compelled to bolster their meagre salaries by charging for private tuition (El-Ghonemy, 2003c p.46). The rising cost of living consequently destroyed Egyptians propensity to save, reducing funds available for domestic investment (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.80).
With the decline of the prevailing social contract between state and citizenry, which exchanged political representation for job security and a decent standard of living, Mubarak’s regime was forced to curate a new support base. In the absence of democratic representation, patronage was used to secure the loyalty of the emergent capitalist class and high-ranking members of the armed forces, leading to the development of an insidious crony capitalism (Soliman, 2011 p.168). Businessmen with close connections to Mubarak and his son, Gamal, were able to amass vast empires by cheaply purchasing state companies, which benefitted from advantages such as non-tariff measures (Eibl & Malik, 2016 p.12). This stifled competition and encouraged monopolisation; the steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, former General Secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party, was able to amass a market share seven times that of his strongest competitor, accumulating a purported US$18billion fortune (Eibl & Malik, 2016 p.6, Armbrust, 2011).
The effect of rampant corruption and a lack of institutional oversight was to discourage the long-term investment in productive industries and infrastructure required to develop stable, export-led growth and create decent jobs for the millions of unemployed Egyptians (Zaki, 2017 p.113). Investors, both foreign and domestic, were drawn to sectors likely to bring immediate returns, be they hydrocarbons, services, or speculative finance, with a preference for cheap, low-skilled workers (Zaki, 2017 p.121). This caused a premature transition to an economy based on services, “without staying in the… intermediary stage of manufacturing long enough to attain its potentials for fast growth, employment expansion and high productivity per head” (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.89).
Equally, low-skilled work disproportionately disadvantaged young university graduates, who made up close to “a third of all unemployed females in 2006.” (UNDP, 2009 p.44, Hanieh, 2013 p.72). Inadequate job creation remains a persistent feature of Egypt’s economy, particularly for women, who represent 75% of Egyptians without jobs in 2017 (Egypt Today, 2017b). As Gilbert Achcar has noted, of the 1.1 million jobs created between 2005 and 2007, around half were in the unproductive and precarious informal sector (Achcar, 2009).
It is therefore apparent that corruption and cronyism, facilitated by neoliberal reforms, fundamentally inhibited economic and social development in Egypt, causing unstable growth, capital flight and mass unemployment. Thus developed the vicious cycle of deepening inequality and dissatisfaction that provided the background for the 2011 uprisings.
As this essay has demonstrated, almost three decades of neoliberal reforms have not succeeded in transforming Egypt into a competitive, export-driven market economy. Whilst the IFIs cheerfully highlighted high growth rates for much of the 2000s, peaking at over 7% in 2007/08, closer inspection reveals that Egypt’s pattern of growth had been “narrow and inequitable” (Achcar, 2009). The country has run a persistent trade deficit, and an increased reliance on the sale of government bonds left the Egyptian state with interest repayments at 22% of government expenditure in 2010 — “more than total spending on education, health, and food subsidies combined” (Hanieh, 2013 p.70). Driven by dogmatic obsession, IFIs have been complicit in the immiseration of the Egyptian people, wilfully underestimating huge rises in poverty and inequality by utilising ineffective metrics and notoriously unreliable government statistics (Van der Weide, Lakner & Ianchovichina, 2018 p.26).
Meanwhile, whilst a tiny elite have grown eye-wateringly wealthy, ordinary Egyptians have paid the price. Inequality has risen substantially, with rural Upper Egypt experiencing particularly high levels of “both money metric and human poverty” (UNDP, 2009 p.28). The degradation of public services has meant that in 2017 over 20% of Egyptians remain illiterate, despite abundant evidence that investing in human capital is among the most effective means of fostering technological progress, increasing productivity and creating jobs conducive to stable, equitable growth (Egypt Independent, 2014, UNDP, 2009 p.43).
Despite widespread poverty, military spending has remained high throughout the neoliberal period, accounting for over 10% of government expenditure throughout much of the decade preceding the revolution (World Bank, 2018). Much of this was subsidised by the U.S. “under rules that required a great deal of the money to be recycled to American corporations,” underscoring the insidious links between authoritarianism and American capital (Armbrust, 2011). Indeed, as Hanieh argues, widespread resistance to neoliberal reforms was overcome “through the consolidation of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes,” with the Egyptian experience mirrored across the developing world from Chile to South Korea (Hanieh, 2013 p.64). In Egypt, frustration has frequently boiled over into outright violence and the Sisi regime continues to struggle against an ongoing Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula (Eltahawy, 2017).
Since the 2011 uprisings, the IFIs have made concerted efforts to improve their image, arguing in their 2018 Egyptian country focus that it is “time to entrench growth and make it more inclusive” (IMF, 2018). However, as Hassan Sherry has demonstrated, IMF proposals for growth “far remove Egypt from the path of… making social protection available for all” (Hassan, 2017 p.48). Equally, President Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013, has entrenched rather than relaxed authoritarian control, whilst pursuing further neoliberal reform with a zeal that would have startled even Mubarak (Naguib, 2017). As Egypt approaches its third decade of neoliberalism, the prospects for inclusive economic growth, democratic reform and an end to military dictatorship look increasingly bleak.
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